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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, June 10, 2004

Hokule'a crew brings voyage to close

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

MIDWAY ATOLL — It felt as if the ocean didn't want to let us go.

Hokule'a arrived at Midway yesterday, completing an 18-day trip that took the voyaging canoe and its crew 1,200 miles from Hanalei Bay, Kaua'i, to Kure at the far end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Tim Bodeen • USFWS

The voyaging canoe Hokule'a, after sailing the length of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, ran into a gale returning yesterday from Kure Atoll to Midway Atoll. The canoe arrived unscathed but six hours behind schedule, about 4 p.m. Hawai'i time.

Crew members, with no cover from the piercing rain and whipping wind, huddled wet and miserable in foul-weather gear. Winds exceeding 45 mph and breaking seas swept over the twin bows.

The canoe was being towed into the wind to reach Midway, where a new crew was waiting to take the vessel to Kaua'i. The escort boat Kama Hele, which can normally easily tow Hokule'a at 8 mph, was driven to a near standstill, making just half a mile an hour.

Captain Nainoa Thompson ordered sails opened to ease the tow until the wind was blowing from dead ahead. When it appeared little progress was being made, the two tall spars that lash the main and mizzen sails to the canoe were lowered — a dangerous proposition at sea, and one that required the efforts of the entire 12-person crew. The reduced drag increased towing speed to about 2 mph.

The canoe inched toward the atoll, climbing and plunging down short, 5-foot seas. Raindrops stung on the skin, and felt like gravel bouncing off the eyeballs of those steering. Albatrosses and other seabirds continued to call and swoop and feed as if nothing were amiss.

Sailing master Bruce Blankenfeld prepared four large coils of rope, which would be lowered over the bows to slow the canoe when it ran downwind into Midway's Sand Island harbor. The crew set up anchors on both bows, to be dropped to stop the canoe in case of an emergency.

Thompson ordered inexperienced crew members to don life preservers and sit out of the way of veterans working with lines and buoys.

Squall after squall swept across the canoe, increasing wind speed and adding to the downpour. Midway's Sand Island was tantalizingly visible in the distance, and then gone in a dark gray mist of rain.

As Kama Hele pulled up alongside an old wreck inside the Midway channel, its crew radioed that they were experiencing fuel problems. The engine coughed. Thompson and Blankenfeld huddled by the radio, awaiting word. The problem cleared, and the rocking tow continued.

Members of the crew of the return voyage arrived in a small boat, bringing word of conditions in the harbor. Once inside, the wind continued strong, but the swells were gone. The crew in the small boat took a line to the tugboat pier, and Hokule'a set about tying up.

Half an hour later, the incoming crew had its soggy gear on deck, preparing to remove its presence from the canoe, and the cleaning and reprovisioning was set to begin.

The canoe's crew sailed — and towed on three occasions, one of them a medical emergency — for 18 days from Kaua'i's Hanalei Bay to Kure, 1,200 miles that includes the 10 islands and innumerable reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The mission of the voyage is Navigating Change, and it's a partnership of numerous agencies, including the Polynesian Voyaging Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, state Department of Education, various University of Hawai'i departments, and others.

Its goal, in part, is to raise awareness about the unique environment of Hawai'i's leeward islands, sometimes called the Kupuna Islands, and to bring home lessons that can be applied in the main Hawaiian Islands.

The canoe spent its longest period at Laysan Island, where the crew participated with Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries field camp scientists in several environmental projects. It sailed by Mokumanamana, Maro Reef and Gardner Pinnacles due to sea conditions and time constraints.

The Kure stop Tuesday was a thrill for several crew members, who had a couple of hours on Green Island, on the same day that scientific camp members arrived. That meant no one had been on the island for months, and that treasured glass fishing floats could be found.

Those who went ashore came back with glass balls ranging from a little bigger than a golf ball to bigger than a basketball. There were enough to go around, and each crew member ended up with a glass ball to help remember the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands trip.

Advertiser Science Writer Jan TenBruggencate sailed aboard Hokule'a as a crewmember and eventually as a watch captain during its voyage through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. His dispatches are being sent back via satellite telephone.