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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 5, 2006

Hokule'a's voyage to Tahiti a journey in time

 •  3 teens to join anniversary sail to Tahiti

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer

Nainoa Thompson and Kimo Hugho chat on the Hokule'a.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A week-long, land-based celebration for the Tahiti anniversary begins Oct. 14 at Kualoa/Hakipu'u the site of the first Hokule'a launch.

"Remembrance" will be the theme, bringing together today's voyaging community and mentors of the past.

Afterward, Hokule'a will go into dry dock to prepare for a voyage to Micronesia in 2007. Members of canoeing families from across the state will make the trip to thank the Micronesians with the gift of a canoe to Mau Piailug, which he will use for a non-instrument navigating school in Micronesia.

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Crew members and friends of the Hokule'a in February 1976, before its first voyage to Tahiti that May: on hull, from left, Tommy Holmes, Abraham "Snake" Ah Hee, Nainoa Thompson, Keani Reiner, Sam Kalalau, Mel Kinney, Penny Rawlins, David Lewis. On central platform: Capt. Kawika Kapahulehua, John Kruse, Kimo Hugho, Billy Richards, Maka'ala Yates, Shorty Bertelmann, Ben Finney, and Vic Fageroos.


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In Kawaihae Harbor on the Big Island, Jayson Ursalim of Satawal island secures beams on a canoe being built as a gift to thank Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug for his contributions to Hawai'i.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Nainoa Thompson, left, and Kimo Hugho tie up the Hokule'a as Kaiulani Murphy holds on. Hugho helped set safety and training standards for canoeing in the 1970s and wants to educate children. He envisions taking a canoe to schools for kids to see and learn with.

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In Kawaihae Harbor, Sebastian Marepiy of Satawal works on his belly on the deck of the gift canoe as Eddy Emangilpiy of Satawal and Nick Marr of New Zealand stand to hold a board in place.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Kaiulani Murphy, 27, is one of 13 navigators who will lead the Hokule'a to Tahiti next month.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Snake Ah Hee, 59, is one of two people who have sailed on all six Hokule'a voyages to Tahiti.

CHRISTIE WILSON | The Honolulu Advertiser

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More than 30 years ago Hawai'i's ocean community had no sailing canoes and no navigators who could sail like their ancestors by the waves, the stars and the birds.

Today, thanks to Mau Piailug, a Micronesian, Hawai'i has 13 navigators and 24 sea captains who can steer a 10-ton, 62-foot voyaging canoe across the ocean without any instruments. They've spent the past three decades practicing the nearly lost art, sailing the Hokule'a to islands throughout the Pacific, navigating sans modern-day tools of the sea.

They'll do it again this year, but this time with even more reason.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Hokule'a's first voyage to Tahiti. To honor the tradition and to nurture its future, crews of men and women, some from the first voyage, will guide the Hokule'a from Honolua on Maui to Tahiti, starting the journey April 29.

Four generations of voyagers will be on board, said Nainoa Thompson, who 30 years ago became the first Hawaiian to navigate a voyaging canoe in 600 years. Thompson, along with a few others from that first historic trip, will be joined by three high school students who are part of the Kapu Na Keiki, an educational program in several O'ahu schools. Other sailors will also be on hand.

"We are trying to perpetuate the art of navigation an art that was completely lost to us," said Shorty Bertelmann, one of the original crew members. "Voyaging is pretty much who we are. It represents every part of the Hawaiian culture."

Bertelmann, like other members of the first Hokule'a voyage, has become a teacher of Polynesian culture and a torch bearer for the Hokule'a's cause.

And like the ropes and the timbers of the old ship, the original crew has seasoned with age. They understand better today the significance of what they started 30 years ago that voyaging, more than anything else, is about bridging the past and the future.

"It's a year of remembrance for us," Thompson said. "Looking back, creating a good understanding of where we are today and where we're going in the future.

"It's a benchmark year for us."

Thompson has guided the Hokule'a along many of its 110,000 miles, the equivalent of traveling four times around the world. But he, like others in the voyaging community, feels a debt toward Piailug.

Initially, they planned to launch a canoe in 2006 that was to be a gift to Piailug to thank him for sharing his navigational skills and reintroducing Hawai'i to its lost past. However, construction, using volunteers and donations, and the necessary sea trials have taken longer than expected. Now that it's typhoon season, they'll wait.

That voyaging canoe is being built in Kawaihae Harbor on the Big Island by Na Kalai Wa'a Moku O Hawai'i and will sail in January with the Hokule'a on its 4,000-mile journey to Micronesia and later to Okinawa, central Japan and Hokkaido.


Hokule'a is more than a twin-masted, double-hulled canoe. It's a symbol of the renaissance of Hawaiian culture. It's a mixture of today and yesterday with its fiberglass hull, koa wood deadeyes on the rigging and the traditional Hawaiian lashing.

The canoe is owned by Bishop Museum and operated by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which Thompson heads. Traditional navigation uses the sky to guide the vessel along the open ocean. It is believed that Polynesians sailed without instruments such as sextants or compasses and studied heavenly bodies, winds, ocean swells and the flight paths of seabirds to chart courses that stretched for thousands of miles on the open ocean.

"When voyaging moves into the future, I want to make sure it stays grounded with the pioneers," Thompson said. "We need to make that bridge this year because we lost David Lyman."

Lyman, a veteran harbor pilot who died Jan. 29 in a boating accident, was among the 28 men and women who made the inaugural voyage to Tahiti.

Billy Richards, a member of seven of the nine Hokule'a voyages, including the first one, said that first voyage was about making a scientific statement, proving that Polynesians did make the trek to Hawai'i without using navigational aids. Today the message is more about making voyaging accessible to Hawai'i's youth, to connect them to their culture.

"On every voyage we say we're doing this for the future," said Richards, 57. "If we don't spread this, then all what we learned will be lost.

"Voyaging programs are getting into the school systems. We can use canoes and navigation to teach math and science courses that are pertinent to those of Hawaiian ancestry."


The Polynesian Voyaging Society was established in 1973 to show that ancient Polynesians could have settled the islands of the Polynesian Triangle an area of 10 million square miles in double-hulled voyaging canoes using non-instrument navigation.

The three men who founded the society and helped build a replica of an ancient voyaging canoe were Ben Finney, a California anthropologist; Herb Kane, a Hawaiian artist; and Tommy Holmes, a seaman.

On March 8, 1975, the first voyaging canoe to be built in Hawai'i in 600 years, the Hokule'a, was launched. Its first major voyage was to Tahiti and was navigated by Piailug, who was one of six Micronesian master navigators. The voyage took 33 days.

Since that time, many in the voyaging society have worked to ensure the tradition of non-instrument navigation never dies out. Nearly a dozen voyaging canoes have been built, a dozen people are trained as navigators and twice as many as sea captains, Thompson said.


More sailing canoes mean more children will get a chance to learn the navigation skills, an appreciation for the ocean ecosystem and the art of canoe building, Bertelmann said.

Bertelmann was 29 when the first historic voyage took place. Now 58, he is using his knowledge of sailing to design and build the voyaging canoe for Piailug. When the canoe is in Micronesia, Piailug will establish a school to teach non-instrument navigation.

Kimo Hugho, who helped set training and safety standards in the early 1970s, believes there needs to be a land-based education and plans to take a model canoe to schools around the state. Teachers would tell the story of canoeing and students could spend a night in the canoe on their campus to see the stars at night and study navigation.

"My role is to give this to the students," Hugho said. "I don't wish to sail anymore, but my role now is to continue education through storytelling what life is like on a sailing canoe."

Thompson also has a vision for education, to see students learn the importance of the sea by experiencing it aboard the Hokule'a.

Ten classes have spent a night on the Hokule'a, including students at Niu Valley Middle School. Called Malama Maunalua, the program includes mapping the bay, identifying fish and limu, water-quality testing, stargazing and the overnight canoe watch on Hokule'a.

"The education helps the kids who love the ocean and connects them to their Hawaiian culture," said 59-year-old Abraham "Snake" Ah Hee, one of two people who have sailed on all six voyages to Tahiti. "Voyaging sure makes you feel closer to yourself. It was chicken skin to go back and do the old ways, to know that you're doing something that your ancestors did 400 to 600 years before."

To perpetuate the craft, Honolulu Community College has a Marine Education Training Center at Sand Island, where college students learn to build canoes and boats. The hope is to create a program to teach traditional and contemporary sailing.

Long term, men and women like Thompson hope to help the state's 70 canoe clubs adopt ocean sailing as part of the paddling experience, giving more youngsters the opportunity to learn wayfinding, Thompson said.

In addition, Thompson hopes to see each of the 13 voyaging canoes be used to reach school-age children, so that nearly 40,000 of them can have the opportunity to experience voyaging.

"The main core value is education, the strength of the culture and protecting our ocean," Thompson said.


The teenagers who will be on the Tahiti trip next month will be selected from a pool of 16 students and will be chosen after vigorous swimming tests, written exams, rough-water sailing and medical checkups, Thompson said.

Those not chosen for this first voyage will have a chance to participate on the voyage next year to Micronesia and Japan, he said.

"We need to sail this year. Mau Piailug is at the top of the list as the teacher of all of us," Thompson said. "The 30th anniversary voyage will bridge four generations and make sure that our young people have early memories of the visionaries, the pioneers."

Representing the new generation of navigators is Kaiulani Murphy. The 27-year-old is one of 13 Hawaiian navigators. She became hooked after taking a class at the University of Hawai'i Hawaiian Studies program.

Born after Hokule'a's first voyage in 1976, Murphy speaks Hawaiian fluently, is a Regents scholar and a Kamehameha Schools graduate. On her resume also is the fact that she can find Mauna Kea from Tahiti.

"I don't feel like a leader," Murphy said. "It's definitely an honor and a privilege to lead a voyage."

Reach Suzanne Roig at sroig@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Correction: Mau Piailug was the navigator on the first Hokule'a voyage to Tahiti. A photo caption in an earlier version of this story was incorrect.

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