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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2007

Voyager was the 'perfect captain'

 •  Obituaries

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Elia Kapahulehua

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Elia Kawika David Ku'ualoha Kapahulehua was the "perfect captain" for Hokule'a's historic 32 1/2-day maiden voyage to Tahiti in 1976, according to one of the Polynesian Voyaging Society's founders and original crewmembers.

Kapahulehua, a Hawai'i Kai resident, died yesterday morning at The Queen's Medical Center. He was 76.

After six of 17 crewmembers quit their duties at sea during the 1976 voyage, Kapahulehua used his seamanship skills to steady the double-hulled canoe battling squalling weather south of the equator to bring Hokule'a to Tahiti and back to Hawai'i, said Ben Finney, a retired University of Hawai'i anthropology professor, author and Voyaging Society co-founder.

"Kawika put his heart and soul into the project and has never been fully appreciated," Finney said.

Finney, Herb Kane and Tommy Holmes developed the idea for a voyage to Tahiti in the 1950s. In 1973 they formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Kane designed and supervised construction of the double-hulled canoe, and Finney worked on plans for the voyage.

While displaying the canoe statewide, the group ran into problems.

"There were cultural concerns; the reaction was, what are haoles doing on a canoe and why Tahiti?" Finney recalled. "We needed to find a Hawaiian captain, experienced, and one who could handle delicate problems."

Enter Kapahulehua, a pure Hawaiian and native speaker deeply grounded in his culture, history and heritage, who was a licensed sea captain and master mariner.

"Kawika was the right choice," said Kona resident Kane. "He was someone everybody liked, a very capable sailor and the kind of guy who could keep everybody together on a long voyage."

Mau Piailug, a Micronesian who was an expert on the ancient art of navigation without the aid of instruments, served as navigator, so Kapahulehua's main task was keep to keep the crew together on the first doubled-hulled canoe voyage to Tahiti in 600 years.

Finney recalled when the six crew members "went on strike and stole food" at sea, Kapahulehua was criticized for not dealing with them harshly.

"Kawika had no military police, no brig at sea," Finney said. "But as captain, he held it together. When we got to Tahiti, he got slugged, spat on and cursed because he didn't accede to the demands of some crewmembers. I know it hurt him deeply but he never said anything publicly.

"He was determined to get the canoe, crew and everybody on board safely to Tahiti without anyone getting killed," Finney added. "The 1978 voyage, when Eddie Aikau got killed, lasted six hours. Maybe Kawika got ignored over the years because he did so good."

Kapahulehua was born on Ni'ihau on July 13, 1930, and lived there for 13 years. "When he was 5 years old, he built a raft and tried to sail it off (Ni'ihau)," Finney said.

In 1949, he was working in Waikiki as a catamaran sailor and became a noted catamaran racer in California.

Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, learned of Kapahulehua's death yesterday before flying to Fukuoka, Japan, to meet Hokule'a on its current voyage.

"Everyone in the voyaging family is saddened that our first captain to Tahiti has voyaged on," said Thompson, a member of Kapahulehua's crew on Hokule'a's return trip to Hawai'i from Tahiti 31 years ago.

In his written statement, Thompson noted:

"The success of that (first) voyage was crucial to the future of Hokule'a, and Kawika was the perfect captain. Its success in finding Tahiti was monumental. ... In my opinion, the success of that voyage and the crew changed the course of how Hawaiians were seen, which is that they were among the world's greatest explorers and navigators. The arrival in 1976 brought an enormous sense of pride, dignity and honor to Hawaiian culture, heritage and history, and set the path for perpetuating this pride in children for generations to come."

Kapahulehua's family issued a statement through the Voyaging Society thanking the public for their prayers through the years. They invite people to share memories, stories or photos of Kapahulehua at www.pvs.hawaii .org

Services are pending.

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.