Legendary canoe from Hawaii embarks on global voyage

The Hokulea sailing canoe is seen off Honolulu on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The Polynesian voyaging canoe is setting off on a 3-year voyage around the world, navigating using no modern instrumentation.

Sam Eifling, AP

HONOLULU - To take the Hokulea for a spin off the coast of Oahu is to see the Hawaiian islands in perhaps the same way as their discoverers did hundreds of years ago.

Those seafarers likely arrived on a boat resembling the double-hulled canoe, bridged by a modest deck, compelled by three sails, steered by a rudder, its components held fast with ropes rather than screws or nails.

Weather willing, the 62-foot vessel is scheduled to leave Hawaii Monday on its longest-ever ocean voyage. Relying on wind and stars to guide it, the Hokulea will chase the horizon for 47,000 miles, dropping anchor at 85 ports on six continents.

"We could be sailing around the world on a high-end yacht, but we're not," said Chad Kalepa Baybayan, one of five master navigators who take shifts on the Hokulea. "We're doing it on traditionally built voyaging canoes, reflective of the architecture of voyaging canoes across the Pacific. This is a cultural project for us. It has a lot of spiritual meaning."

Crew members Glenn Biven, left, and Diane Tom-Ogata, right, use a wooden rudder to steer the Hokulea canoe Tuesday, April 29, 2014 in Honolulu. The Polynesian voyaging canoe is setting off on a 3-year voyage around the world using no modern instrumentation.
Oskar Garcia, AP

The three-year tour - roughly south and west from Hawaii past Australia, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the Americas, and back via the Panama Canal - will make the Hokulea's watershed first voyage in 1976 look like a light jog.

That roundtrip to Tahiti demonstrated, for the first time in centuries, the efficacy of ancient Polynesian way-finding and boat design. The canoe became an immediate icon amid an ongoing renaissance in Native Hawaiian language and culture.

The boat's first navigator, Pius "Mau" Piailug, was among the last half-dozen people in the world to practice the art of traditional navigation when he agreed to teach the Hokulea's crew.

The Hokulea endured a disastrous 1978 voyage where it capsized in a blinding storm between Hawaiian islands. Eddie Aikau, a revered surfer and lifeguard on the crew, grabbed his surfboard and paddled for help, but was never seen again.

The pilot of a passing plane spotted the wreck, saving the crew.

A mural of navigator Pius "Mau" Piailug graces the wall of a building in Honolulu's Kakaako neighborhood on Friday, May 9, 2014. Pialiug was the first navigator of the Hokulea.
Sam Eifling, AP

The crew soldiered on, and over the years, the Hokulea, which today bears a plaque with Aikau's name, has journeyed to such distant points as New Zealand, Alaska, Easter Island, Japan and Hawaii's remote northwest islands.

What the Hokulea once sought to tell Polynesians about themselves, it now wants to tell the world. The latest voyage - called Malama Honua, or "To Care for Our Earth" - seeks to bring the promise and raw charm of the boat itself to ports around the world.

The trip will also help train the next generation of young navigators to propagate the craft.

"You go through the oral history and you understand all the processes and concepts about it, but when you see a voyaging canoe for the very first time manifested in reality in front of your eyes? Man, that's incredibly powerful," said Baybayan, who first beheld the boat at 19 in 1975.

"I used to spend hours on the beach just watching her float at anchor. It was just that strong a magnet for me. And it wasn't just for me. It was the same way for a lot of Hawaiians," he said.

The canoe is being escorted by a modern 72-foot sister vessel called Hikianalia. A flotilla of gadgetry aboard that boat will connect the voyage to classrooms via satellite uplink, giving students throughout Hawaii and around the world a chance to see math and science in action. Crew members will perform experiments and gather data throughout the trip to fuel projects and discussions around ocean health, marine animals and sustainable living.

"What I think she can do, in a very quiet way, is bring the idea that we are all indigenous to this earth, and we all have that ocean memory," said Jenna Ishii, one of the apprentice navigators who will take shifts during various legs of the voyage.

Those months at sea promise to be an epic adventure - if also damp, cold, itchy, salty and nauseating, Ishii said.

"I do tell kids that it seems like a beautiful, romantic thing, but most of the time it's not," she said. "The reality when you're out there, when the glamour wears off, is you're part of the ocean."

The Hokulea sailing canoe is seen off Honolulu on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
Sam Eifling, AP

The trip is funded through local and corporate sponsors, public agencies, foundations and other donations. Several schools and colleges have partnered with the project; Kamehameha Schools, a private school system for Native Hawaiians, has promised $2 million.

Clyde Namuo, CEO of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which is handling the project, said he is hoping to get $30 million in cash and donated services, including crew time, to support the voyage through 2017. About half of that has already been committed, he said.

Here's how the crew plans to do it:


Polynesian-style voyaging is a rugged art - a feat of mental math, applied astronomy, intuition, physical endurance, mental fortitude and keen observation.

"One degree off 2,000 miles away will take you to Antarctica," said Lehua Kamalu, 27, an apprentice navigator who was charmed by the Hokulea when she was a mechanical engineering student at the University of Hawaii.

The complexity also highlights the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, which occupies 46 percent of the world's surface (the contiguous 48 U.S. states would fit inside it 20 times) and the difficulty of hitting a tiny speck in it.

Pulling an island out of the sea, as navigators say, requires, among other things, a navigator to be alert 20 hours a day, with 20-minute sips of sleep as her only respite.


The rotation of the earth guides the sun and stars across the sky in a predictable east-to-west fashion. The prevailing wind and waves also scoot in from the east.

Navigators, therefore, can tell direction and latitude from star positions and the feel of the waves.

Longitude is trickier. To tell how far north and south they are, navigators must rely on dead reckoning - figuring speed, and multiplying that by days and hours on the open water.

On the Hokulea, apprentice navigators track bubbles on the water's surface. Watch a bubble at the front of the boat, count the seconds before the boat passes it, and divide that number into 25 to get the boat's speed in knots.

The best navigators run these figures constantly, balancing their decisions against their own calculations and the best estimations of their crew. "You've got to stick it all in your head and hope it stays there," Kamalu said.

Maintaining heading is vital, and can be tricky through storms, under clouds and during the midday hours, when the sun sits centrally in the sky and points to nowhere. The heavens are helpful only about one-fifth of the time.


Floating plants or other debris on the surface will whisper when land is near. But it is only an approximation, without direction.

Sea birds will point the way there. In the Pacific, the Grey Noddy tern, which fishes during the day and heads home to its nest at night, will lead a crew toward land.

"You make a thousand observations of nature a day and you make two decisions a day," said Jenna Ishii, 29, an apprentice navigator. "Even the masters, they don't ever call themselves 'master navigators.' They continually call themselves students."