Hokulea: The First Voyage Sailing into History

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Aloha and welcome to Hōkūle‘a: The First Voyage, sailing into history.

One of Hōkūle‘a’s co-founders said: “Knowing our past gives us a rudder with which to navigate the present.”

So in the midst of Hōkūle‘a’s voyage around the world, we look to her first voyage 40 years ago.

It was a different time leading up to the ’70s. There had been no voyaging canoes, no navigators, no voyagers in Hawaii in more than 600 years.

“When I graduated from high school, when I’m supposed to be educated, when somebody handed me a diploma, I had no idea who my ancestors were, had no idea where they came from, had no idea how they got here, and that voyage that they took, because we’d forgotten it, had to be the greatest voyage of open-ocean navigation and exploration of its time,” said Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society president. “We were on the road of extinction and we didn’t even know it.”

“You have to imagine that when we were preparing for this voyage, things were changing in Hawaii,” said crewmember Penny Martin. “The movement for Kahoolawe had begun, the interest in language was starting, a new pride in being Hawaiian was happening.”

“We said, ‘Let’s join together and we’ll start the Polynesian Voyaging Society to raise money, to design the canoe, to build it and test it,'” said Ben Finney, anthropologist and PVS co-founder. “So the day we were going to launch Hōkūle‘a, I get a telephone call at six in the morning, and it’s a man from customs at the airport. He said, ‘We got a guy here from Micronesia. He says he’s come to navigate your canoe.’ I said, that’s the man. It was Mau Piailug.”


Voyage to Tahiti

“We knew that Mau was a professional, a really good navigator, and he was at the end of a tradition that had been unbroken and so we, our tradition had been broken and so we thought it would be a good idea to bring Mau in to patch it up again,” said Herb Kawainui Kane, artist, historian, and PVS co-founder.

“Mau said, ‘You know when you go to sea, in Honolua, you know the navigator. You’ve got to leave all your land trouble on land, because you need to be together,’ and he said, ‘If we fail, we all fail together,'” said crewmember John Kruse.

That first voyage saw its share of struggles.

“The possibility was that we had contracted hepatitis, because one of the food preparers had hepatitis that prepared the food for us in Honolua,” said crewmember Billy Richards.

“We were three days out and here comes this sea plane. The Coast Guard, they dropped the packet. We sailed up to it, picked it up to get the shot,” said Kruse.

There were times when success seemed bleak.

The crew was told to use a compass to finish the voyage, and “that was one of the times the crew, as one, was one voice and said, ‘No, no. Let Mau do what he does. That’s why we brought him here,'” said Richards. “Hoku (the dog) was the first one to spot the thousands of dolphins that came. He started barking, and we saw.”


The return home

“I was scared. I was so scared that I would physically get sick, because i’d been in the ocean pretty much my whole life, but I’d never been on the deep sea, not on a voyaging canoe. Mau wasn’t there,” Thompson said. “You knew you were on the way home, and you knew that you were on an extraordinary special journey. Even though you couldn’t comprehend it, you didn’t fully understand it, you knew that you as a young man and as a Hawaiian that you were on a deck of something very, very special.”

The canoe was early. “We were coming home too fast,” said crewmember Ben Young. “We had to slow down, had to stop somewhere.”

So Hōkūle‘a and its crew landed at Kalaupapa on Molokai.

“Those living patients at that time were waving their shirts and their towels and it was so exciting,” Young recalled.

When they finally reached Oahu, they were greeted with a heroes’ welcome.

“The thousands of people lining the shore of Oahu were completely unexpected. We had no idea that so many people would be coming out there,” said Young.

“Being here, in that mass of people, you had a sense that everything was going to change,” Thompson said.

“You have changed, no doubt about it,” Martin said. “You’re standing in the footprints of your ancestors and now you’re looking into their eyes and you’re seeing Hawaii.”


A lasting legacy

As Hōkūle‘a now circles the earth, consider this.

She was designed and built for just that one voyage 40 years ago. There was no vision or dream of a second, but in the quiet after the celebrations, there was an upwelling that could never be quieted again.

“What Hōkūle‘a awakened was undeniable, that we need to protect and preserve and strengthen our Hawaiian culture so that what you had over time in the quietness was a growing sense of responsibility that went into many voyages that allowed us to be able to dream something as big as going around the island earth, the blue island, and it took 40 years to do that,” Thompson said.

It is now an icon recognized by leaders and activists around the globe.

“We can be inspired by this wonderful vessel, Hōkūle‘a,” said Ban Ki-moon, United Nations secretary-general. “I count on your leadership and judgement as we carry out our plans to make this world safer and more sustainable for all.”

“The ocean has been pillaged and destroyed by mankind for many, many years now and Hōkūle‘a’s voyage is drawing attention to this and alerting the world to get out there and do something about it,” said Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder.

“Everybody keeps on adding their mana to this canoe, and she just feels even better and stronger, like an old friend but with more knowledge now,” Martin said.

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