Polynesian sailors of old read the seas and the skies. Observing the positions of the stars and planets, the swells of the ocean, and even the behavior of marine birds, the sailors found their way in the vast Pacific Ocean.
Over time, that knowledge became increasingly scarce. In Hawaii it became extinct—until, that is, artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kane decided to make a replica of an ancient voyaging canoe.
The Hokule’a, meaning Star of Gladness in Hawaiian, was created in 1975. It was named after Arcturus, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere, which rises at the latitude of the Hawaiian islands.
A master navigator from Micronesia, Mau Piailug, guided the canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and started to teach what he knew of the old navigation ways.
As it sailed from Hawaii to Aotearoa, New Zealand, and to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Hokule’a inspired a revival in canoe building and cultural pride not only in Hawaii but also throughout Polynesia. Remarkably, the crew navigated the seas in the same way ancient voyagers did hundreds of years before, without any modern instruments and relying solely on human observation of nature and the elements.
The Hokule’a is now at sea again, on a two-year worldwide voyage from Hawaii. After sailing 26,000 nautical miles, visiting 100 ports in 27 nations, the canoe and its crew will dock in New York City on June 5 and stay for about two weeks of outreach and educational activities.
This time, the voyage is not about rekindling cultural pride, although Hawaiian values such as caring, respect, and cooperation continue to bind the crew together.
The name of this journey is Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage, and the goal is to grow a movement toward more sustainable living, with a strong educational component. In outreach materials, Malama Honua is given to mean “to care for our Island Earth.”
Nainoa Thompson, a master navigator and the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, recounts talking with one of his best friends, Lacy Veach, the second astronaut that Hawaii sent into space. They would talk about the link between the ancient voyage of the canoe and space exploration.
Veach, who had seen our planet from space, “knew the earth intimately and he knew it was in trouble,” Thompson said. “He was essentially saying you have this giant ocean of space, and there’s an island in it called the Earth. The planet is one island in this immense area of space, and that’s the only island we have. Why don’t we protect it?”
The idea is the same regardless of scale; whether it’s about the Earth or a canoe in a vast ocean, it means to care for it and its people.
It’s not a voyage that the crew members embarked on lightly. It took them six years of rigorous physical training and study to prepare.
Thompson mentioned the emotional and spiritual aspects of getting ready as well. “Everybody needs to find their center before they go, they need to have a place where they can focus and stay—especially when things get rough,” he said.
For Thompson, as navigator, the overriding concern is the safety of his crew. Especially when he’s in command, he said, “Every single choice you make has to be the right one.” Fear has become a best friend, he added. “I’ve learned over the years to grab it and hold it close. As long as it doesn’t overwhelm you or run you over, or paralyze you, fear is a place I go to, to be able to process all the things that I need to stay focused on.”
The Hokule’a crew used only cues from the elements and nature for about two-thirds of the journey, according to Thompson. But in potentially perilous situations, they did not hesitate to use modern technology. “At the Great Barrier Reef, we had every instrument you can imagine to make sure we didn’t pile up into the reef,” he said.
Last fall, the crew braved South Africa’s famously dangerous coast to dock in Cape Town. Thompson recounted the reception by Desmond Tutu. “He’s got medical challenges. He came hobbling up on a hot day. To see him jump up and start dancing in the street with children from South America and children from Hawaii was everything. Laughing and smiling and having all the pain go away for the moment … that was extraordinary,” he said.
The Hokule’a is currently making its way up the East Coast of the United States for the first time.
In a phone interview, Thompson recalled exceptional kindness not only at the planned ports of call, such as Washington, but also where the canoe made unplanned stops, such as in Stuart or Indian Harbor, Florida, where the canoe was greeted by other watercraft, and the crew were invited by the community to share dinner and stories.
“What we found on the East Coast was a lot of care, a lot of kindness, a lot of compassion from strangers,” he said.
Thompson said he is grateful for everyone who has supported the voyage in their own way. “These people who showed us acts of kindness, it’s not that they’re outside the voyage—they are the voyage. That’s what we’re looking for, the beliefs of millions of people who are willing to be committed to caring for the Earth and each other.”
In New York, Thompson said he will expect to learn a great deal from projects such as the Billion Oysters Project, which works with schools to teach the community about oyster and ecosystem restoration in New York Harbor.
“The equation includes children, it includes schools, it includes business, it includes government. What you find in that project is that the environment and business don’t have to be at odds. If you clean the environment, you’ll strengthen the economy. We’re going to learn a lot,” he said.
The Hokule’a will be in New York City from June 5 to 18. Activities include a talk about traditional wayfinding at the American Museum of Natural History (June 7), a storytellers’ evening at Patagonia in SoHo (June 9), and educational programming at Kamemeha Day at the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge at Pier 26 (June 11). For the full schedule of events, see hokulea.com