Cover Story

Nainoa Thompson

Rebirth: ‘Ohana Waa

The refurbished Hōkūle‘a returns to the sea this month, joined by her sister vessels, for a statewide educational sail

Faces glowing in the early light of dawn, more than 100 people gathered to watch the blessing and re-launching of Hokule’a at Sand Island. It was March 8, 2012, the anniversary of her original launch at Kualoa in 1975. After weeks of heavy winds and rain, the skies finally cleared and a rainbow emerged. Conch shells sounded as crew members gently guided the double-hulled canoe into the still, blue waters. This would mark the beginning of a new era of voyaging.


Hokule’a had spent the previous 19 months in dry dock at Sand Island’s Marine Education Traning Center (METC). Working with the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), more than 1,000 volunteers put in about 26,500 hours rebuilding the canoe, replacing every part, except for the shell of her original hulls. Looking back on the experience, crew member Karen Holman reflects, “Hokulea exists beyond the hulls that carry her across the ocean or the lashings that hold her together. She is a living, spiritual being that transcends the material.” Along with other members of the ‘Ohana Waa (Family of Canoes), Hokulea will be returning this Saturday, April 14, to the shores of Kualoa, where the public is invited to see the newly renovated canoe and other ‘ohana vessels, meet the navigators and celebrate the launch of a statewide educational sail from now to October. After the nine-month interisland voyage, next on the itinerary is Hokulea’s much-anticipated 2013 circumnavigation of the globe. “We needed to restore Hokulea so that she could be strong and safe enough to carry our crews around the earth,” says master navigator and PVS President Nainoa Thompson. “It is my generation’s responsibility to give her to the next generation with the same values and lessons that we were fortunate enough to learn from our amazing mentors and teachers.” Since her launch in 1975, Thompson says, the Hokulea has sailed more than 140,000 nautical miles, the equivalent of six and a half times around the world. She also helped inspire a rebirth in voyaging in Hawaii and across Polynesia. “Now there are 25 deep-sea voyaging canoes and 21 voyaging organizations throughout the Pacific, including 15 countries,” Thompson adds.

Rebirth and memory

Thompson recently sat down to talk with this reporter in a classroom at the METC. Since our last interview years before, he has become the father of twins, a boy and a girl. His hair has turned grayer and there are a few more wrinkles etched around his eyes. Thompson is a man of many contradictions: He has the strength and energy of a younger man, yet the deep gaze and wisdom of one much older. A well-known public figure, he is very shy and reticent about his private life. While optimistic about the power of people to transform their future, he worries about the damage being done to the planet and the world his children will inherit. Looking back over the last four decades, Thompson reflected on where the canoe has been, where she’s going and the storms she has weathered over the years.

The story is by now familiar to many of us, but it’s soon to be carried directly and experientially to new shores and a new generation. After Hokulea’s original launch in 1975, the founders of PVS recruited a Micronesian, Mau Piailug, to navigate the canoe on her maiden voyage to Tahiti. Thompson says that Piailug was his greatest teacher and one of the world’s last master navigators, or pwo, who still practiced wayfinding (celestial navigation). Using only the stars, ocean swells and seabirds as guides, Piailug successfully completed the 2,500-mile voyage in 1976, and 18,000 Tahitians greeted Hokulea’s historic arrival in Papeete.

A dark chapter

What isn’t common knowledge, however, is that, according to some reports, there were racial divisions on the canoe. After witnessing a fight at the end of the voyage, Piailug retreated to his home in Satawal, vowing never to return.

Without his mentor, Thompson continued to study wayfinding and astronomy in preparation for the next voyage to Tahiti. Sailing without an escort boat, Hokulea departed at sunset on March 16, 1978, in heavy winds and heaving seas. The canoe capsized about 10-15 miles from Lanai, and big-wave surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aikau volunteered to paddle his surfboard to shore for help. Although Thompson and the others were later rescued, Aikau was never found.

These were dark days for Thompson and the Hokulea, and some wanted to retire the canoe to Bishop Museum. But Thompson and his father, Pinky Thompson, who was PVS President at the time, believed they had to keep on sailing to honor Aikau and the dream of voyaging. So he made a pilgrimage to Satawal and convinced Piailug to return to teach him and others the lost art of wayfinding.

Ohana waa is born

Hawaiian navigators like Thompson, his brother-in-law Bruce Blankenfeld and Chad Baybayan became Piailug’s most dedicated students and captains of the Hokulea. PVS built another canoe, Hawaii Loa (currently under renovation). Other dedicated student navigators like Shorty Bertelmann and Chadd Paishon from the Big Island in turn formed their own voyaging society in Kawaihae and made a canoe called the Makalii. Together, these men made several trans-Pacific voyages, recruiting a younger generation of South Pacific islanders to learn to sail them.

The trans-Pacific voyages

During the Voyage of Rediscovery from 1985-87, PVS crews helped sail the Hokulea all the way to Autearoa, New Zealand, and visited various islands across the South Pacific. In Rarotonga, Thompson befriended a young man named Tua Pittman and invited him to sail on the Hokulea back to Hawaii.

Inspired by that visit to the Cooke Islands, its prime minister invited Thompson and PVS leaders to sail down to Rarotonga for the Pacific Arts Festival in 1992 to teach different island nations how to build and navigate their own canoes. As part of their training, Thompson invited Pittman, a young Cooke Islander named Peia Patai and other sailors to his home in Niu Valley to study with Piailug. To study the stars, “We would go down and sit on the beach for sunset and sunrise, the most important times for a navigator,” Pittman says. “It was really life-changing.”

Pittman and Patai traveled to Hawaii periodically to train with Piailug and Thompson for the next three years in preparation for the next big voyage called “Na ‘Ohana Holo Moana,” Families of the Vast Ocean. In 1995, the Hawaiian navigators sailed the Hokulea, Hawaii Loa and Makalii down to their ancestral homelands in Tahiti and the Marquesan Islands. For the voyage back to Hawai’i, the three Hawaiian canoes were joined by newly built double-hulled canoes from Tahiti, New Zealand and two from the Cooke Islands.

Apprentice navigators Pittman and Patai helped guide their canoes all the way back to Hawaii. It was a difficult but rewarding voyage. “Finally seeing the Big Island on the horizon was just the best thing!” Pittman says. “We knew that all the hard work we had put into the navigational training was worth it.”

Replanting the seed

In spite of the renaissance in Polynesian canoe-building and navigation, the revival never reached Piailug’s own people. “We paid so much attention to our own growth in voyaging, we did not pay as much attention to the decline in voyaging in Micronesia,” Thompson says. Old and suffering from diabetes, Piailug worried his teachings would pass away with him. In an effort to honor the cultural wisdom he embodied, Shorty Bertelmann, his brother Clay and Chadd Paishon built a voyaging canoe called the Alingano Maisu to give to Piailug and his people. And in 2007, the Hokulea sailed with the Maisu across 4,000 miles of open ocean to Piailug’s island of Satawal. Piailug told Thompson, “When my people put me in the dirt, it’s okay because in Hawaii, I put the seed in the ground and let the trees grow. When my people want to know about me, they can come to Hawaii and talk to my students.” After their arrival, Piailug held a special ceremony to honor Thompson, the Bertelmann brothers and by making them pwo, master navigators. Thompson asked Piailug to explain to him in detail what it meant to be a pwo. Unfortunately, the transcript was destroyed in a house fire. But Thompson still recalls the essential details and central message of the document. “At the end, on the last page, it says, ‘Pwo is the light, and light is love.’”

Looking back, Thompson says, “So in the end, it was the conduct of the navigator that was important. It’s about kindness, it’s about compassion, it’s about healing.”

The green fleet

The mission for the new statewide and worldwide voyages, Thompson says, is to foster the core Hawaiian values of malama ‘aina and malama kai (caring for the land and sea) and malama waa (caring for the canoe) as a spiritual symbol of our island home. This is a timely message because both Hawaii and our planet are in danger, as environmental threats grow like a storm on the horizon.

PVS has partnered with the Pacific Voyagers, an organization founded and funded by a German entrepreneur and environmentalist named Dieter Paulmann. After falling in love with Polynesian voyaging, Paulmann worked with Pittman Pittman to finance the restoration of a Cooke Island canoe during the Pacific Arts Festival in Samoa in 2008.

Like the Hokulea, the Pacific Voyager’s designs are based on Polynesian double-hulled canoes, which are navigated by traditional wayfinding techniques. But the difference is that these vessels are also equipped with modern equipment, photovoltaic panels and the most advanced solar-powered engines in the world. Committed to moving away from fossil fuels and the ecological problems they cause, Paulman is creating more of these vaca for use in everyday shipping and transportation between island nations of the Pacific.

As the relationship between the Pacific Voyagers and PVS grew stronger, Paulmann told Thompson, “You know, German organization with Pacific consciousness and spirituality is a good mix. We work perfectly together,” he adds. “Ancient wisdom and modern technology is a good blend.”

Asked if it’s strange that a German entrepreneur has contributed so much to Polynesian voyaging, Thompson said, “Dieter is a visionary. . . . The extraordinary success of the Pacific Voyagers took literally a thousand people to do, but if it wasn’t for Dieter, none of it would have happened… We measure our kinship by our values as opposed to our blood.”

In the four years since then, Paulmann and his crew have built seven vaca moana (deep-sea sailing canoes) and recruited master navigators like Pittman and Patai to train more than 150 crew members to sail across the entire Pacific. They worked with PVS to help shape goals, which combine the cultural revival of voyaging with an environmental awareness of the damage being done to our oceans. These include global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification and other threats caused by the world’s addiction to oil and fossil fuels.

The partnership was recently solidified by the announcement that the Pacific Voyagers are building a solar-powered vaca to escort Hokulea on her voyage around the world. After the loss of Aikau in 1978, safety became Thompson’s top priority, but, he says, he didn’t want to use a modern boat that depended on fossil fuels. The solar-powered vaca is being built in New Zealand and will be completed this July. The vessel will serve as an escort boat for safety, communications, documentation, education and science, all powered by the sun and wind. “So it’s the perfect child of Hokulea,” Thompson says.

Young wayfinders

Among the next generation of student navigators, Thompson says there are many talented men and women in training now for the worldwide voyage. One of the most promising, he says, is Ka’iulani Murphy, who serves as an education specialist at PVS and teaches courses in wayfinding and voyaging at Honolulu Community College. Murphy talked with Piailug in Hawaii before sailing on the Hokulea to Satawal for the pwo ceremony. Before leaving, she asked Piailug if there were any female navigators down there. Smiling in his kolohe (mischievous) way, he told her, “When the man gets lost, the woman she knows the way.”

Referring to Piailug, who died in 2010, Murphy says, “Being around him reminded us how in tune with nature he really was.” She says caring for our environment is one of the lessons of the statewide educational sail.

As PVS leaders prepare for the community events this weekend at Kualoa, many will recall the magical experience they had there last summer. Just last June, seven of the Pacific Voyagers’ newly constructed vaca moana sailed to Kualoa to hold the first pwo ceremony in Hawaii in modern times. Before Piailug’s passing, he had asked that Patai Patai, a sailor from the Cooke Islands, be granted master navigator status.

Murphy attended the pwo ceremony. “You had lots of the South Pacific represented as well as Hawaii,” she remembers. ““You had Patai receiving these words from Hector Busby (the eldest pwo from New Zealand, standing in for Piailug). Patai’s crew was behind him, kneeling on the ground out of respect for what was taking place.”

Remembering Piailug’s words about planting the seeds in Hawaii, Thompson could see the fruit standing tall before him in Patai. “It was just one of those moments in time when the world does come together in that sacred place,” he says, adding that the love for the new pwo and the old but living tradition could be felt by everyone gathered there.

The Floating Schoolroom Returns

From April thru August 2012, PVS will sail Hokulea on a cultural, ecological, and educational journey to the eight main Hawaiian Islands. Below are some of the neighbor island ports, voyaging organizations and canoes that Hokulea will be visiting and partnering with on her current statewide sail and upcoming worldwide voyage:

Kawaihae, Big Island, is the homeport of Na Kalai Waa (“The Canoe Builders”) and the birthplace of the voyaging canoes Makalii and Alingano Maisu, the canoe given to Mau Piailug and the people of Satawal in Micronesia. Established in 1993, Na Kalai Waa is a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve, protect, and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture and to contribute to a safe and healthy future for Hawai’i.

Hilo, Hawaii is the homeport of the voyaging canoe Hokualakai and ‘Aha Punana Leo. Incorporated in January 1983, the ‘Aha Punana Leo (‘APL) was born out of a dream that the Hawaiian language, then on the brink of extinction, might survive for future generations. Its voyaging canoe Hokualakai is a platform used to support Hawaiian language development and promote mauli ola (Hawaii life) learning through its program offerings.

Lahaina, Maui is the homeport of Hui O Wa’a Kaulua (“Assembly of the Double-Hull Canoe”). The Hui is a non-profit cultural organization formed in 1975 to support the construction of Mo’olele (The Leaping Lizard), a 42p-foot wa’a kauluaa (double hull canoe) with a traditional crab claw sail. Their vision is to have a healthy, productive, safe Hawai’i and planet Earth. Currently, the Hui is in the final stages of building a voyaging canoe, Mo’okiha o Piilani (The Sacred Lizard of Maui).

Nawiliwili, Kauai is the homeport of Na Kalai Wa’a Moku o Kaua’i (“The Canoe Builders of Kauai”), a non-profit organization dedicated to the perpetuation, practice and exploration of the seafaring arts and skills of the ancient Polynesians. Currently the organization is building a voyaging canoe, Na Mahoe, in Lihue, Kaua’i.

The Dalai Lama: Felicity

In 2001, the Dalai Lama selected Nainoa as an “Unsung Heroes of Compassion,” and now His Holiness has been invited back to Hawaii for the launch of a new initiative called “Pillars of Peace Hawaii: Building Peace on a Foundation of Aloha.” The timing of the Dalai Lama’s visit and talks this weekend coincide perfectly Hokulea’s return to Kualoa. In a way, his presence is a blessing of the voyaging canoe, her values and Nainoa’s vision of taking care of each other and our planet. Faced with many social and environmental problems, the people of Hawaii must now become navigators of change to help make that vision a reality.