Hōkūle'a Breeds a New Generation of Voyaging Canoes

The Hōkūle'a and sister canoe Hikianalia anchored in Pōka'i Bay, Wai'anae Coast, O'ahu. September 2013.
The Hōkūle'a and sister canoe Hikianalia anchored in Pōka'i Bay, Wai'anae Coast, O'ahu. September 2013. | Source

One morning in September of 2013, I woke up to the pleasant view of the Hōkūleʻa resting in calm waters across the street from my home. How, I wondered, could a canoe so small have carried my ancestors over thousands of miles of ocean hundreds of years ago? To be in the presence of such a humble seacraft, modeled after the traditional double-hulled canoes or waʻa kaulua, is inspiring to those of us who know its story.

Over the centuries, the Hawaiians and other Polynesians had all but lost the art (and science) of navigating the Pacific Ocean using traditional methods commonly called “sailing by the stars” or wayfinding. Until the 1970′s when a man named Mau Piailug arrived on the scene. Mau was an elder and master navigator who had all the knowledge needed for deep ocean voyaging. He had been entrusted with this knowledge and skill by his ancestors, but no one on his tiny island of Satawal in Yap, Micronesia in the western Pacific seemed to want to carry on the sailing traditions. And Mau was getting older...

Master navigator Mau Piailug, from the documentary Papa Mau: The Wayfinder by Na'alehu Anthony
Master navigator Mau Piailug, from the documentary Papa Mau: The Wayfinder by Na'alehu Anthony | Source
Hōkūle'a’s maiden voyage, 1976, Papeete, Tahiti
Hōkūle'a’s maiden voyage, 1976, Papeete, Tahiti | Source

As serendipity would have it, what is now called the Hawaiian Renaissance was just dawning in the decade of the 70′s. Native Hawaiians were reclaiming their culture and language that had gone underground after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. New laws were passed in Hawaiʻi allowing the language to once again be taught in public schools. Hula and traditional chants resurfaced; traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts flourished again. And Mau Piailug decided to see if the Hawaiians were ready to venture forth onto the oceans. The rest is history...they were.

The Hōkūleʻa′s successful 1976 maiden voyage to Tahiti seemed to prove that ancient Polynesians had used the ocean currents as their highway between the different Pacific islands. Mau taught a handful of men everything he knew and navigated the canoe without instruments. The Hōkūleʻa landed in Papeete, Tahiti only 33 days after leaving Hawaiʻi. The crew was greeted by a jubilant crowd of 17,000 Tahitians.

Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson received training directly from Mau Piailug.
Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson received training directly from Mau Piailug. | Source
Today Nainoa Thompson is a master navigator and Executive Director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.
Today Nainoa Thompson is a master navigator and Executive Director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. | Source

Almost 40 years later, the men that Mau trained are called master navigators; chief among them is Nainoa Thompson, Executive Director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Mau Piailug died in 2010 at the age of 78. His legacy of traditional ocean navigation re-awakened the voyaging spirit in men and women whose very existence is due to their ancestors leaving land and trusting their senses.

Sailing without instruments uses every sense known to man and probably a few most of us are unfamiliar with. A navigator must have an understanding of:

  • The seasonal movement of the heavens, the stars and planets,
  • How to read clouds and know what type linger over land,
  • How to smell the wind and recognize it′s direction,
  • Understand the fish and visible sea creatures,
  • Know the effect of the length and speed of waves,
  • Understand the ocean currents.
  • And most of all, a navigator must understand that there is a Creator who made it all, because gratitude to the gods is always paramount to a successful voyage.

Eddie Aikau

The afterglow of the Tahitian voyage didnʻt last long. In 1978, following the fervor of the successful maiden voyage to Tahiti, Hōkūleʻa once again set sail for Tahiti. It capsized between Oʻahu and Lanaʻi without radio or modern instruments.

Eddie Aikau, one of Hawaiʻi′s best-known ocean men, left on a surfboard on a dark night to get help for the crew and was never seen again. Eddieʻs death caused Mau and the Hawaiians to re-examine their long-term goals for navigation. They set careful standards for safety and preparation going forward.

It is unknown, after all, how many Polynesians lost their lives during ancient voyages. Only the oceans know... Since Eddieʻs death in 1978, no one else has died during Hōkūleʻa′s travels crisscrossing the Pacific.


Eddie Aikau, 1967, on his ever-present surfboard.
Eddie Aikau, 1967, on his ever-present surfboard. | Source

Alaska Natives' Link to the Hawai'iloa

In 1980, the Hōkūleʻa successfully sailed roundtrip from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti again, closing the loop on the ill-fated attempt in 1978. In the 1980′s, Hōkūleʻa′s crew logged more than 16,000 nautical miles sailing to Tahiti, Rarotonga (Cook Islands), Tonga, Samoa and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

In 1990 after more than a decade of successful voyages, it was decided that the Polynesian Voyaging Society would build Hōkūleʻa′s sister canoe entirely from natural materials. Sadly, Hawaiʻi′s native forests had declined so much that there was not a large enough or healthy enough koa (native wood) log found in the entire state. In an unprecedented gesture, the native people of Southeast Alaska gave two 400-year old spruce logs to the Hawaiians to build their second voyaging canoe. The Hawaiʻiloa was launched in 1993 and spurred new efforts to protect Hawaiʻi′s fragile environment and forests, along with a cultural link to Alaskaʻs indigenous people.

The inside hull of the Hawai'iloa was made from logs gifted by Alaskan natives.
The inside hull of the Hawai'iloa was made from logs gifted by Alaskan natives. | Source
The Hawai'iloa launched in 1993.
The Hawai'iloa launched in 1993. | Source

The 1990′s saw the spread of Hōkūleʻa′s influence on Hawaiian education and the rest of Polynesia. In 1992, Space Shuttle astronaut Lacy Veach participated in conversations with Hōkūleʻa and Hawaiʻi classrooms during Hōkūleʻa′s voyage to Rarotonga. Other distance education courses have been developed since then.

In 1995, six Polynesian canoes set sail on a successful journey from the Marquesas Islands to Hawaiʻi; five of the six used traditional voyaging without instruments. By that time, other Polynesians had built their own canoes and been trained for ocean navigation.

The six canoes were the Hōkūleʻa, Hawaiʻiloa, and Makaliʻi from Hawaiʻi, Te ʻAurere from Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Te ʻAu Tonga from Rarotonga (Cook Islands). The Polynesian Voyaging Society began classes on navigation and sailing at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and at Windward Community College

Hawaiian navigation courses are given at select college campuses in Hawai'i.
Hawaiian navigation courses are given at select college campuses in Hawai'i. | Source

Hōkūleʻa′s Worldwide Journey

In 2013, Hōkūleʻa began its most ambitious journey yet – a 47,000 nautical mile voyage around the world. The name of the voyage is Mālama Honua – Caring for Island Earth. Hōkūleʻa will carry forth the message of sustainability and valuable lessons that can be learned from island communities that are often overlooked in the great technological age of the 21st century. The voyage will be navigated without instruments, a feat that has never been done before.

During the first year, Hōkūleʻa sailed to points within the Hawaiian Islands. This is where I was privileged to awake to the view of her at Pōkaʻi Bay in Waiʻanae, Oʻahu. Acknowledging the fact that every voyage begins from home, Hōkūle’a’s crew anchored in 33 communities, worked with 175 schools, and interacted with over 20,000 people to embark on their grand voyage with the blessing of Hawaiʻi′s residents.

In May 2014, Hōkūleʻa set sail for the deep, open oceans far beyond those sailed by the ancestors. It is anticipated that she will finish her voyage in the summer of 2017 and come ashore at Kualoa on O'ahu.

May the gods go before her and the winds follow her home...

© 2014 Stephanie Launiu

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Comments 5 comments

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 2 years ago from Hawaii

Eddie would go. =)

It's really cool that you got to see the Hōkūleʻa through your window. A very unique opportunity, indeed!


Hawaiian Scribe profile image

Hawaiian Scribe 2 years ago from Hawai'i Author

Yes, I am very blessed indeed. And the weather was beautiful for the few days she was anchored at Pokaʻi Bay. I was just surprised at how small she was. And I think Eddie is with the Hokuleʻa wherever she goes...


mecheshier profile image

mecheshier 2 years ago

Fabulous Hub. What a great historical tale! The new Hōkūleʻa Breeds sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing the great info and pics. Voted up! :-)


Hawaiian Scribe profile image

Hawaiian Scribe 2 years ago from Hawai'i Author

Mahalo mechshier! Iʻm glad Iʻve discovered your great hubs as well. Have a wonderful weekend. Aloha, Stephanie


mecheshier profile image

mecheshier 2 years ago

You to Stephanie.. Aloha ~Mary

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    Hawaiian Scribe profile image

    Stephanie Launiu (Hawaiian Scribe)167 Followers
    20 Articles

    Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle & cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives on O'ahu.



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