The World Wide Voyage of Hokule‘a: Canoes as Ambassadors of Culture

Herb Kawainui Kane and the Hokule‘a

Herb Kawainui Kane and the Hokule‘a

Editor’s Note: Keoua Honaunau Canoe Club’s  beloved Herb Kawainui Kane, who passed on in 2011,  was the originator of the conceptual design for the Hokule‘a.  Here is Herb’s story about how the wa‘a was named:

“This happened when the parts of the canoe were close to being completed. One day when I visited the building site, a large shed at Young Bros., one of the guys had chalked ‘Da Boat’ on the side of one of the hulls. When I asked the reason for the graffiti, they said it was to remind me that it was time to come up with a name.

 “According to Kenneth Emory, in the old days a name would come to a canoe designer in a dream. Be that as it may, we tossed the question around at the board meeting a few days later. Several names were suggested, mostly compound names, each including several words; none seemed to be what everyone was looking for. Several weeks went by.

 “One exceptionally clear night I stayed up quite late, star chart in hand, locating and memorizing stars and their relative positions. I think I turned in around midnight. Some time later, I dreamed of stars. My attention was attracted to Arcturus, our Hokule’a. It appeared to grow larger and brighter, so brilliant that I awoke.

 “It’s been a habit for many years to keep a pad and pen on my nightstand. When the body is at rest, the mind half-awake, thoughts range about freely, and ideas form which I’ve found are sometimes worth noting down. Some painting ideas have come to me that way. I turned on my reading light and wrote ‘Hokule’a.’

 “The next morning, I saw the notation, and immediately recognized it as a fitting name for the canoe. As a zenith star for Hawai’i it would be a star of gladness if it led to landfall. I phoned Paige Kawelo Barber; she thought it appropriate. I tried it on a few others and got a positive response. The name was proposed at the next board meeting and adopted.”

Setting Sail: The World Wide Voyage of Hokule‘a
by Heidi Chang

For the past six years, the Polynesian Voyaging Society has been gearing up for its biggest challenge – to sail Hokule‘a around the world. Ever since the double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe first sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in 1976, it’s sparked a revival of Polynesian voyaging throughout the Pacific.

“We never quite expected that Hokule‘a would become the cultural, political symbol that it is. … And that canoe Hokule‘a has helped give the Hawaiians back their pride, and that has to be the base for all positive action,” says Ben Finney, founding president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Finney says initially they wanted to demonstrate it was possible for Polynesians to have intentionally explored and settled the Pacific. They also wanted to revive the lost art of wayfinding – navigating without instruments.

“Our primary motivation in building and sailing and navigating canoes was to have Hawaiians and other Polynesians, and other Pacific Islanders take over the leadership in relearning, reinventing the technology and putting it to use, and demonstrating its use, so it becomes their project,” says the retired University of Hawai‘i anthropologist, who’s now 82.

That dream came true when Nainoa Thompson became the first Hawaiian to practice the art of wayfinding since the 14th century, guided only by the signs of nature – the stars, the moon, the sun and the ocean swells. Thompson learned the ancient tradition from Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug, who guided Hokule‘a on its maiden voyage to Tahiti. Thompson also integrated tradition with modern science by studying with Will Kyselka, who was a lecturer at the Bishop Museum Planetarium. Since then, Thompson has helped train a whole new generation of navigators.

Circumnavigating Island Earth
Now, after nearly 40 years of sailing around the Pacific and the Pacific Rim, Hokule‘a is about to embark on a worldwide voyage called Malama Honua, caring for our Island Earth. Thompson says the seeds of the voyage were planted long ago by some of his greatest teachers and mentors who are no longer with us, including his father, Hawaiian leader Myron “Pinky” Thompson, and NASA astronaut Charles Lacy Veach. As Veach flew around the Earth in a shuttle, Thompson recalls him saying: “You need to know how beautiful your Island Earth is. It’s just one island in space. It’s all we got. There’s no other island we can go to . . . It’s fragile, and it needs to be protected, and Hokule‘a needs to help us learn and find the way. Take it around the world.”

Two stars, rising together
 To prepare for the upcoming voyage, a fully restored Hokule‘a spent the past year sailing around the Hawaiian Islands with a new canoe, Hikianalia.

“We wanted to ideally go around the world with two voyaging canoes, so we could double the amount of the experience for the crew members that could participate,” says Thompson, now president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “We escort each other. It’s not like Hokule‘a is the only one at risk, everybody at sea is at risk.” So both canoes will be taking care of each other like a family.

Hokule‘a is the Hawaiian name for the star Arcturus. The new escort boat, Hikianalia, is the Hawaiian name for the star Spica. “These two stars rise together only in the latitude of Hawai‘i,” explains Thompson, “They’re the two navigation stars we use to find home.” Hundreds of crew members have been training on both canoes. Thompson says they’ll be sailing around the world for young people and to strengthen a new generation of navigators and voyagers. That’s why half the crew is under the age of 30.

When asked, “Why is the push for education so important on the worldwide voyage?” Thompson puts it this way: “If you don’t teach children how to take care of the world, they won’t have the tools to do that. We’re not going to go save the world. All we’re trying to do with Hokule‘a and Hikianalia is do our part. And our part is to sail. And so we want to join that human movement of kindness and compassion on the planet with the belief that collectively we can make a difference.”

For students on Terra Firma, an educational opportunity
While thousands of volunteers have been helping the Polynesian Voyage Society prepare for the worldwide voyage, students across the Hawaiian Islands have been preparing for it, too, as part of their educational journey. Malia Ane is the director of Hawaiian studies at Punahou School. She says this year, students have been learning about the history of Hokule‘a, its purpose and values.

“When you’re on a canoe, every person that’s on the canoe is important in getting the canoe to its destination,” she said. “I make a difference. There’s value to what I bring. And on the canoe everybody has a job that has to be done to make it all work. And so everybody has a piece in making this a successful journey and that’s a huge lesson. And it’s a good lesson.”

To help students understand how small the canoe really is in the open ocean, Punahou students and alumni built a wooden canoe deck the same size as Hokule‘a.

It’s also provided students an opportunity to practice cooking, standing watch and steering on the platform, according to Punahou Outdoor Education Teacher Tai Crouch, who first sailed on Hokule‘a’s Voyage of Rediscovery in the mid-1980s.

Crouch teaches students about celestial bodies by taking them to the Hawaiian star compass created by Nainoa Thompson, who graduated from Punahou.

When students ask him, “How do you stay on the canoe for a long time?” Crouch says, “You have to be able to get along with people, you have to be patient, you have to be kind and considerate. And if we can do it on the canoe, then you can do it in your class.”

Over 2,000 Punahou students have also visited Hokule‘a and Hikianalia to experience the canoes firsthand, see the sleeping quarters and crawl in the hulls.

Art students researched the plants and animals that the first Polynesians brought to Hawai‘i, and recreated them out of papier-mache. As part of her science exploration class, Punahou senior Sydney Fanoga has been teaching younger students about the kinds of food you can bring on Hokule‘a, where there’s no refrigeration, and also what you can cook on board the canoe. “I’m happy to say that I’m a part of being able to feed the fire of the little kids. And get them excited about learning the history of Hokule‘a and Hawaiian culture,” says Fanoga, who’s African-American, Hawaiian, Samoan and Chinese.

Earlier, when she lived on the U.S. continent, Fanoga says she didn’t get the opportunity to learn much about her Hawaiian and Polynesian heritage. “So being able to come here and teach kids, it’s a good opportunity, because at the same time, I’m learning as well.” Fanoga also works with students in tending a garden on campus for the worldwide voyage. Last fall, they began growing kalo, sweet potato and bananas for the first leg of the journey.

High-tech on the high seas. And science experiments, too
When Hokule‘a takes off on the worldwide voyage, classrooms and people around the world will get to follow the voyage online and via social media, thanks to modern technology. The communications center for the voyage will be based on the support vessel, Hikianalia.

Keoni Lee says because the new canoe has enough solar power and battery power to power a satellite dish, they’ll be able to transmit content from the canoes to the rest of the world in real time. And they also plan to host Google hangouts.

“Every day you’ll get updated images of the voyage, and video throughout the week,” says Lee, co-founder of ‘Oiwi TV. In the past, the ability to communicate with Hokule‘a was limited, and the crew often had to wait weeks until they made landfall. But now, things have changed. Even techies like Lee are excited about the possibilities. “I love it. It’s cool. It’s mind-blowing what we’ll be able to do on this voyage.”

During the journey, Haunani Kane, the science coordinator for the worldwide voyage, will be conducting a number of experiments ranging from marine acoustics, recording all the sounds of the ocean; a plankton project; looking at the fish the crew are eating, and examining the guts of the fish to better understand what it’s been eating; collecting marine debris and microplastic; and measuring water quality. “One of the things that I think that’s really important about this voyage is trying to inspire young native people to pursue degrees or jobs in natural resource management and in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math,” says Kane. The 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa notes that Hawaiians are underrepresented in those fields.

A gift for the next generation
Master navigator Chad Baybayan is looking forward to mentoring a new generation of explorers on the worldwide voyage and connecting with a global community. “Primary reason is to bring awareness to the planet about the condition and state of the world’s oceans. We live on islands, and nobody knows more intimately about climate change and the rising sea levels.”

Baybayan, a former hotel worker, says being involved with Hokule‘a inspired him to change his direction in life and explore other career paths. Baybayan says he wanted to contribute more to his community, so he went back to college to major in Hawaiian studies, and eventually got his master’s degree in education. He’s now the navigator-in-residence at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.

Nainoa Thompson, now in his 60s, will captain and navigate Hokule‘a on the first leg of the worldwide voyage to Tahiti. In all, the canoe is expected to visit more than 25 countries and travel 47,000 nautical miles before returning to Hawai‘i in 2017, sharing a message of aloha and Malama Honua.

As the father of 5-year old twins, Thompson hopes the voyage will make a difference — especially as the Earth faces real threats of climate change. “I’m worried about the world that they’re going to inherit. It’s scary. As a father, I need to do whatever I can to make sure that their future is something that is protected for them. This voyage personally is for my two children, but I hope it has an impact for all children.”

He adds, “Never underestimate the importance of inspiring the young mind of a child to feel good about who they are. I think First Peoples, native cultures, need to know where they come from and be proud of it. I think that Hokule‘a and all the other voyaging canoes are stories of that. I think that the navigation is a system that is brilliant. It allows us to remember and celebrate the intelligence and the strength of our ancestors.”

On May 17 Hokule‘a will launch from O‘ahu and sail to Hilo, and then begin its voyage around the world. To follow the journey, visit

The World Wide Voyage’s Hilo launch is scheduled for May 24 or 25, depending on weather.  We’ll provide updates about Keoua activities in support of the voyage.

– Article originally published in Ka Wai Ola

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply