1992 Voyage: Hawai‘i to Tahiti
Photo Below: Author Dennis Chun at the Steering Sweep
My thoughts kept returning to those haunting lyrics of Mehameha and the stirring chant of Ia Va`a, I gazed out over the blackness of the sea. Yes, it is lonely and silent. A feeling of solitude pervades in spite of the closeness of twelve other crew members. The wind and the sea rush past this wa a kaulua, the double-hulled sailing canoe called Hokule`a, as we head toward the rising constellation Ka Makau Nui o Maui also known as Scorpio. The star we learned as Humu, labelled Altair by astronomers, is kept off the port hull. Yet, the excitement of finally leaving land on this voyage of No Na Mamo sobers me to bear on the tasks at hand. No Na Mamo, a Hawaiian phrase which means "for the children"-a poetic reference to generations to come-sums up the reasons for our venture into the open ocean. Here we are, seven experienced sailors of Hokule`a and six "new" crew members on their first long voyage to Tahiti. To bring this performance-accurate replica of a Polynesian voyaging canoe safely across 2,800 miles of open ocean will be no balmy cruise in the South Pacific. Perhaps this exercise will show how the ancients populated this vast expanse of the Pacific.
The objectives of this particular voyage were to perpetuate the knowledge and traditions of Polynesian voyaging. We were attempting to discover for ourselves how the ancients had so successfully populated the widely dispersed islands of the Pacific Ocean. This feat was done without the modern instruments and conveniences that are known today. Though I had made this trip before, there is always the apprehension of once again facing the elements over which you have no control. The Polynesian gods who gave birth to the Polynesians can also take the life of modern man if they are not acknowledged. I found comfort in remembering the solemn Awa ceremony in which we participated before our departure. The words of Sam Ka`ai conjured images of ancient times when "man became a part of the sea and its elements" as he stepped out onto the ocean "highways." Orations of past voyage~ from those that had preceded us rang in my ears as we sat on the lauhala mats beneath the coconut trees at Honaunau on the Kona coast.
The setting at Honaunau was idyllic. The warm morning breeze brushed my face as I gazed at Hokule`a riding at anchor in the bay. She seemed so peaceful and at ease flowing with the swells that rocked her. What a sight to see, indeed, as a flow of onlookers constantly moved along the shoreline wanting to get a closer look at this "spaceship" of the past. We the crew carried on the task of provisioning this wa`a kaulua as well-wishers, family members, and curious spectators crowded the black lava at the water's edge. With the Awa ceremony ended and the escort vessel ready, we were on standby, waiting for the order to depart. I felt a curious tightening within me while gazing at the activity around me. Stepping away from the surrounding bustle, I headed for the sacred grounds of the nearby Pu`u Honua, a sanctuary for those seeking assistance and guidance.
Within these walls built by the ancient Hawaiians, I sought solace and the strength to carry on the responsibilities entrusted to me. I had only wanted to sail and be part of the crew and cherish the joys of sailing. But the day I arrived in Kona, Clay Bertelmann, the Kapena on this leg of the voyage, informed me that I was to be one of his watch captains, which meant I was responsible for the operation of the canoe during my "watch." I was to be in charge of keeping the canoe on course and ensuring that the canoe was sailing at peak efficiency for the given conditions. It would also be my responsibility to guard crew members and the canoe from any danger. Any command was mine alone and the resulting consequences were mine to bear. "I am still too inexperienced," and "there are others that are more qualified," were my first reactions. Feelings of failure before even leaving land tried to rear their doubting heads as I consented to taking on the challenge ahead. Perhaps this is what was meant by last year's Hawaiian Leadership Conference's theme of "Koho `Ia." The concept of being "chosen" brings with it gifts and the burdens of these gifts. Was I being too presumptuous in accepting such a challenge? I already had accepted responsibility for recording the voyage in the traditional form of a mele which was making me anxious. By taking on another challenge would I become less effective and not fulfill my responsibilities? The solitude within these ancient walls focused my thoughts on the trust and respect that others had in me. From the kupuna that surrounded me in this place of sanctuary, I found the strength to face the challenges ahead.
"Man, isn`t there a dry spot on this canoe!" It has been three days since we left the peaceful bay of Honaunau and I`ve been wet ever since. But an excited yell goes out from Chad Baybayan, one of the experienced crew members, "You gotta LOVE it!!!!" So we must, because here I am again facing the discomforts of life at sea with no modern navigational instruments or conveniences. My watch crew consists of Ka`onohi Paison, Maulili Dickson, and Liloa Long, each of them for the first time facing the challenge of reaching landfall in the Tuamotu Island group some 2,300 miles south and perhaps thirty days distant. Clay Bertelmann and his brother Shorty Bertelmann, on whom rests the non-instrumental navigational duties, alerts us to our duties as we climb out of what might be called "bunks." Our quarters are really nothing more than canvas stretched over the gunwales (mo`o) of the canoe attached to the tops of the safety railings. Beneath this shelter from the sun, rain, and ocean spray are plywood planks that serve as beds. Whatever personal gear we possess is stowed in a cooler beneath this plywood. That we share this space with other crew members just reinforces the cramped feeling aboard the canoe. We are a community unto ourselves.
We are a community which is dependent upon each other and more importantly responsible for each other. As we slice through the waves that cause us to reach for any solid part of the canoe for balance, our duty continues to check each of the seven watertight holds of each hull. Moving forward becomes a combination of ballet, bull-riding, and surfing all rolled into one continuous motion. As we check these watertight compartments near the bow of both hulls, we are constantly subjected to the splash of the waves as the bows slice through and then drop into the following trough. There you have a choice of duties-to either endure the wet, cold spray topside or challenge the stale, stuffy confines below. These confining wateright spaces are the only things that keep us from joining our departed ancestors of the deep. Inside them, we are tossed about in the darkness as the hulls rise and fall in response to the continuous motion of the swells. But we need to press on for the sake of the canoe and crew. Relentlessly, we check each hold, pump out water, if any, and secure each compartment as we begin our four hour watch.
Though this doesn`t seen long, in another eight hours we`ll be back on deck to stand watch for another four hours.
Eight days out from Hawai`i, we find ourselves at the mercy of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), more commonly known as the "doldrums." Whatever it is called, we find ourselves becalmed. As the sun beats down relentlessly we search for signs of wind amidst the clouds that float lazily across a background of blue. It's only midmorning and already those off watch scramble for patches of shade on deck as the canvas- covered bunks prove unbearably hot. Watching those clouds drifting so effortlessly makes our minds wander to TCBY frozen yogurt cones, frosty Coke float;, and thick prime ribs. Suddenly an anguished moan turns our attention to Maulili. "Heh, you guys, cut those comments about food. I`m trying to concentrate on keeping on course and listening to you guys is making me hungry already." We all laugh; he's the ship's cook and it's tough trying to make gourmet food from canned and dehydrated materials. The occasional respite from these food is when fish are caught by the fishing lines trailing from the rear of the canoe. Maulili says it all in a broadcast to KCCN radio on our daily progress report. "Imagine cooking on your knees in the shower with the cold water on you at the same time" he commented in response to the question "What's it like cooking on Hokule`a?" In spite of this, we eat quite well on fresh fish (when caught), rice, canned meats and vegetables, poi, taro, dried bananas, and coconuts.
The doldrum conditions of little or no wind and hot, humid days are replaced by four days of rain and 100% cloud cover. This area of the ocean between ten degrees north and three degrees north latitude is the meeting place of two dominant weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean. We are caught in the throes of a conflict between the Northeastern and Southeastern tradewind belts. Adding to this clash is the intense heat generated near the equator. The results are towering thunderclouds and drenching downpours of rain. It seems as if the whole cycle of water on the face of the earth begins and ends right here. This becomes the most difficult part of the trip for Shorty in his navigational calculations. He needs to know the canoe's direction constantly. With no visual clues from the sky available, he is dependent upon determining direction from the ocean swells. At night, the envelope of darkness is all-encompassing; the blackness embraces us and I become disoriented. With no horizon visible, I feel a sense of weightlessness. Soon, the familiar rhythm of the swells brings me back to reality. I struggle to concentrate on these rhythms as I steer Shorty's course. He points out the motions of the canoe as she encounters the various swells. Throughout my watch we strive to hold this line in the blackness. We strain into the darkness watching for any break in the cloudcover or for squalls that may bring gusting winds and drenching rains. Relief will mean climbing down into the stale, stuffy, but somewhat dry hold lo escape the wetness on deck and lapse into halfsleep. My thoughts turn to Shorty, Clay, and Nainoa who remain on deck constantly watching and guiding the other watches as they report for duty. None have slept or escaped the elements for the past four days. Their kupuna and `aumakua must be with them, for none have complained or shown any signs of discouragement as we encounter these hardships.
Shorty Bertelmann must be thinking back to his first experience of long distance voyaging. Shorty, along with his older brother Clay, come from the rugged, cool uplands of Waimea, Hawai`i. They are Hawaiians whom have been raised among the hardships and work ethic of the paniolo. Being exposed to the natural elements for most of their lives has prepared them for the current conditions. I admire these brothers Bertelmann along with Nainoa Thompson. Shorty was one of the original crew which in 1976 made that first historic voyage on Hokule`a to Tahiti. He has now become one of a handful of Hawaiians who have learned and assimilated the art of wayfinding. Clay, as both captain and crewmember, has always put the canoe and its crews first in his life. At times this has created conflicts in his personal life, but as he says, "The canoe is a part of me and my `ohana." Nainoa took on the task of relearning the traditional art of wayfinding and is training others to carry on this tradition. Without the commitment, experience, and steadfastness of these Hawaiians, I seriously doubt that this voyaging project would have come this far.
Watching the sunset, I think back to our leaving the ITCZ area of the Pacific Ocean. For three days we assumed the guise of a commando unit as we attempted to outwit the encircling thunderstorms. "All hands on deck!" The order beckoned everyone to stand by their stations to tack as we dodged squalls and maneuvered out of ominous clouds that seemed to anticipate our every move toward tunnels of clear sky. On one hand the crew enjoyed the active role of being on the attack in exploring ways to overcome these weather conditions. On the other, these maneuvers have placed an extreme hardship on Shorty and his navigational calculations. He must memorize all these course changes and then calculate these in reference to his ideal courseline. It is truly amazing how the ancient Polynesians had navigated the expanse of the Pacific Ocean utilizing their own powers of observation and an acute sensitivity to the environment around them. The concept of non-instrument navigation, or wayfinding, is simple in theory: you need to know where you are, where you want to go, what direction you`re heading, how long and how fast you`re heading in a particular direction, and how far have you traveled toward your intended destination. But wayfinding is very difficult in practice. Perhaps the most difficult part is being mentally and physically awake for the entire journey. In spite of the hardships, we find out upon our return to Hawai`i that Shorty has been remarkably accurate in his position estimates throughout the entire voyage.
Shorty estimates our position to be approximately two degrees south of the equator. This puts us clearly out of the ITCZ area and we should be encountering the Southeast tradewinds. But these winds are nowhere to be seen. Instead we are faced with winds coming from the house we call Hema or south. Because we are a sailing vessel, our heading takes us in the direction of Noio or east of southeast and even `Aina or one house further east. This causes some frustration for everyone as we all had hoped for an early arrival in Tahiti. We have made a lot of easting already and had hoped to be able to head due south to reach the Tuamotus. Gazing at the changing colors of the sky as night becomes day, I search the dark blues that gradually change to lighter shades of pinks, reds, and oranges for signs of the coming weather. We are again at the mercy of nature. Today seems no different from the past three days. Hokule`a is riding eight to ten foot swells generated from a wind system to the south that undulate beneath us. This system, it seems, has kept the Southeast tradewinds from their normal course. We hope for a shift back to the normal wind patterns soon. The further east we travel, the longer our anticipated landfall in Tahiti. But this is not the topic of discussion today. Today Shorty, Nainoa, Clay, Chad, and Tava develop an alternative to Tahiti. If the Southerly winds hold for another day or so, when the southeast tradewinds reappear we may then be able to make the Marquesas Islands as our first landfall. Tava Taupu is genuinely excited about this possibility. He hasn`t been home for the past ten years. However our hopes of visiting the Marquesas, believed to be the home of the first settlers of Hawai i, vanish as the next day brings the anticipated Southeast tradewinds.
With the wind blowing steadily from the southeast, we speed through the onrushing waves. The days seem to blend together as we head for an anticipated sighting of land in the Tuamotu archipelago. On the twenty- fourth day since our departure from Honaunau, we encounter signs of land. We see land birds, Sooty Terns or Noio, in the early morning hours and again in the evening, and limu floating in the water that are normally found on reef formations. The ride on Hokule`a suddenly becomes choppy as we are buffeted by waves coming from three to four directions at once. It seems that the wavelengths are also shorter causing many wavetops to crash over the hulls onto the deck. We suffer the wetness of these splashings as we strain our eyes to the horizon in search of islands. Around midday on the twenty-sixth day, the swell from the southeast disappears. With one less swell buffeting the canoe, the ride becomes smoother. The dry deck once again becomes a comfortable place for "Club Hokule`a." Our evening tradition, weather and conditions permitting, featured improvised a capella music from the 50's and 60's to contemporary and traditional Hawaiian music with full guitar, ukulele, and washtub bass accompaniment. This has been a highlight for everyone on this voyage. Lead by Ka`onohi with support from the Bertelmanns, Keli`i Paikai, Kainoa Lee, Maulili Dickson, Na ilima Ahuna, and myself, we generated many beautiful harmonic renditions to an endless array of musical compositions. Nainoa even wanted to produce an album of the music from this trip. However, it would have been difficult to recapture the warmth of the moment. We know that land is near as we begin our evening of music. In fact, Shorty and Nainoa predict sighting land tomorrow.
Standing at the steering paddle, I stare at the streaking reflection of the morning sun off the water. By keeping this line on specific points on the canoe, I am able to use the sun as a reference point without looking at it directly. We are expecting to sight land today and emotions are running high. Each of my crewmates anxiously stares at the horizon in hopes of being the first to sight the telltale shadow of land. Suddenly an excited yell awakens everyone on board. "There it is, over there! There's the island!" cries Nainoa. We all clamber to the port side straining to catch a glimpse. In the shadowy distance, just off the port manu, a low, dark shadow resembling a pencil mark etched where the sea and sky meet stands Mataiva. Mataiva is actually an atoll, more commonly called a "low island." Because there are no hills or mountains, the tallest visible objects are the tops of the coconut trees, which we see as we approach the island. Still six miles away, we catch a glimpse of a phenomena that I have previously only heard of. The greenish-blue color of the atoll's lagoon is reflected off the underside of passing clouds. We know that Tahiti is a day's sail almost due south of Mataiva; for most of us our journey is about to end. Suddenly the elation of making our landfall and the successful passage i; replaced by a sense of loss. We have become close as a crew, as friends, and as family. Our experiences are a once in a lifetime event never to be duplicated. In the silent evening of the passage to Tahiti, we vow to carry on the traditions of the ancient Hawaiians and their long distance voyayes "for the children"- E OLA MAU KA HA HAWAI`I.
Kapena Clay Bertelmann
On the 1992 voyage to Tahiti, Hokule`a's kapena, or captain, was forty- seven year old Clay Bertelmann of Waimea, Hawai`i. Bertelmann first sailed with Hokule`a from Hawai`i to Tahiti in 1985; in 1986, he voyaged from Samoa to the Cook Islands, and in 1987, from Tahiti to Rangiroa. 1992 was his first voyage as kapena.
Bertelmann got involved with Hokule`a in 1978, the year the Tahiti-bound canoe was swamped in high seas and capsized. The canoe lost crew member Eddie Aikau, who left on a surfboard to get help and was never seen again. The loss of life made Bertelmann aware of the awesome responsibility of a kapena, and for 14 years, he was reluctant to accept a leadership role on the canoe. In 1992, however, Bertelmann accepted the responsibility for his family, especially his five children. The cultural recovery and strengthening that were the goals of the voyaging project were important to him. "We have an opportunity to learn what our ancestors did and how they did it," he explained, "and also an opportunity to share this with the younger generations."
Shortly before the 1992 voyage, his uncle Sonny took Bertelmann to a heiau in North Kohala and pointed out stones aligned in the directions of different destinations in the Pacific. Although Bertelmann had used this heiau as a landmark for crossings of the `Alenuihaha Channel, this was the first time he was told of its navigational significance. For Bertelmann, this knowledge was part of the cultural recovery that was occurring, and also an acknowledgement that the time was right for him to take on the responsibility of kapena. Once he accepted the responsibility, he felt the burden of concern for bringing back safely each of his crew members to their families. The burden did not leave him until he landed in Honolulu on a flight from Tahiti in July with the last of his returning crew.
Navigator Chad Baybayan
On Hokule`a's fourth voyage to Tahiti, Chad Baybayan shared navigation duties with Shorty Bertelmann. The thirty-five year old Baybayan first sailed with the canoe from Hawai`i to Tahiti and back in 1980. During the 1985-87 Voyage of Rediscovery, he sailed from Tahiti to Aotearoa and back, and from Tahiti to Hawai`i.
Baybayan was inspired to learn the art of wayfinding on the 1980 voyage to Tahiti while observing Nainoa Thompson practice the art. While Baybayan navigated on some short interisland trips in the South Pacific in 1986, 1992 was his first chance to navigate on a long voyage.
Before the voyage began, he felt the pressure of the challenge. However, he and Bertelmann did a superb job of guiding the canoe. The estimated positions reported each morning on KCCN Hawaiian Radio closely paralleled the canoe's actual course. While the navigators were about 170 miles farther west than they thought they were toward the end of the trip, they were well within the margin of error of their 400-mile-wide target screen in the Tuamotu and the Society Islands. The canoe hit the target screen dead center at the island of Mataiva.
Baybayan says that the most difficult part of the voyage was the doldrums, where shifting winds and heavy cloud cover made sailing and wayfinding difficult. The canoe, he says, had to tack five times in one day as the wind direction kept shifting. The shifting winds confused the swell pattern. "When you become confused by the swells," he explained, "you have to confirm your judgment by the movement of clouds on the horizon and the feel of the wind on your body." He estimates he slept only three hours a day on the 29-day voyage.
Baybayan says the voyage was a matter of personal, family, and ancestral pride: "The statement we wanted to make was that we are the descendants of some very courageous and intelligent people."
Navigator Shorty Bertelmann
Before Hokule`a left on its fourth voyage to Tahiti, 44-year old Shorty Bertelmann, like his co-navigator Chad Baybayan, wondered if he was fully prepared for the challenges of wayfinding on a long ocean voyage. Preparation involved not just memorizing nautical charts and star patterns, but watching the weather daily and thinking about the kinds of sailing decisions his teachers Mau Piailug and Nainoa Thompson would make at sea in response to the weather.
Bertelmann, the brother of kapena Clay Bertelmann, first saw Hokule`a in 1975 when it sailed into Kawaihae Harbor while he was helping to rebuild the walls of Pu`u Kohola heiau. Soon after that he met Mau and Nainoa. Bertelmann sailed from Hawai`i to Tahiti in 1976, 1980 and 1985, when he was captain. He continued on the Voyage of Rediscovery from the Cook Islands to Aotearoa in 1985, from Samoa to the Cook Islands in 1986, and from Rangiroa to Hawai`i in 1987, serving as captain on each of these legs.
Bertelmann says the greatest challenge of the 1992 voyage was remaining continuously awake to keep track of the course of the canoe and watch the every-changing weather. By the time the canoe reached Tahiti, he had gotten the knack of catnapping in 3-4 minutes snatches, so he could regain his concentration-a technique he learned by observing Nainoa.
The highlight of the trip for Bertelmann was sighting a school of dolphins. On the voyage to Tahiti in 1985 Mau had sailed with Bertelmann, and they sighted a school of dolphins at about 10 degrees north latitude. Before the 1992 voyage, Mau, who was not going, told Bertelmann to look for the dolphins because they lived in that area of the ocean and would visit the canoe again. At about 10 degrees north, Bertelmann spotted the dolphins. It confirmed his faith and trust in Mau and the ancient tradition of navigation Mau represented. When he saw Mau again in Hawai`i, Mau asked him "Did the dolphins come visit you?" and Bertelmann answered, "Yeah."
CREW MEMBERS: HAWAI`I - TAHITI, 1992: Nainoa Thompson, Sailmaster; Chad Baybayan, Co-navigator; Shorty Bertelmann, Co-navigator; Clay Bertelmann, Captain; Nailima Ahuna, Fisherman; Dennis Chun, Historian; Maulili Dixon, Cook; Kainoa Lee; Liloa Long; Jay Paikai; Chad Paison; Ben Tamura, M.D.; Tava Taupu.