Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

1992: The Voyage Home

Dennis Kawaharada

Photo Below: Sailing into Kane'ohe Bay, O'ahu, Hawai'i

East to Tahiti: After the Vaka Pageant in Rarotonga, Hokule`a planned to sail directly to Hawai`i from the Cook Islands. This would have been its most difficult voyage home because the canoe would have to sail 600 miles against the southeast tradewinds to gain enough easterly distance to arrive on the windward side of the Big Island.

However, good fortune was with the crew. As the canoe prepared to leave Rarotonga, a low pressure area to the west disrupted the southeast tradewinds and brought southerly winds which allowed the canoe to head directly east. Five days out of Rarotonga, the crew sighted the island of Ra`iatea. One day later the canoe landed in Papeete, Tahiti. In six days, the canoe had gone 600 miles east, the distance that it had planned to make gradually over 20 days sailing against the normal southeast tradewinds. Favorably positioned in Papeete for the sail back to Hawai`i, Hokule`a could now sail an easier, more northerly course toward Hawai`i. The canoe was on a familiar route since it had made the sail from Tahiti to Hawai`i three times before. It would also be passing through the Tuamotus. If an island were sighted, it would give the navigators a final seamark before the long open ocean voyage home.

The sail from Rarotonga to Tahiti proved once again what some Western scholars had doubted-that the ancient Polynesians could sail from west to east in their canoes, against the prevailing tradewinds, on voyages of exploration and settlement of the Pacific.

Hokule`a waited in Papeete for four days for the right winds. When the southeast trade winds returned on November 5, the canoe departed for Hawai`i. The canoe was being navigated for the first time by Bruce Blankenfeld and Kimo Lyman, who was originally going to be the captain. This allowed Mike Tongg, originally a watch captain, to start training as a captain. Also on board was Sailmaster Nainoa Thompson and a crew of nine.

Communication with NASA's Space Shuttle: On October 28, two days after leaving Rarotonga, Hokule`a participated in historic, three-way satellite communication link with the space shuttle Columbia orbiting the earth and a panel of schoolchildren in a TV studio at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. The students posed questions alternately to the crew of the canoe and the crew of the shuttle. The communication link was part of an effort to allow schoolchildren in Hawai`i to participate in the voyage as it was happening. Hokule`a was equipped with a long-range radio which drew power from two 12-volt marine batteries, which were recharged daily by six solar energy panels mounted at the back of the canoe, so it could communicate daily with Hawai`i via KCCN Hawaiian Radio, giving information about the canoe's position, weather condtions encountered and sailing strategy, navigational techniques, and life on board the canoe. Over this communication link, Sailmaster Nainoa Thompson was able to pose questions about voyaging to Hawai`i's schoolchildren. The educational program also involved interactive links with a state-wide educational television program and with students at Peace-sat communication station at the the University of Hawai`i at Manoa.

During the historic three-way conversation between Hokule`a, the space shuttle Columbia, and the panel of schoolchildren, one student asked, "What are the similarities and differences between canoe and space travel?" Orbiting astronaut Charles Lacy Veach, who grew up in Honolulu, answered "Both are voyages of exploration. Hokule`a is in the past, Columbia is in the future. Sailmaster Nainoa Thompson added from the canoe: "We feel both are trying to make a contribution to mankind. Theirs is in science and technology. Ours is in culture and history. Columbia is the highest achievement of modern technology today, just as the voyaging canoe was the highest achievement of technology in its day."

Kapena Mike Tongg: The 1992 voyage home was the first ever in November-spring south of the equator and fall in the north. For veteran sailor Mike Tongg, the voyage was also a kind of first. Although he sailed this route twice before, in 1980 and 1987, in 1992 he began training for a new role as a Hokule`a Kapena. Before departure, the Kapena is responsible for provisioning the canoe and preparing the crew for the voyage; during the voyage the Kapena is responsible for distributing provisions, maintaining the work schedule and discipline, making sure everyone is working together for the common goal. Tongg says he learned a lot about being a Kapena from sailing with veteran Kapena Gordon Pi`ianai`a.

Tongg remembers the 1992 voyage as one of unexpected winds and weather. Two days out of Papeete, a storm brought northerly winds which prevented the canoe from heading directly toward Hawai`i, so it tacked east toward the Marquesas for three days. After the southeast trades returned, the canoe turned north again. After Hokupa`a, or the North Star, was sighted low on the horizon, indicating that the canoe was north of the equator, the canoe encountered stormy weather, with huge clouds, gale force winds of 40-45 mile per hour, and rain flying horizontally and stinging the skin. Tongg called the experience "humbling," noting that while Hokule`a crew members had modern foul weather gear and canvas- covered sleeping compartments, the ancient voyagers had to make do with ti-leaf rain capes and lauhala mats for protection.

Three things stand out in Tongg's mind about the voyage home. First, the compliment paid to the crew by the astronauts who sailed on the canoe after it returned to Hawai`i: they noted the way the crew almost instinctively worked well with each other, with little talking. Secondly, Tongg noted, "No matter how we prepare and think we know before we depart, there is always more to learn." And finally, he remembers the masterful way in which sailmaster Nainoa Thompson played the changes in winds and weather in bringing the canoe home.

Landfall Hawai`i: When Hokule`a sailed into the northeast tradewinds, it began to fly, making 7-10 knots and 150-200 miles per day. On November 28, Sailmaster Nainoa Thompson reported that he was confident the navigators had executed his sail plan and that the canoe was 200-300 miles east of the Big Island. That night, the navigators hoped to sight the star Holopuni, or Kochab, about four degrees above the horizon to confirm that the canoe was at 20_ N latitude, the mid-latitude of Hawai`i. The night sky was too cloudy to spot Holopuni, but the navigators used their hands to measure the height of Hokupa`a, or Polaris, in the northern sky and the star Achernar [ay-ker-nar; accent on first syllable] in the southern sky to determine that the canoe was at the right latitude. The canoe turned west to look for Hawai`i.

The summit of Mauna Kea, almost 3 miles high, can be seen from over 100 miles away on a clear day. On November 29, as the canoe sailed west in daylight, clouds hid the Big Island, but a high pile of clouds indicated that an island lay somewhere in its midst. An egret, a land bird that sometimes migrates between islands, was sighted.

At sunset, the crew hoped to see the Big Island silhouetted against the western sky, but heavy clouds continued to hide the island. After nightfall the crew looked for the glow of Kilauea volcano in the clouds, but a curtain of rain hung across the east side of Hawai`i from Kohala to Puna. Then, in the middle of the night, crew members spotted a loom of lights and a beacon from a lighthouse under the clouds. Navigator Blankenfeld guessed correctly that the lights were Hilo town and the beacon was from the lighthouse at Cape Kumukahi. Before dawn on November 30, the summit of Mauna Kea appeared, faintly lit by rays of sunlight coming over the horizon; and at dawn, the green coast of Hamakua was off the port beam. After six months and 8,000 miles, Hokule`a had found its way home.

Navigator Bruce Blankenfeld: Bruce Blankenfeld, one of the two first-time navigators on the 1992 voyage home to Hawai`i, is a veteran of this route, having sailed on the canoe from Tahiti to Hawai`i in 1980 and 1987. He also sailed from the Cook Islands to New Zealand in 1985 and from the Cook Islands to Tahiti in 1986.

Before the voyage home in 1992, Blankenfeld felt comfortable with his knowledge of the positions and paths of the sun and stars, having studied them for over a decade with his friend and mentor Nainoa Thompson. The voyage was a great learning opportunity in wayfinding for Blankenfeld-in keeping track of the canoe's position, remembering the positions of islands along the route, steering by the ocean swells, predicting the wind and weather, anticipating the position of the moon, which changed each night, and measuring latitude stars with his hand. During the voyage Blankenfeld became more intimate with the ocean and sky, the constantly changing clouds, winds, and swells. Observing the environment so closely to learn from it and to anticipate its changes made Blankefeld appreciate the beauty of all its elements, including overcast skies and violent squalls.

During the voyage, Blankenfeld's orientation began to change from that of a sailor to that of a wayfinder. Once, while asleep for an hour, his mind continued to follow the movements of the sky, so that when he awoke and looked up, he had a feeling of deja vu-the sky was as it was in his dream. By the second week of the voyage, when he looked past the bow of the canoe, he no longer saw a trackless expanse of ocean, but a pathway or road that would lead the canoe home to Hawai`i. Even when the wind would not allow the canoe to sail on that road, Blankenfeld knew it was there. He began to understand the confidence the ancient voyagers must have felt in sailing the long sea distances of the Pacific.

Navigator Kimo Lyman: Bruce Blankenfeld's co-navigator on Hokule`a's 1992 return voyage to Hawai`i from Rarotonga was Kimo Lyman. In 1976, Lyman, an experienced yachtman, was chosen to navigate Hokule`a back to Hawai`i using instruments after non-instrument navigator Mau Piailug left the project because of conflicts among crew members during the voyage to Tahiti. After the 1976 voyage, Lyman continued to sail with Hokule`a- from Tahiti to Hawai`i in 1980 and from New Zealand to American Samoa in 1986.

Navigating without instruments on the voyage to Hawai`i in 1992 was a new challenge for Lyman. He says the biggest difference between instrument and non-instrument navigation is a psychological one. The instrument navigator can depend on his compass, sextant, clock, almanac, tables, and charts to give him his direction and his position. Even when the sun or stars aren`t visible at the right times and he has to estimate his miles travelled per day, he knows that after the weather clears, he will be able to find out exactly where he is.

Without instruments, on the other hand, the navigator must continually keep track of the progress of his vessel; and he can never be totally certain of where he is until he sights and identifies an island. He depends on his memory and his intuitions based on years of experience at sea. He becomes more observant of nature and more in tune with the spiritual elements of the sea.

Before each voyage Kahu Ed Keanahele prays the spirit of a whale into each of the two hulls of Hokule`a to guide and protect the canoe as `aumakua. Lyman, who belongs to Keanahele's church, says that the moment when he became spiritually connected to the 1992 voyage was when he sighted some pilot whales four days out of Tahiti. Whales appeared again after the canoe reached Hawaiian waters during the sail from Honaunau to Moloka`i. Three weeks after the voyage was over, Lyman accompanied Keanahele to Pu`u Kohola heiau on the Big Island to release the whale spirits from the double-hulled canoe. The `aumakua had once again brought Hokule`a home safely.

Honaunau: After sighting the coast of Hamakua on November 30, Hokule`a swung around `Upolu Point and headed for Honaunau, where the voyage began six months earlier. It arrived at Honaunau at 9 p.m. on December 1. The next day Sam Ka`ai and Hale Makua conducted an `awa ceremony for the returning crew at the same site where they had conducted an `awa ceremony for the crew before departure. Two days later, the canoe sailed to Kaunakakai, Moloka`i, where students were invited aboard on tours and two astronauts joined the crew for the final sail to Kualoa, O`ahu, where the canoe had been launched in 1975. On the morning of December 5, a crowd of about 1,000 welcomed Hokule`a home from its journey of 8,000 miles.

As the crew came ashore, they were ritually challenged; after the challenge was satisfied, the crew was fed `ai kapu, or sacred food, to signify they were accepted by the people on shore. The `ai kapu ceremony was conducted by Bert Barber, with the assistance of Keli`i Tau`a and Keone Nunes. The food restored to the crew the mana that had been depleted during the voyage. When the food was consumed, the kapu that had been placed on the crew when it landed was lifted, and the crew was free to reunite with their families and enjoy presentations, music, and dance.

Hokule`a is now back in Honolulu, at its berth at the Hawai`i Maritime Center at Pier 7, where it will await a voyage to the Marquesas Islands scheduled for 1995. On the return voyage from the Marquesas, Hokule`a plans to sail with the 55-foot Hawaiiloa, a new Hawaiian canoe being built under the supervision of Wright Bowman, Jr., and Gil Ane and funded by the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Project. The two canoes plan to recreate the original voyage of settlement from the Marquesas to Hawai`i, which took place over 1500 years ago.

CREW MEMBERS (As of August, 1992): COOK ISLANDS - HAWAI`I, 1992: Nainoa Thompson, Sailmaster; Bruce Blankenfeld, Co-navigator; Kimo Lyman, Co-navigator; Snake Ah Hee, Watch Captain / Cook; Pat Aiu, M.D.; Carlos Andrade, Historian; Terry Hee, Fisherman; Archie Kalepa; Suzette Smith; Scott Sullivan, Communications; Mike Tongg, Watch Captain; Wallace Wong; Aaron Young, Watch Captain; Gary Yuen.