Voyage to Rapanui
Journal, Mangareva to Rapa Nui
September 20-October 30, 1999
Sunshine at Last! It's been raining for days and mud puddles now surround the beach house that has become Hokule'a headquarters. I hope today the sun will dry the tiny island of Mangareva and the deck of Hokule'a so that we can begin to load the final provisions for our voyage to Rapa Nui. The crew that will sail Hokule'a to Rapa Nui arrived a few days ago. The rainy cold weather that welcomed them was a sign of what we could expect for the next 30-40 days as we sail to the last corner of the Polynesian triangle. It was nice to see the familiar faces of friends step off the fishing boat that shuttled the crew from the airport to the main town of Rikitea where Hokule'a is docked.
This is a veteran crew of senior sailors from the Polynesian Voyaging Society. All except one have sailed on long voyages. Mature and focused is the best way to describe the collection of individuals who will now build a new team and family. As I write this, my senses capture the beauty of the landscape that surrounds me. The many hues of blue from the lagoon lap into our back yard. The deep green of the lush Mangraven vegetation rolls into the ocean. The wind that blows through our beach home keeps us cool throughout the day.
As the days count away, I think of my wife and children at home, the many family and friends in Hawaii, and of the very special crew that brought Hokule'a with me from the Marquesas to the enchanted shores of Mangareva. More than three months will have gone by before I return home and I hope that day will come soon. The winds will shift to a favorable direction soon and we will be on our way, carrying with us the loving and caring spirit of the many friends that we have made along the way. I am sure as we continue to sail we will build many new friendships and discover that both a common culture and ocean join us together. Hokule'a has been a catalyst for the Mangarevan community, reminding them of the importance of preserving our rich Polynesian traditions. Every school age child on Mangareva has visited Hokule'a.
On the clear, star-lit Mangarevan evenings, fishermen have gathered on Hokule'a's aft deck and learned how Hawaiians have navigated this voyaging canoe. It is with a deep sense of gratitude and thanks that I look back at my almost twenty five years of sailing on board Hokule'a. I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about my cultural history, and especially about myself in such a unique way. So I enter this voyage with a sense of excitement, an opportunity once again to explore, discover, and make new friends. To find a new island one last time, to celebrate a generation of voyaging and herald a new one, to continue to honor our ancestors, and then to return home to my family and once more know that place from where I started all over again.
Rainy skies once again greeted us this morning. Nainoa Thompson, Bruce Blankenfeld and myself (Hokule'a's three navigators) met with the local meteorologist stationed on Mangareva, and he forecast a 48-hour window of favorable winds. However, accompanying those winds will be clouds that would obscure the celestial bodies that Hokule'a navigators rely upon to guide her. It is just one more piece of information that Nainoa must analyze in interpreting the very complex weather patterns that Hokule'a will experience over the next 30-40 days.
The choices are to sit in Mangareva and wait for clear skies and favorable winds which our forecaster predicts may not be for sometime; or to take our chances and sail with the wind we have in the hope of breaking out of the cloud cover that surrounds us. If we choose to go, we must do so now. However, there's one more complication. Our last crew member Max Yarawamai, is scheduled to arrive late this afternoon. Do we wait or depart? I hurry back to town and locate a Bonito fisherman who agrees to bring Max to Hokule'a, which should be somewhere between Mangareva and the atoll of Temoe, some 20 miles away. I relay the new option to Nainoa. He decides we should depart. The room is filled with excitement. Nainoa, Bruce and I shake hands. I will stay behind to assist the fisherman in retrieving Max from the airport and rendezvousing with Hokule'a on the open ocean sometime in the late afternoon. Our host, Bruno Schmidt, is standing by and we inform him of our decision to leave. He immediately mobilizes the Mangareva community into organizing our departure ceremony. Hokule'a should depart within 3 hours. Two hundred school children gather at the canoe around noon. Many of our friends have come to say goodbye. The children sing and dance and offer us gifts of fresh fruit to take along with us. Our friends place shell leis around our necks, exchange well wishes and tears. We pray one last time, hands joined with a community we are now a part of. Before the canoe departs, I leave with the fishing boat to go and get Max. It takes an hour to travel to the island where the airport is located. Before we arrive at the airport I see the shapes of Hokule'a and the escort boat, Kamahele, departing Mangareva.
The plane arrives and at last Max is here. We hurry off to Rikitea Harbor where we stamp Max's passport for clearance out of French Polynesia. A short tour of the town for Max and we're off once again on the fishing boat chasing after Hokule'a. As we race out of the harbor and away from the island the underside of the moisture-ridden clouds above the island suck up the deep green colors of this pristine lagoon. One last farewell for this enchanting island. Within two hours we arrive alongside the canoe. We say goodbye to our friend Louis Labbeiy aboard the fishing boat and, with gear in hand, Max and I plunge into the deep blue Pacific ocean and swim to Hokule'a. Within a few minutes we're both aboard, being welcomed once again by our friends. Nainoa gives the orders to reopen the sails and the voyage to Rapa Nui officially begins.
Just as the sun broke the plane of the horizon, crew member Max Yarawamai, standing on the bow of Hokule'a, pointed to a shape under a dark cloud. Pitcairn Island. Twice within a span of 30 days Hokule'a has made Pitcairn a landfall. Finding Pitcairn is the first part of Nainoa Thompson's navigational strategy as he guides Hokule'a in an attempt to reach Rapa Nui, the last corner of the Polynesia triangle meant to be visited by this historic canoe. It is a veteran crew who mans Hokule'a's decks on this voyage. In 1985 five of us who are on board now, Nainoa, myself, Bruce Blankenfeld, Tava Tauupu, and Mike Tongg, sailed to New Zealand, the southwest corner of the Polynesian triangle. It will be nice for me to close the triangle with these special friends.
Our last stop at Pitcairn was a memorable event for the crew of Hokule'a, its escort boat and the Pitcairn community. The majority of the residents are direct descendants of the Bounty mutineers and the Tahitians who accompanied them. Today many of the residents still bear the name of their most famous ancestor, Fletcher Christian. However, although they proudly bear the Chistian name, they deny being related to one another. Confused about this, I asked Tarol Christian Warren, a life-long resident, why this was so. She explained that although they are direct descendants of Fletcher Christian there has been so much intermarriage on the island they no longer consider themselves related.
I also learned that within two years of settling Pitcairn only one of the original Bounty sailors was still alive, the rest being killed off in a feud that erupted between them and the Tahitians they brought along. Tne fighting started after one of the Bounty mutineers stole a woman from the Tahitians after his own wife died. The Tahitians quickly retaliated. Fletcher Christian died in a raid while tending his garden. The Bounty survivors organized and disposed of the Tahitians. Soon the Bounty survivors were fighting among themselves. Of the last three surviving Bounty sailors, one lost his head while asleep; the second died of natural causes; and the third, John Adams, became the leader of the surviving community of women and children. Today the only village on the island, Adamstown, bears his name.
On our last visit, a close bond developed between Hokule'a's crew and the 42 members of the Pitcairn community, all of us descendants of a rich maritine history. Our crew bundled packages of the canoe's excess food and gave one to each family that lives there. The supply ship that normally delivers food every four months had missed a delivery. They are hoping that in October the ship will be back, but some six months will have elapsed since the last ship visited.
The night the canoe departed Pitcairn on the first visit, Hokule'a's crew prepared an evening dinner on the dock of this island and fed the entire community. We brought in the canoe that night as these proud residents sang British hymns. Today Nainoa and the crew will put ashore to rekindle the friendship made 30 days ago, and once again remind ourselves that we are all residents of the same island earth and not very different at all. Aloha is alive and well on Pitcairn Island.
Our layover Friday on Pitcairn was brief. Arriving in the afternoon, we departed before midnight. It was nice to see the smiles of people who had become very dear to me. I visited with my friends, Jay Warren and his wife Tarol Christian Warren. Jay is the magistrate of the island and the descendant of a whaler shipwrecked on Ducie atoll, some 295 east-northeast of Pitcairn. Today the Warren family represents the largest clan on Pitcairn island. Tarol argues they should use the more recognized Christian name. Jay ignores her.' That evening the Pitcairn community quickly organized a dinner in the town-square for the crews of Hokule'a and Kamahele. At the end of the dinner I thanked the islanders for their hospitality, presenting the 10 school-age children of the community with a copy of Tommy Holmes' canoe book, Hawaii Canoes, and gave them 15 buckets of crackers, one for each family that resides there. It was a sad departure that night, a hard goodbye to such unselfish people. As we dashed through the surf on the aluminum launch that returned us to the canoe I looked back on this unique island silhouetted by moonlight and framed by the starlit South Pacific night sky. I will probably never return here again. An hour after departing Pitcairn, the wind and seas pick up. It is a timely departure; the anchorage at Pitcairn was poor that day.
Now, several days have passed since our departure and the canoe sails at a fast 7 knots. A weather anomaly is providing Hokule'a with winds from a favorable direction and we are making easterly progress much more rapidly than we had planned. However, we are still challenged with the daunting task of locating Rapa Nui, an island 14 miles long by 7 miles wide. We have enough food for 42 days. I quietly pray that the voyage will end well before that. Bruce Blankenfeld's wife, Lita, and her lifelong friend Mary Fern, have been responsible for putting together the menu for the voyage, purchasing the food, and packing and shipping the supplies to the distant staging points. It is a nightmarish task and we all appreciate their huge volunteer effort.
The crew is finally getting into the rhythm of a long voyage. When the seas are steep, the most basic tasks on Hokule'a become very difficult. Sleeping on the canoe redefines the meaning of waterbed. Water squirts in through the canvas covers the crew sleep under. Crew member Max Yarawamai, claims he needs a mask and snorkel to sleep in his bunk. Being the last to show up, he ended up with the forward-most compartment on the wetside of the canoe. Going to the bathroom is also a very wet experience. You don a safety harness before positioning yourself on a wooden plank outside the canoe. Whatever I perceive the difficulty to be for me, it is infinitely more difficult for the female crew members who sail Hokule'a. At least I get to stand up. The sea grabs at your ankles, or inundates your tush. And as you look down at the boiling ocean, your muscles tighten. If you don't learn how to relax you can be left standing on that wooden plank for an awfully long time. In due time nature takes its course and you return to the inner safety of Hokule'a's decks relieved, wet, exhilarated, or exhausted.
The past 24 hours brought 100 percent cloud cover and switching winds as a frontal band passed overhead. With winds gusting to 30 knots and constant squalls we sailed intermittently, closing our sails for most of the night while waiting for the squalls to pass. The winds have now switched to the southwest, still maintaining a favorable direction for Hokule'a. We sail fast in weather that grows colder daily. The crew, sensing that the favorable winds are a gift, pressed to maintain speed and steer as straight a line as possible before the winds shift to an unfavorable direction and the gates of opportunity slam their door firmly shut on us. The natural progression of air masses will eventually bring winds out of the east, the direction in which we need to sail. At that time we will begin to implement our tacking strategy, sailing into the face of the prevailing wind.
With the colder temperatures the crew is constantly dressed in their bright yellow foul weather gear. As we continue to endure the 60-degree cold on Hokule'a's exposed decks I am impressed by the think skins of my Polynesian ancestors.
Watch captain Terry Hee is the cook on this leg. If you would like to imagine what cooking on board the deck of Hokule'a with waves crashing around you is like, the next time you are at the stove of your relatively dry kitchen, have someone dump a bucket of water over your head. In fact, have them do it every five minutes. If you're capable of walking away with a large smile on your face and your meals still tasting exquisitely, then you qualify as a chef on board Hokule'a. Terry is one of Hokule'a's finest. Chili dinners don't happen often aboard Hokule'a. But when they do, they are usually explosive events and provide most of the evening's entertainment. On the previous leg to Mangareva one unbashful individual was nicknamed Koloa ("Duck") for his unabashed quacking. Profuse quacking does not discriminate. I've heard that both male and female crew members quack loudly although they may deny it. Also to bathe or not to bathe was a constant debate on the previous leg. As captain on the last leg I took a bath daily so as to set an example for the rest of the crew. I explained that there was nothing more refreshing than to replace the stale old seawater on your body with fresh new seawater. A very small minority argued that it was an issue of water temperature and not cleanliness. They maintained that one good cleaning was equivalent to five average baths. I am thankful that for the seven weeks of the last leg they were in the minority. The crew on this leg are all seasoned sailors. They bath daily. What a relief.
The gray pall that surrounds us is beginning to lift. Patches of sunlight filter through the ceiling of clouds above us, rays indicating the sun's position behind it. The sky is slowly turning blue and the sun's touch warms my body. Soggy clothing hung out to dry resembles a multi-colored lei strung around Hokule'a. The canoe, still under the influence of unfavorable wind, moves now at a much slower pace. We enjoy the cool pleasant weather, passing time sitting in small groups, sharing stories and listening to Hawaii music on a CD player.
Our escort boat Kamahele, now considered by all of us the second voyaging canoe on this journey, pulls near our stern. Crews exchange waves and smiles, adding to the growing warmth of the day. There is a very comfortable feeling to the spirit of this crew. Kindness and respect is displayed at all times. When selecting the crew you can only guess as to how the many divserse personalities of such a wide variety of people will get along togetehr in a close, cooperative living environmebnt such as Hokule'a's. Withg this group of individuals, the transition to canoe life has been fast, each assuming their new roles with a high degree of professionalism. Mel Paoa, Tava Taupu Teikivaeoho and Terry Hee, serve as watch captains.
Watch captain Tava Taupa, with Chad
Mike Tongg is our radio operator. The electrical systems are maintained by Aaron Young. The canoe's doctor is Ben Tamura. Our photographer and videographer, Sonny Ahuna, has been sending pictures back to our website. It is through his eyes that so many people have been able to experience the voyage. Sam Low, is our documenter, sending back to Hawaii, the information used to support the educational effort of this project. Shantell Ching and Max Yarawamai are apprentice navigators.
Max and Shantell
Bruce Blankenfeld and myself share navigational responsibilities with Nainoa Thompson. Nainoa serves as captain and primary navigator for the voyage.
Nainoa and Bruce
When I look at the many shades and complexions that share Hokule'a's deck I realize it is more than the Hawaiian community that's represented here. It is Hawaii's community of today who sail her. Not since 1987 have Bruce and Nainoa and myself sailed together as crew. It is the first time that the three of us are sailing as a navigatinal team. Working with the two of them is an honor and a privilege. It has been, to this point, a rich and powerful personal expericne for me. Bruce and I rotate through 6-hour shifts at night and 4-hour shifts during the day. The 4-hour daytime shifts allow Bruce and me to alternate watches daily. We experience navigating at different hours each day while the other person rests. Nainoa is always on watch. In the morning and evening we meet at the stern of the canoe, assess the voyage's progress and plan tomorrow's strategy.
This is a simple description of how cooperative navigation works. But the relationship we share as navigators is rooted in a friendship and a mutual respect that we've developed from sailing together for over 24 years. For a cooperative effort such as ours to succeed, trust and integrity become essential. These two elements are key to making our relationship work. Our trust and integrity stems from recognizing each other's competence and skill as navigators and leaders, witnessed from previous voyages together. Somehow we've been able to make this system of shared navigation work. Nainoa has empowered Bruce and me to take control on our watches. He solicits our opinions and we collaborate on decisions. It is now through older and wiser eyes that we view ourselves, recognizing the growth and maturity that only patience brings. It is here on the deck of Hokule'a that I feel my strongest, sharing my time with people of common belief. We sail to honor our ancestors and by doing so, we honor ourselves, keeping alive our most precious inheritance, our culture and heritage.
The night sky on the ocean can be mesmerizing. Stars cascade overhead showering the canoe and ocean below it with light from the heavens. The moon rises slowly out of the sea, making a trail of golden light beneath it. Wavelets lap against the hull of the canoe like little hands that reach up and touch Hokule'a, gently pushing us along the way. We move to a gentler and softer pace, influenced by the rhythm and pulse of the sky and sea that surrounds us. As the planet slowly turns and the sun begins to flood the morning sky with brilliant streaks of oranges and reds, another night has ended and another day begins, the cycle of this voyage once again renewing itself.
Hokule'a, now in the heart of the tradewind belt, pushes slowly eastward under the soft undersides of the fair weather cumulus clouds that float above us. The conversation of the day centers around how the many male members of this crew met their spouses. One crew member remembered starting a new job and walking into her office on the first day of work without knocking. She looked at him, shouting "Excuse me, were you raised in a barn? Don't you knock before entering?" It was love at first sight. We married two years later.
The canoe is filled with this type of light humor, the mood matching the pleasant weather of the day. In the quiet breaks that fill my day, my mind drifts off, contemplating and remembering the many evolutions that both Hokule'a and I have experienced in the 24 years that we've shared. Time and the powerful experience of voyaging have bonded me in a strong set of beliefs that orient the internal compass that navigates my life. Twenty-four years ago the job that I do now was called navigating. Today, recognizing the broad roles that navigators must play and the leadership skills that they need to possess, we redefined the term navigation, calling it now the art of wayfinding. Wayfinding is more than guiding the canoe. It is about nurturing a crew of friends by building positive relationships on the deck of this canoe and among the communities we visit. It is also about continuing the tradition of honoring our ancestors, and the culture and heritage they represent. Lastly, it is about cherishing the spirit of the many friends and supporters that fill Hokule'a's sails through their effort and work.
In 1995, when Bruce Blankenfeld and I sailed Hawai'iloa, the newest of the Hawaiian voyaging canoes, to Tahiti on her maiden voyage, we set a very simple goal for our crew. We would work to be better friends when we arrived than we began. As navigators and as a crew we would "raise" the islands we were seeking if we all did our jobs. But how we felt as a crew about the totality of the experience was as important a goal as making that landfall. On this voyage it is that very spirit that we embrace, one of caring, making new discoveries and building new
Gone are the brilliant hues of yesterday. Mother Nature today only chooses gray and black from her palette. Her mood grows deeper and darker as the day unfolds. A carpet of clouds blankets the sky above us and our eyes strain to locate the circular shape of the sun hidden behind it. It is a critical time onboard the canoe, the urgency of the moment matching the intensive look that Nainoa, Bruce and I now wear. We have sailed ourselves into an area called "The Box." The Box is a rectangular area of ocean that extends 300 miles west of Rapa Nui and 60 miles north and 60 miles south of it. It is here, in The Box, that we've begun to initiate our strategy to find Rapa Nui. We sail Hokule'a upwind in a series of tacks that weaves its way across The Box. On one of these tacks we hope to pass close enough to sight the island.
Over 2 years of planning and 14 days of sailing have brought us into The Box. Now in this most crucial stage of the voyage navigation and steering must be flawless. The three navigators must constantly remember speed, time and direction to fix our mental position within The Box. It is a job made particularly difficult by nature's unwillingness to cooperate. The cloud-filled sky obscures the horizon we search. The rain and chill of the wind bite at the bone. Sailing in these elements wears on the crew and I can see their exhaustion in their eyes. There is not much small talk anymore, the serious nature of this part of the voyage affecting us all. With the strategy for the next 12 hours decided upon, Nainoa and Bruce will rest a few hours while I watch and monitor our progress. At sunset Bruce will relieve me and I will retreat to a sleeping compartment we share. At midnight I'll be back at work again, the cycle of navigation never-ending.
Now one last time before I put my log away I scan the dark horizon. Somewhere in the deep gray and black that lay thickly before us lies an island. It is in this moment that I realize that perhaps the dark skies are not meant to obscure the island that hides ahead of us, but rather a special wrapping from Mother Nature of a gift yet to be discovered. It is with quiet confidence that this day ends.
A window in the clouds that blanket the sun above us opens and sunlight floods a corner of the dark horizon ahead of us. It has been a long night of cold, biting wind stinging our faces. As I look around the canoe at the crew who are awake at this early hour, their red eyes tell a tale of the exhaustion and fatigue. Nainoa (Thompson), Bruce (Blankenfeld) and I met right after sunset and mentally fixed our positon within "The Box" (a rectangle of ocean surrounding Rapa Nui). We all agreed that based upon our estimates, the next 24 hours would be critical in making landfall. As this morning unfolds, Bruce and Max (Yarawamai) are stationed on the bow, Nainoa and I on the stern. We each search a section of the black horizon, looking for clues to the island that is eluding us. Bruce motions to Nainoa and I, and we move forward. Max stands with his arm outstretched, pointing to a thin black line under a grey cloud. Except for this one space on the ocean, the rest of the horizon is dark. The light continues to push its way through the clouds, enlarging the growing gap in the sky. We all see the dark line on the horizon. Nainoa and I return to the stern of the canoe. We scan the horizon behind us to make absolutely certain that the island is not to the rear of us. Max motions us to come forward once more. Nainoa climbs the mast for a better look.
Sensing that something important is unfolding above deck, the sleeping members of the crew now clamber out of their bunks. Soon, everyone is standing on the canoe's railing. I point to the dark shape on the horizon, for my friend Tava Taupu. He sees it and looks back at me with a smile. The dark shape is growing with the emerging day. The canoe continues to push along purposely. The wind and seas start to calm, matching the mood of the rising sun. Now you can clearly see the distinct shape of an island, cliffs falling sharply into the sea, the gentle slopes of a mountain behind it, reaching up into the sky. On the deck of the canoe, very few words are spoken. People reach out and drape arms over each others shoulders. Nainoa still clings to the mast, savoring the moment of a Rapa Nui landfall. I call our escort boat, the "second canoe," Kamahele, and congratulate them for making this landfall with us. They exchange similar wishes and I sense their excitement over the radio.
Now the quiet on the canoe has been replaced by hugs and "high fives." Nainoa, down from the mast, is smiling with deep satisfaction. We all exchange hugs one more time, a pattern that repeats itself throughout the day. In the back of the canoe, the navigators talk, each of us attempting to analyze the events of the past 24 hours. Our navigation is grounded in western sciences, navigator Mau Piailug's Micronesian traditions, and our personal experience of growing up in the Hawaii ocean. But in my past 24 years of voyaging I cannot help but recognize a deeper spirit, ancestral at the core, that has guided and led us to these many landfalls. So many times throughout the cloud-embedded evening of the previous night, the canoe slowed to a stop. If we had continued at our frantic pace we would easily have sailed by the tiny island of Rapa Nui. And why the clouds parted, showering the light of a rising sun on an island below it, I cannot explain.
As in past voyages, these "gifts" of nature happen at the most opportune times. Hokule'a has "mana" (spiritual power), Nainoa says, and I agreek. Hokule'a's mana is rooted in a deep connection to ancestral roots; to a proud and rich sea-faring history; and to a culture and heritage that has persisted through introduced disease that came close to killing us off. It is a mana that finds favorable winds to fill her sails. Mana that attracts people to believe in the power of exploration and discovery. And a mana created by the many communities of supporters who keep her sailing. Here at the last corner of Polynesia, Hokule'a will share that mana with a new fmaily, descendants of a common culture and sea, and close the triangle its peoples call home. Now as the day grows older and the sun sits high in the sky, its rays silhouette the dark shape of Rapa Nui. It warms my spirit and dries the tears on my cheeks. We have arrived.