Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

Voyage To Tahiti Cancelled After Canoe Swamping-1978




Spr 1995

Sum 1995

In mid-March, 1978, Hokule`a left on a voyage to Tahiti to document a round-trip navigated without instruments. The wayfinder would be a young Hawaiian named Nainoa Thompson. The crew also planned to test traditional lauhala sails and to survive on traditionally preserved food.

The canoe left O`ahu in strong trades and high seas. Will Kyselka, in An Ocean in Mind (31) describes what happened as the canoe, south of Moloka`i, headed toward Lana`i:

"Swells were high, but the canoe had ridden out such seas before. However, this time it was heavily laden with food and supplies for a month's journey. The added weight put unusual stress on the canoe, making it difficult to handle. Turning off-wind eased the strain but it also caused the sea to wash in over the gunwales, filling the starboard compartments and depressing the lee hull. Winds pushing on the sails rotated the lighter windward hull around the submerged lee hull, now dead in the water. Five hours after leaving Ala Wai Harbor, Hokule`a was upside-down in the sea between O`ahu and Moloka`i.

"All that night [sixteen crew members] clung to the hulls of the stricken vessel, huddling to protect themselves as best they could from wind and wave. Daylight came. Airplanes flew overhead but no one saw Hokule`a. Adding to the problems of the crew was exposure to the sun, intense and nearly overhead at mid-day. Most alarming, though was the fact that the canoe was drifting away from airline routes, decreasing its chance of being spotted.

"Snake Ah Hee left on a surfboard to summon aid. When a low-flying airplane appeared, he assumed that the overturned canoe had been seen, and he returned. After a long period of waiting it became clear that it was not so.

"Eddie Aikau wanted to go for help. An expert waterman, he had saved the lives of many swimmers in trouble in the powerful surf of Waimea Bay on the north shore of O`ahu. Nainoa paddled out with him a short distance to test the surfboard and waves. Eddie would go alone. The crew, clinging to the overturned hulls, watch[ed] in silence as he rode the waves into a fate not unknown to many of the people of old who sailed toward distant lands."

Eddie Aikau was not seen again. The rest of the crew was rescued. The swamping and lost of a crew member brought a heightened concern for safety to the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Henceforth, the canoe would not voyage without an escort boat with which it would maintain regular radio communication. The hatch covers were made watertight. Finally, safety checklists and procedures, and training programs were made more rigorous; crew safety became the primary concern in preparing the canoe for a voyage.

CREW MEMBERS: HAWAI`I-TAHITI, 1978: Snake Ah Hee, Eddie Aikau, Charman Akina, Wedemeyer Au, Bruce Blankenfeld, Kilila Hugho, Sam Ka`ai, John Kruse, Dave Lyman, Marion Lyman, Buddy McGuire, Norman Pi`ianai`a, Leon Sterling, Curt Sumida, Tava Taupu, Nainoa Thompson