Elisa Yadao: Living Aboard Hokule‘a
Tommy Holmes: Provisioning for Polynesian Voyages
Chad Baybayan: Traditional Foods and their Preparation for Voyaging
What Hokule'a Carries: Provisions for a Modern Voyage
Thomas Gladwin: Provisions for a Micronesian Voyage
Fishing Aboard Hokule‘a
Sealife: Fish, Birds, and Mammals of the Open Ocean
Dangers at Sea
Dr. Pat Aiu: Medical Needs Aboard Hokule‘a
Dr. Ben Young: Psychological Effects of Long Ocean Voyages
Hawaiian Terms and Phrases Used in Voyaging
Mary Kawena Pukui: Voyaging Proverbs

Dangers at Sea

The ancient voyagers faced various dangers when they ventured out to sea in their canoes. The Tahitian story of the voyager Tumu-nui, king of Tahiti, lists eight dangers: isolated-coral-rock, sea-monster, long-wave, short-wave, fish-shoal, animal-with-burning-flesh, crane-empowered-by-Ta'aroa, and giant-clam-opening-at-the-horizon.

His nephew Rata eventually destroyed six of these eight dangers of the sea, so that today, only two, long-wave and short-wave, indestructible elements of the ocean, remain to challenge voyagers.

The most potent danger faced by modern-day voyagers are high winds and seas,

Hōkūle‘a sailing in windy seas. Photo by Makanani Attwood

As a squall approaches, the most immediate concern is that the strong winds might break a mast, boom, or spar.

To prevent such breakage, the sails may be partially or fully triced (closed).

Main sails brought in to prevent damage to the mast and rigging

Hidden behind a large swell. Photos by Makanani Attwood

The sails may be lowered and changed, with smaller storm sails replacing larger sails. The smaller sails reduce the stress on the mast, spar, and boom, making it less likely that they will break.

Squally weather

Other dangers associated with storms include: (1) capsizing; (2) breaking apart; (3) flooding; (4) crew members being washed overboard. Preventive procedures include the following:

Other dangers include fire, man overboard, and serious injury or illness. A medical doctor is usually included among the crew to handle medical problems or emergencies.

Crew safety is the highest priority. The crew is screened for good health, physical conditioning, and the ability to swim and stay afloat in the open ocean. The crew is trained to handle the canoe in rough ocean conditions, and the canoe is stocked with afety equipment, including water-pumps, fire extinguishers, life jackets, safety harnesses and nets, a man-overboard float tethered to the stern of the canoe, and equipment to give the canoe's position in an emergency (GPS, Argos, EPIRB). Radio equipment allows communication with an escort boat or land stations.

Two experiences during the 1985-87 Voyage of Rediscovery illustrate life-threatening situations and how they are handled. While sailing from Aotearoa to Tonga, a crew member fell overboard in the night when his safety harness broke while he was hanging ov er the side of the canoe to use the bathroom. Luckily navigator Nainoa Thompson saw his hat float by and sounded the alarm. Part of the crew scrambled to stop the canoe by letting the wind out of the sails; the others threw in the man-overboard float; Tho mpson went out on a surfboard to retrieve the crew member. On the voyage home in 1987, a crew member developed a skin infection; as he was allergic to penicillin and none of the other medicines on the canoe worked to stop the infection, the captain finall y had to radio for help and the injured crew member was taken off the canoe by the U.S. Navy.

In 1995, a crew member on board Hawai'iloa's escort boat Kama Hele was injured while cutting up a fish the escort boat had caught. While the injury was not serious, he was medivaced off the boat by the Coast Guard since the crew did not want to risk infection of the wound on the four-week voyage to Tahiti.

Safety and Emergency Procedures (1995)
Polynesian Voyaging Society

Every crew member who leaves must return home safely. To insure that this happens, PVS takes precautions to prevent dangerous situations from occurring, and trains its crew in emergency procedures in case a dangerous situation arises.

The following are some of the many dangers a person can face at sea:

A. Person Overboard/Lost at Sea
B. Heavy Weather Emergencies
C. Canoe Disabled Due to Capsizing, Swamping, or Breaking Apart
D. Fire
E. Personal Injuries
F. Illness
G. Collision and Hull Damage
H. Running Aground

The equipment and procedures outlined below are designed to prevent severe damage or injury or loss of life in case of an emergency.


A. Equipment Required On All Voyages

B. Equipment Required On Open Ocean Voyages


An escort vessel is required by the Polynesian Voyaging Society on all voyages in motorless-canoes. The escort boat assists in towing and emergency situations. The canoe captain is the primary command; the escort boat captain takes orders from the canoe captain.


1.1 Meets minimum U.S. Coast Guard and Federal equipment requirements for safety.
1.2 Range (Fuel)
1.3 Speed
1.4 Evacuation of crew
1.5 Towing ability
1.6 Seaworthy in heavy winds and sea conditions
1.7 Communications: VHF, cellular
1.8 Navigation: GPS or other accurate positioning equipment
1.9 Maneuverability
1.10 Qualified captains and crew

2. Route, time of day and position of sail are all factors in selection of escort boats.

2.1 Interisland, Night Sailing, More than 8 miles from shore.
2.2 Coastal port to port (same island and daylight hours only).
2.3 Near shore (return to port of departure, daylight hours only).

The Escort Vessel Procedures on Open Ocean Voyages

Picking Up The Tow at Sea

In relatively calm seas in the daytime, with an escort boat that is maneuverable and a relatively skilled driver at the wheel, the canoe slows down by tricing the back sail, and the escort boat approaches parallel to the canoe on the downwind side; someone on the canoe tosses the end of the tow rope to the escort boat. When the seas are rough or at night, the tow line is deployed in the water off of the canoe and the escort boat picks up the line from the water, keeping a safe distance from the canoe. The following are procedures for deploying the tow line at sea.


At Night


A. Person Overboard/Lost at Sea

1. Prevention

It is very possible for a person to fall off a canoe unnoticed and drown or be lost at sea. In general every crew member must know how to swim and be comfortable enough in the open ocean to remain calm if he or she fell overboard.

PVS requires crew members to be able to swim at least 500 yards in deep, open water, and to stay afloat at least one hour in the water.

While on the canoe, the following guidelines could prevent you from falling overboard and increase your chances of being rescued if you do fall overboard.

  1. Stay within the safety railing. If you have to go outside the safety railing (e.g. to relieve yourself or to adjust lines), put on a safety harness and attach it to the canoe. 
  2. The safety harness is fallible. One of your hands should be holding onto the canoe whenever possible.
  3. Anytime you go outside the railing, especially when it is dark, let someone know. When working outside the safety railing, make sure someone on deck is watching you as you work.
  4. Be aware of where your buddy and fellow crew members are and what they are doing; warn them if something they are doing appears unsafe; watch them when they go near the edge of the canoe.=
  5. Wear a life vest in rough weather, or at all times, if you are not sure about your ability to swim and stay afloat.

2. Emergency Procedure

In case a crew member falls overboard, the following procedures should be followed:

The person who falls in the water should do the following:

  1. Alert the crew. Shout for help, without swallowing water. Don’t panic.
  2. Be aware of fish hooks and fishing lines dragging behind the canoe.
  3. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to swim to the canoe if the canoe is moving faster than you can swim. Save your strength.
  4. Stay downwind of the canoe if possible.
  5. If a man overboard life ring and pole have been thrown into the water, swim to the man overboard pole as quickly as possible and attach the life ring to yourself. The top strobe light will have been turned on by someone on the canoe; .once you attached yourself to the life ring, turn the second strobe light on to signal that you are securely attached. The crew will then pull you back to the canoe.
  6. Stay afloat. Conserve energy. Let your crew members do the rest.

The crew of the canoe should perform all of the following actions simultaneously. Each crew member must be able to perform any of the actions described below to prevent loss of life in a person overboard emergency. If such an emergency  occurs, a crew member should survey the canoe to see where he or she is needed and act accordingly:


2. CONTACT THE ESCORT BOAT: The radio operator should use the VHF radio or other communcation device to alert the escort boat of the emergency; he or she should keep trying until the escort boat is contacted. If radio contact cannot be established, the operator should try to get the attention of the escort boat by  (1) signaling with a strobe light or strong flashlight to transmit an SOS signal (at night), (2) shooting off a flare or sounding a power horn or whistle (day or night), (3) using an orange smoke signal, a mirror, an orange flag, or arm signals (day).


While the spotter, the radio operator, and the person paying out the line attached to the person-overboard pole are occupied with their tasks, the rest of the crew must stop the canoe by taking the following actions:

•      Turn the canoe into the wind (person on the steering sweep)
•      Release the sheet lines
•      Close the sails and lower the spar and boom to the deck.

If the canoe can be paddled (e.g., Eala), after the spar and boom are down, paddle back toward where the spotter is pointing.

4. RETRIEVE THE PERSON: Once two strobe lights are seen flashing on the person overboard pole, we know that the person in the water has now attached himself or herself to the life ring. The captain will issue the command to haul in on the safety line. AT NO TIME IS ANYONE TO LEAVE THE CANOE  WITHOUT PVS APPROVAL TO SWIM AFTER THE PERSON OVERBOARD.


B. Heavy Weather Emergencies

1. Prevention

Always check the weather before you depart. Watch the weather for up to a week in advance of a voyage so you are aware of the weather trends. Know what your crew and canoe can handle, and avoid going out in weather that will endanger lives or property.

Keep the canoe in top shape through regular inspections and maintenance.  Be sure the right kind of safety equipment and gear are on board. Be sure the crew has been well trained, and well briefed about what to do in case of weather-related emergencies.

Be sure your plan for the trip includes awareness of safe havens: places you can tuck into in case the weather goes bad.

2. Emergency Procedure

Should the canoe run into heavy weather, the follow guidelines may help you get through it safely:

  1. Increase the number of crew on watch by going from a 3-watch to a 2-watch system; more frequent checks of the holds to insure that the canoe is not taking on water.
  2. Put on (1) life vests, (2) foul weather gear, and (3) safety harness. If you have to abandon the canoe, you will take off (1) your safety harness, then (2) your foul weather gear.
  3. Reduce the sail area (trice the sails, lower the sails, or put up smaller sails) to prevent the mast from breaking or the canoe from capsizing in strong gusts of wind. Some sail area may be necessary to maneuver in a storm; a jib may be enough. The person in command will make the decision on how much sail to leave up.
  4. Lighten the canoe; however, don’t throw anything overboard that you may need for survival. The person in command will make the decision on what, if anything should be thrown overboard.
  5. Make sure all the hatch covers are securely fastened.
  6. Tie down anything that you don’t want washed overboard.
  7. Keep the hull compartments pumped, if this can been done without allowing more water in than you can pump out.
  8. The best sailing strategy is to maneuver out of the track of and away from the storm—if you can make an educated guess about which way the storm is moving. A broad reach is safer than downwind sailing as you can avoid accidental jibing. If you have to run downwind, tack rather than jibe as you head downwind.
  9. Head for the safest place; sometimes this means heading toward a protected shore or a harbor; at other times, this may mean heading into the wind and out to sea away from a rocky coastline and riding out the storm on the open ocean.If you feel you have to heave-to (stop sailing), you have two choices: point the canoe either into the wind and seas or away from the wind and seas. If you are on the side of the storm that is blowing you into the storm track, you want to point into the wind and seas to slow your progress; if you are on the side of the storm that is blowing you away from the storm track, you want to put the winds and seas behind you, so that they will push you away from the storm.

C. Canoe Disabled Due to Capsizing, Swamping, or Breaking Apart

1. Prevention

Before departure, make sure your canoe is seaworthy (e.g., hull for damage, check lashings). During a voyage, monitor the water level in all compartments. In heavy weather, reduce sail area and turn the bow or stern into the direction of the seas to reduce the possibility of capsizing. To prevent the canoe from breaking apart, use rope collars to support hulls to ‘iako (cross beams). The weak point of a canoe is the “wae,” where the ‘iako are attached to the hulls.)

2. Emergency Procedure

If the canoe capsizes, swamps, or breaks apart, everyone should stay together with the canoe, or whatever part of it that remains afloat. The escort boat will rescue the crew, removing one crew member at a time, using the following procedure:

1. The escort boat will trail a polypropylene line next to the canoe.

2. The person in command will designate one crew member at a time to enter the water and grab the rope.

3. The person in the water will pull himself or herself to the rear of the escort boat when told to do so by the person in command and will be helped aboard the escort boat by its crew.

D. Fire

1. Prevention

Do not use lighters, matches or other things capable of staring fires on board the canoe. Smoking is prohibited. If cooking is necessary (e.g., on long voyages for cooking), cook only in the cooking box. Should a fire break out in the cooking box, close the cover to cut off the oxygen supply of the fire and prevent it from spreading.

2. Emergency Procedures

Maneuvering the Vessel if a Fire Occurs: While crew members are fighting a fire, the position of the vessel to the wind is critical in dealing with the effects of the fire. If the fire is in the bow of the canoe and the bow is towards the wind, all the smoke and gases from the fire will blow towards the stern, which greatly reduces the ability of the crew to fight the fire and steer the canoe. In this situation the canoe should be turned downwind so that the smoke and flames blow away from the crew and canoe. This action also guards against the possibility of the fire spreading to other parts of the canoe.

In case of fire do the following:

1. Apply appropriate available extinguishing agent. Fires are classified into three categories:

Class A - Fires in ordinary combustible material such as wood, paper and cloth. (Use type A extinguisher or water to douse the flames.)

Class B - Fires in inflammable petroleum products or other flammable liquids and greases (Use type B extinguisher to extinguish the flames.)

Class C - Fires involving electrical equipment (on canoes with electrical systems to run lights and radios. (Use type C extinguisher to extinguish the flames.)

2. Only type A fires can be extinguished with water. If you can, grab what’s burning and throw it over-board. Also if a fire breaks out inside the hold of the canoe, simply place the hatch cover over the hold cutting off the oxygen needed for the fire to burn.  If possible, dump the burning material overboard.

3. Reduce the air supply to the fire by maneuvering the canoe to reduce the effect of the wind and closing hatch covers and flaps to the compartments.

4. Radio escort vessel for help. Put on life jackets and prepare to abandon ship if ordered to do so.

E. Personal Injuries

1. Prevention

General fitness helps prevent injuries on the canoe. Sailing a canoe involves some heavy work; e.g. lifting the spar and boom, pulling up an anchor, pulling the canoe to shore, etc.. Paddling or pumping, while lighter work, can be a strain on your body.  The more fit you are, the less likely you will injure yourself in any of these tasks.

Be aware of the possible dangers to yourself and to your fellow crew members: e.g. the spar and boom when they are being lowered or raised can fall; the boom during an accidental jib can blindside you; the steering sweep and blades can kick up and knock you down, or slam you or your hand against a railing. Be careful with sharp objects such as knives and fishhooks. Watch for moving lines, such as those attached to dropping anchors or spars; such lines can entangle you and pull you down.

The sun at midday can cause severe burns; constant exposure can cause skin cancer. Wearing sunscreen, a hat, darkglasses and something with long sleeves can prevent burn or other sun-related injuries.

2. Emergency Procedure

On board the canoe, a first aid kit is available. In case of severe injury, the escort boat can take you to land, where you can receive the necessary treatment.

Evacuation by a Coast Guard or Naval Vessel is a possibility in case of severe injury or illness. Dr. Pat Aiu, a PVS crew member, recommends the following procedures.

Medical Evacuation Procedures

During a crisis emergency, the doc will have to use the radio. I have an advantage in that I know how to run radios from my military experiences. If you don't already know how to operate a radio, I would advise you to learn. In an emergency, the call is yours and you must speak one on one to the Coast Guard or Navy Doc in charge, who will then decide if a ship or plane should be sent out, particularly if the distress is farther than 500 miles from land.

Our Coast Guard is good for 600 miles plus or minus a few and the Navy may go further, but generally they like you to be inside of 500 miles. At sea you get help from any source you can. On every island group we visited, I met, talked to and learned the c all sign of every radio operator who came forth. Then at sea, I would call all of them to stay in contact. Since I was the radio operator on board, I felt it was within my job to be able to contact any one


1. Turn on your GPS unit to get the canoe's position.

2. Contact your escort boat on channel 16 VHF and describe the emergency and the help you are
requesting. Ask the escort boat for help in calling for help from any boat or ship in the area. Watch the voltage of the batteries. If the voltages are below 12.5, let the escort boat try to call for help on its single-side band radio and save your power for communicating with the escort boat. If the voltages are above 12.5, try 3 and 4 below.

3. Use the single side-band to contact the US Coast Guard on channels A9-A13 or through KMI on channels B1-B9. Break into any conversation by saying: "MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! This is WBJ3292, Sailing Vessel Hokule'a, Position [Give longitude and latitude in degrees and minutes from GPS unit]," then describe the emergency and the kind of help you are requesting.

4. If you are unable to raise the Coast Guard for some reason, try Peace-Sat at UH Manoa during working hours on Channels C1-C7 (One of these channels will be designated as the priority channel.)

5. If numbers 2, 3, and 4 fail, go to general SOS to any ship in the area.

Six hundred to a thousand miles out from Hawai'i where no one is close or in range, the decision is yours; to turn around, or push for our Coast Guard or Navy safety net, and obviously the condition of your patient would dictate what you decide.

If you are in the vicinity of an island group, then you can if you have kept in touch, call a local radio ham and they can patch to Hawai'i or a facility by phone. You must let someone know if you have an emergency. Often the escort vessel will not have any more luck than you on their radio. If you happen to be in an inversion zone and can not send or receive, the escort will probably be in it too. Just keep trying, don't give up--ever.

F. Illness

1. Prevention

Nothing can ruin a sail like seasickness. To prevent it, avoid eating greasy foods before setting out, get enough rest, and avoid hangovers from alcohol consumption. Patches, pills, wrist bands and powdered ginger (a traditional preventive medicine) can help prevent seasickness. A person who loves the sea can find ways of preventing or minimizing seasickness. Luckily, it is a temporary condition that improves remarkably once a person gets back on land.

The dizziness and nausea of seasickness is caused by the brain’s inability to adjust to the constant motion of the canoe. On the canoe, avoid being in a space or looking at something that is constantly moving (e.g., entering a hold, looking at the mast); staring at the steady horizon can help your brain maintain its sense of balance. Also, there is less motion at midship than there is fore and aft.

To avoid other illnesses on a voyage of several days or weeks, take care of your health by sleeping and exercising regularly and eating healthy foods before and during the voyage.

On the canoe, practice sanitation to maintain a clean, healthy environment for everyone. Be considerate: clean up after yourself and keep food from spoiling by keeping it in the shade or the ice chest.

If you have a serious or potentially serious medical condition, you should inform your captain or a PVS representative about it before going on a voyage, even if it means you may not be allowed to sail. During a sail, it may be very difficult, if not impossible to get you back to shore in time for the right kind of treatment.

2. Emergency Procedure

Some illnesses can be treated with rest and medication on the canoe. In severe cases, the escort boat will take you to land, where you can receive the necessary treatment. For emergency evacuation procedures, see “E. Personal Injuries.”

G. Collision / Hull Damage

1. Prevention

To avoid collisions with other vessels, pay attention to the boat traffic around you, looking 360˚ around your vessel regularly. Study and follow the rules of the road. (See “Right of Way” and “Avoiding Collisions”). Watch for debris in the water that could damage the hull.

2. Emergency Procedure

H. Running Aground

1. Prevention

To avoid running aground, study charts of the course you plan to sail and mark dangerous (i.e., shallow) spots. Check on the tides for each day of your voyage in coastal waters or near islands. Watch for signs of shallow water (e.g., light green) as you sail.

2. Emergency Procedure

Here are some guidelines for dealing with a canoe that has run aground.