Hokule'a Kapena Leon Sterling

(Report by Rob Shikina The Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

Leon A.P. Sterling, a skilled mariner and longtime member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, will be remembered at a service tomorrow on Maui.

He died June 11 in hospice care after his condition deteriorated from a fall years ago, his brother said. He was 64.

Beginning in the 1970s, Sterling worked with the Polynesian Voyaging Society for 25 years, captaining the Hokule'a and maintaining the vessel at the dock.

A skilled carpenter and rope worker, he worked as a longshoreman for McCabe Hamilton and Renny for 11 years later in life.

Sterling graduated from Kailua High School and later took seamanship classes, said his brother, Wayne.

"There was something about the ocean that he discovered at a very young age," he said. "He was truly at peace when he was on the water."
He sailed on the Hokule'a to Tahiti, New Zealand and other places and captained the vessel from New Zealand to Tonga and Tonga to American Samoa in 1986.

Leon (left) with Dr. Pat Aiu, 1985

Snake Ah Hee was on the same crew with Sterling on several voyages, including to New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Tahiti. He said Sterling was essential.

"To me he's one of the top people sailing on the canoe," Ah Hee said. "His ability was so great. You admire him because you learn from him, too."
When the Hokule'a overturned in 1978 and crew members were adrift for about 20 hours, Sterling continued checking on the boat and doing what he could to help others who were worn down from hanging onto the canoe, Ah Hee said.

Sterling helped lash a rope along the boat to keep the crew members safe, he said. When the Coast Guard arrived, Sterling and a few others stayed to keep watch over the canoe.

Besides sailing on the vessel, Sterling also prepared it for voyages, such as on the trip to Vancouver, British Columbia. As captain, he kept a tight watch to ensure everyone was safe, Hee said.

Sterling died several hours apart from his ex-wife, Jo-Anne Kahanamoku Sterling, who was also a longtime member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. The couple sailed together, including a 34-day sail from Hawaii to Tahiti.

Sterling was married for 35 years to Kahanamoku Sterling, who was known as a master of Hawaiian feather lei making and niece of Duke Kahanamoku. She died in her home in Hilo.

Excerpts from a report in the Maui News, by Kekoa Enomoto. POSTED: June 13, 2010

Sterling was born Aug. 13, 1945, in Honolulu. He captained the Hokule'a for its voyages in 1985 from Rarotonga (Cook Islands) to Aotearoa (New Zealand) and on to Tonga, and its 1986 voyage from Tonga to American Samoa.

Tribute from Nainoa Thompson: "Leon was considered by all of us to be one of the strongest sailors and ocean men physically and spiritually. "You could count on him, no matter how calm or how rough the ocean was. He always had that ability to never, never panic. Because of that physical strength and kind of spiritual strength, Leon kept everybody calm under times of crisis on the ocean, and the critical times allowed his leadership to emerge.

"For all of us who grew up as students of his, Leon was the standard of what ocean voyaging leadership needed to be, and he was the inspiration at the same time. We all looked to him when times were toughest. He was an extra strong man, simply tough as nails. The ocean can wear you down, but with Leon, the more rough the ocean became, the more attuned and happy he became."

Sterling, who worked as a stevedore 11 years for McCabe, Hamilton and Renny out of Kahului Harbor, is survived by his wife, Donna Dean Sterling; two stepdaughters, Paige Harrison and Emily Simpson; two stepsons, Christopher (Jacelyn) Simpson and Scott (Maurissa) Simpson; a brother, Wayne Sterling; two sisters, Marion Salazar and Becky Kala; and 12 stepgrandchildren.

A Tribute to Leon and Joanne, by Kaimana Barcuse and Kalepa Baybayan

Leon, Joanne, and Harry Ho, from Will Kyselka's An Ocean in Mind (1987)

Mai ka ulu koa o uka a i ka ulu koa o kai
Ua kani ka papa waʻa i ka hoʻi o ke aloha

E kūnou nā kia me he niu moe
No Paoa lāua ʻo Kahanamoku

From the upland koa forest, to the koa forest on the sea
The core of the canoe has sounded at the departure of the loved ones

Let the masts bow as the laid over niu tree
In honor of Paoa and Kahanamoku

A kanikau, chant of mourning composed by Kaimana Barcarse.

Jo-Anne Kamuela Kahanamoku and Leon Alfred Paoa Sterling were significant contributors to the revitalization of the modern day voyaging movement and its establishment as a dynamic part of Hawaii’s culture. The former husband and wife team passed away on the morning of June 11th.

The daughter of Sam Kahanamoku and the niece of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, former Olympic Medalist both in swimming, Joanne possessed an inherited natural ability to perform well while being on the ocean. Kahanamoku was a former Polynesian Voyaging Society vice-president, serving in that capacity in the formative years of the organization. She was a crewmember on the 1980 voyage to Tahiti, 1986 voyage from Tonga to Samoa, and the 1995 voyage within the Society Islands.

Leon was the First Mate aboard Hokule’a on the 1978, 1980, and 1985 Voyage of Rediscovery. He served as Captain on the 1986 sail from New Zealand through Tonga and Samoa. He also participated on the West Coast voyage of Hokule’a from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia. He last sailed aboard Hokule’a in 1999 as the Watch Captain from Hilo to the Marquesas.

They came to voyaging as a couple in 1975, beginning with the Hui o Wa’a Kaulua aboard the Mo’olele, training off of West Maui and the waters between Moloka’i and Lana’i. In 1976, they sailed the Mo’olele to the Big Island, sailing and camping along the Kona coast. They eventually returned to the Big Island to reside in 1977 and when Hokule’a arrived in the spring, Leon filled in as captain on some of the training sails. Leon was aboard the 1978 trip in which Hokule’a capsized and he and Joanne were instrumental as a catalyst in the restoration of the canoe.

For those of us who knew them, their simultaneous passing in different locations remains an inexplicable mystery, something connected to the deed of a greater power. Nonetheless, there seems to be an appropriateness in the manner in which the passing of these two people, so intimately connected for much of their lives, unfolded.

In their life together and apart, they touched many hearts. Their legacy lives on in those of us who continue the daunting challenge of keeping fledgling voyaging programs afloat in the most challenging of times.

E kuhi ka ihu I ka ‘ale kualoloa.
Keep the bows pointed toward the broad back swells of the open ocean.

Kaimana captured this picture of two 'iwa (frigate birds) circling above Hokule'a as she sailed back to METC after scattering Joanne's ashes.