Aboard Hokule'a, 10/7/99

by Sam Low

"Sweep!" With this command from the watch captain, four beefy sailors jump to put the steering sweep into the ocean to bring Hokulea off the wind. We have been sailing in choppy seas under a completely occluded sky dome for hours. At times, the rain slants hard across the decks. Rivulets cascade off the sails which have been trimmed so Hokule`a can mostly steer herself. But in gusts, she tends to swing up into the wind, her sails luffing as a warning to her attendant crew that she needs help.

"Sweep," comes the command from the navigator. We jump to the paddle and struggle, even though there are 4 of us, to help our canoe regain her course.

We are now living in our heavy weather gear--working, eating and sleeping fully tented in glassy yellow Patagonia slickers--long jackets and pants with bibs like a farmer or carpenter might wear--only these pants are made of high-tech material that sheds water, provides insulation, and breathes allowing our sweat to trickle off our bodies in hot weather. The weather during this particular evening is far from hot however. A chilled 25-knot wind blows over our Port bow. Amazingly, Hokule'a seems to be enjoying herself. She rides easily over the swells and slices through the chops, directing the flow of wake cleanly between her hulls. Rarely do we take seas aboard and when we do the canoe shakes herself slightly to clear her decks. These are the times when Hokule'a seems most alive--responding to the forces of nature as she was designed to, a heritage of literally thousands of years of seafaring and a testament to the knowledge of both our ancestors and the three men--Tommy Holmes, Ben Finney and Herb Kane--who first gave life to her.

During the evening of Oct. 6th and the early morning of the 7th we continue to strike south, tacking occasionally to take advantage of wind shifts, hoping the sky may provide a glimpse of our guiding stars. This does not happen. Our navigators guide us south to our rendezvous with an invisible abstraction that geographers have used for centuries to divide the earth--latitude, in this case 27 degrees 9 minutes S--with only the swells to provide direction.

After our watch is over, we seek shelter in the canvas half tents that are drawn taut along Hokule'a's flanks. Each of us is allotted a space about 6 feet long and 2 feet wide under a sloping canvas roof. On this night the roof bleeds moisture. Brackish droplets, a mixture of salt spray and rainwater, splatter intermittently on our bunks. We slither into our berths, still carapaced in our foul weather gear and try to sleep, grateful for the respite from the cold wind and the cry of "Sweep!" "Bring her down!" "Sweep!"

But one of us almost never goes below. Nainoa spends his time on deck in all weather, mostly awake, always alert to the wind, stars and swells. He catnaps in bad weather like this, a sprawled lump of yellow pants and slicker, his hood pulled tight over his head, for maybe 15 minutes at a time. The rest of us sleep at least 6 hours a day and often more, yet we still are fatigued. When asked how he does it, Nainoa replies: "I don't know. Actually, when I'm at sea I cannot sleep for long. It's just the way it is."

The wind remains somewhat unpredictable--slacking to dead calm a few hours, then picking up in a different direction. This is, of course, the classic navigator's nightmare--cloudy skies and fluky winds. At 6 a.m., Bruce, Chad and Nainoa predict that we are 28 miles N of the latitude of Rapa Nui and 217 miles W of the island. But we have sailed a zigzag course for the last few days, which makes dead reckoning difficult. Under the best of conditions, error accumulates when navigating by stars and waves--and, for the last few days the conditions have been far from the best.

For back reports on the leg to Rapa Nui, go to Rapa Nui Back Reports

For more information on the leg to Rapa Nui, go to The Mangareva-to-Rapa Nui Page

For more information on the quest for Rapa Nui, go to the PVS Homepage