Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

Nainoa Thompson: Searching for a Way (1976-1978)

Hokule'a's first voyage in 1976 was from Honolua Bay, Maui, to Papeete, Tahiti-a distance of twenty-five hundred miles.

Back in the early seventies, before Hokule'a was even built, when they were putting the dream together, they said, "we need to get a Polynesian navigator"-someone who could sail to Tahiti in the way the ancient Hawai'ians had, a navigator who could find the way without modern instruments. There was no one in Hawai'i. The only navigator that was known to be left on earth was a man by the name of Tevake. He came from a small island - not in Polynesia - but in a Polynesian outlier in Melanesia. A group from Hawai'i went down to his island to talk to him to see if he could navigate a canoe that wasn't even built. They explained the project and all Tevake said was, "we'll see." He gave no commitment. That is the old way. And the group went back to Hawai'i and six months after that trip the group received a letter from Tevake's daughter. Apparently Tevake had an old canoe house in which there was an old canoe that he never used. But one day he got up, said good-bye to his whole family, got on the canoe, went to sea and never came back. That's the way that Tevake was - the old way. He chose his life to be in the ocean and it was there that he chose his death.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society eventually found a traditional navigator to guide Hokule'a--Mau Pialug from the Island of Satawal in Micronesia. To provide for his people, Mau still sailed double-hulled canoes for long distances across the Pacific, guided only by the stars and his knowledge of the ocean. Mau was willing to come.

In 1976, Hokule'a sailed on its historic voyage to Tahiti. Kawika Kapahulehua skippered the canoe, and Mau Piailug was the navigator. Never before had Mau been on such a far journey, never before had he been south of the equator where he could not see the north star, a key guide for his travels. Nevertheless, sensing his way over 2,500 miles, using clues from the ocean world and the heavens, cues often unnoticeable to the untrained eye, he found, after 30 days of sailing, the island of Mataiva, an atoll in the Tuamotu Island group!

At the arrival into Papeete Harbor, over half the island was there, more than 17,000 people. The canoe came in, touched the beach. There was an immediate response of excitement by everybody, including the children. So many children got onto the canoe it sunk the stern. We were politely trying to get them off the rigging and everything else, just for the safety of the canoe. None of us were prepared for that kind of cultural response -- something very important was happening. These people have great traditions and they have great genealogies of canoes and great navigators. What they didn't have was a canoe. And when Hokule'a arrived at the beach, there was a spontaneous renewal, I think, of both the affirmation of what a great heritage we come from, but also a renewal of the spirit of who we are as a people today. (Polynesian Union Speech)

So it was possible after all for the Polynesians to have come from Tahiti with their double-hulled canoes to settle Hawai'i!

But Mau did not sail back to Hawai'i with Hokule'a. There had been trouble during the long sail to Tahiti on the small canoe without customary comforts. Some of the crew did not have the required discipline, and Mau quietly returned to his island in the western Pacific, leaving the tape-recorded message behind for the crew, "Do not come look for me; you will not find me." Hokule'a had to be navigated back with the help of a magnetic compass and modern instruments. This was an unfortunate turn of events: Nainoa could have already then learned much from Mau about navigating the traditional Polynesian way.

Another Voyage? 1976-78

... a small group of dreamers, Nainoa among them, dreamed of another voyage to Tahiti where, relying on their own knowledge, they would be able to repeat the feat accomplished by Mau. In losing Mau, the Polynesian Voyaging Society had lost an invaluable teacher who could have helped the crew of Hokule'a learn the old ways. However, they tried to learn on their own the ways of the past. Nainoa was interested in navigation but had little knowledge of the stars, of navigation, of ocean currents and swells, of winds and the clouds, and the habits of birds-all providing cues to the navigator to his whereabouts and to finding land. He buried his head in astronomy books, making sense of the stars, the sun, the moon. While studying ocean sciences at the University of Hawai'i, he was teaching himself to navigate the canoe.

And the crew sailed, experimented, and learned. Once on an extended training voyage, Nainoa, navigating the Hokule'a with limited knowledge, had an experience that shook his confidence. "The moon rose in a place I didn't expect. I expected the full moon to rise in the same place the sun had risen in the morning, but it came up somewhat to the south! Why? I thought I had understood the relationships between the path of the sun and the moon fully. This just didn't make sense.

"When I got back home, I grabbed my astronomy books, but I couldn't find an answer in them-I had no teacher! I thought the planetarium at the Bishop Museum might have an answer to this riddle. They said, 'Sorry, we don't have time to help you. Try Will Kyselka.' So at 6 A.M., I called Will and said, 'I've got this problem with the moon!"'

Will, whatever he might have thought about this strange problem and the phone call at such an odd hour, invited Nainoa to meet him at the planetarium to explore the simulated heavens together. And, this is how Will, nourishing Nainoa's hunger for knowledge, became one of Nainoa's revered teachers. Will writes about how Nainoa used the planetarium to learn about the stars.

In the darkness of the planetarium, he could see in a flash what might have taken years of observing the sky to comprehend. He had expected the sun and the Full Moon to rise at the same point on the horizon; but he found that was not necessarily so. [The planetarium allowed him to study the shift in the moon's rising and setting paths as it completes its monthly cycles.] Immediately he saw why the picture of the sun-moon relationship he had been carrying in his head did not fit the reality of the event he had witnessed on that most perplexing night at sea.

Nainoa recalls the end of that helpful visit to the planetarium; "I still wanted to learn so much from Will, but I didn't think it proper to ask him. I thought that would be an imposition, that he was so busy. But Will must have sensed my wish because he finally said, 'Why don't you come back again!' I had found someone who cared, who was willing to give up time to help another person learn!

"We spent hundreds of hours together at the planetarium. I would figure out at home what I didn't know and then come to Will at the plane-tarium with my questions. And together we would look at the different skies to find answers. Will was teaching me the fundamentals of the skies and how they can be reduced to geometry, to math, and science."

Will Kyselka paints a picture of these intense learning sessions at the planetarium.

"Canopus at the meridian," says Nainoa. The machine whirs and stars rush across the sky as I bring the second brightest star in the sky to the meridian.

"Now slow Nainoa and Bruce team up to collect data, one watching the eastern horizon and the other the western for the rising and setting of bright stars. We move through the first night in ten minutes, each of them calling out the moment an important star rises or sets.... (Ocean in Mind)

Nainoa writes in his notebook: At 20° North [the latitude of Hawai'i], Gienah rises as the tail of Canis Major reaches the meridian. Avior is almost at the meridian when Spica and Hokule'a are rising. With Regulus at the meridian, the False Cross and Southern Cross are tilted at the same angle.

In 1978, the second voyage of Hokule'a to Tahiti was to take place. Nainoa was keen to learn more about the ancient way of navigation. By actually trying to navigate Hokule'a using only the stars and ocean cues as guides on this long voyage, he wished to expand on the learning gained from books, the planetarium, and the short voyages in Hawai'ian waters. The accuracy of his course was to be checked by someone with a sextant and modern instruments. Nainoa would only be given that information if they were dangerously off-course.

Nainoa hesitates and looks away. "It's only fair to mention that it wasn't all perfect and glorious. We made mistakes. I must tell you about Eddie, because he had, and still has, great influence on me; he's one of my great teachers." Nainoa tells of how Hokule'a, a few hours after leaving Honolulu harbor, capsized in the Moloka'i Channel and floated upside down, the crew clinging to her overturned hulls. For hours airplanes flew overhead between the islands but did not spot them. Fearing that they might drift ever further away from help, Eddie Aikau, lifeguard on the big surf beach of the North Shore of O'ahu and at home on his surfboard in even 30-foot waves, left on a surfboard to get help. Eddie was never seen again, Hokule'a finally found.

"Come, I want to show you something." Nainoa steps into another room and points to a picture of a young man, tanned with long hair, smiling, and looking as if about to talk with you-it is Eddie. "Eddie had this dream about finding islands the way our ancestors did. Whenever I feel down, I look at Eddie and I recall his dream. He was a great teacher. He was a lifeguard ... he guarded life, and he lost his own, trying to guard ours. Eddie cared about others and took care of others. He had great dreams, he had great passions.

"After Eddie's death, we could have quit. But then Eddie wouldn't have had his dream fulfilled. He was my spirit. He was saying to me, 'Raise those islands.' His tragedy also made us aware of how dangerous our adventure was, how unprepared we were in body and in spirit." Is it perhaps from trying to make sense of Eddie's tragic death that Nainoa has come to understand that success should not be measured by the outcome of something we do but by "reaching a new place within ourselves?"