Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

Nainoa Thompson: Childhood and Schooling

[This short biography of Nainoa's early life is from "The Ocean Is My Classroom" by Gisela E. Speidel, Editor of The Kamehameha Journal of Education, and Kristina Inn, Associate Editor. Published in The Kamehameha Journal of Education (Fall 1994), Vol. 5, 11-23.]

Nainoa grew up on his grandfather's dairy and chicken farm in Niu Valley-when the valley was still all country. It was Yoshio Kawano, the milkman, who introduced the ocean to Nainoa. Dawn would often find Nainoa sitting on Yoshi's doorstep, waiting for Yoshi to take him fishing. Yoshi would bundle Nainoa into the old car, and off they'd go to fish in the streams or on the reefs. He came to be at home with the ocean, feeling the wind, the rain, the spray against his body. To the five-year-old Nainoa, the ocean was huge, wild, free, and open. The ocean and the wind were always changing; this was so different from the serenity of the mountains and the farm. Nainoa came to sense and feel the tune of the ocean world, develop-ing a personal relationship with the sea. These early experiences, Nainoa thinks, were an essential preparation for becoming a navigator: "We learn differently when we are young; our understanding is intuitive and unencumbered."

Nainoa learned from Yoshio; he learned from Dad, from Mom, from Grandma and Grandpa; he learned from those who loved him and showed him kindness. Nainoa thrived.

This all changed with school! How different learning was in school! Teachers were not close personal friends who cared for you, whom you trusted. One grade-school teacher made him stand the whole period in the back of the classroom with his face against the wall. More than 30 years later, Nainoa remembers sharply his mortification; what he doesn't remember is what he did to deserve that punishment.

Nainoa recalls, "My family didn't push competition. The idea of competition didn't make sense to me. Why should I compete with my friends, the guys I liked and played with? The idea of grades didn't make sense. What do grades have to do with learning. Learning should be something very special, very exciting. Rather than learning eagerly, I found that I was spending my energy avoiding bad grades. School should be relevant, exciting, and interesting. I used to ask, 'Why are we reading this book? Why are we reading about dead people in faraway lands?"'

Was it the teacher who had made him stand facing the wall who told his parents she worried that Nainoa was mentally slow? Or was it the tester who tested him for entry into Punahou School' at third grade? Nainoa hadn't answered any of her questions because, as he explained to his dad, "I didn't know who she was." Whatever the cause, Dad decided to have Nainoa's intelligence tested by a psychologist-a family friend, a friend whom Nainoa trusted. Result: Nainoa scored off the top of the intelligence scale. But, the psychologist sensed Nainoa's need for trusting and caring teachers and predicted trouble for Nainoa's learning under typical classroom conditions.

Nainoa now realizes this: "It was really important to me that I could trust a teacher and feel the teacher cared for me; Mrs. Hefty, she was great! She was my fifth-grade teacher. She was so understanding and sincere; she cared for me. Intuitively, she knew how to reach out to me. With her, I had no fear of failing; I could learn anything from her." Mrs. Hefty must have, indeed, been special. She lives on the mainland now, but Nainoa still corresponds with her, and whenever he comes back home from one of his long and dangerous voyages on Hokule'a, a letter is there from Mrs. Hefty to welcome him back and to congratulate him.

Upon graduating from Punahou School, Nainoa was unsure of where he was heading. For a while, he spent his time fishing and working in construction, driving dump trucks, ... and he started to paddle outrigger canoes at the Hui Nalu Canoe Club.

Nainoa's eyes light up as he recalls, "It was the first year I was paddling, and 1 happened to be at the right place at the right time. Across the canal from the club, Herb Kane was living. Just at that time, Herb, Tommy Holmes, and Ben Finney were designing Hokule'a. It was 1974, and the canoe hadn't been built yet. They had a smaller canoe then, and they'd ask us to paddle it out of the canal over the reef into the open ocean. That was great! I was at the club every day so I could paddle the canoe out.

"Then one day, Herb invited two of the paddling coaches and me over to his house. Herb's house was filled with paintings and pictures of canoes, nautical charts, star charts, and books everywhere! Interesting books! Over dinner Herb told us how they were going to build a canoe and sail it 2,500 miles without instruments-the old way. 'We're gonna follow the stars, and the canoe is gonna be called after that star" Herb said, pointing to the star Hokule'a. This voyage would help to show that the Polynesians came here by sailing and navigating their canoes-not just happening to drift here on ocean currents or driven by winds. The voyage would do something very important for the Hawai'ian people and for the rest of the world.

"In that moment, all the parts connected in me that had seemed unconnected in my life. I was 20! I was looking for something challenging and meaningful! I had a hard time finding that in the four walls of the school. Here it was- in the history, the heritage, the charts, the stars, the ocean, and the dream ... there was so much relevance in that dream. I wanted to follow Herb; I wanted to be part of that dream."

Did the dream, at that time, include becoming a wayfinder? "Oh, no! At that time, all I wanted was to be part of that dream to sail to Tahiti on the Hokule'a; all I wanted was to learn all I could about sailing.

"Herb told us what the requirements would be to sail to Tahiti. We would have to go through a training program in which we would learn all about the canoe and how to sail her, and there would be physical training and training in teamwork. They would select the best 30 from the several hundred who participated in training.

"When Hokule'a was completed in Spring 1975, I participated in the training and was assigned to the return crew! If I want to do something, I can be very disciplined. My dream was coming true!"