“Like Surfing, But on a Much Bigger Scale”: How the Hokule’a Sails Around the World

The Hokule’a docked in New York last week for World Oceans Day. Much like surfers, crew members rely on reading the waves and the clouds as they travel the world.

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Jun 17 2016, 6:39pm

Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society

The twin crimson sails of the Hokule'a struck a stark contrast against the glass geometry of the United Nations Headquarters as it sailed against the rapid current of New York's East River. It was far from being the largest or most lavish boat to cruise these waters, and by design it's the least modern. But the rolling swells of the river only slightly rocked the Hokule'a, a double-hulled voyaging canoe as seaworthy as those that allowed some of the world's earliest known seafarers to cross the Pacific more than a thousand years ago.

New York City marked the halfway point of a planned four-year trip around the world—powered only by wind, sea, and oar—for the 12-member Hawaiian crew of Hokule'a. Landing at North Cove Marina in Tribeca last week, they were joined by several Hawaiian leaders at the UN for World Oceans Day, where they lobbied to promote healthy oceans and raise awareness of the risks island populations face due to climate change.

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The Hokule'a (named for the "Star of Gladness" that hangs over the island of Hawaii) is a 62-foot double-hulled voyaging canoe modeled after the crafts that ancient Polynesians used to reach to Hawaii as early as 400 AD. Since it first launched in 1975, the Hokule'a has logged over 140,00 nautical miles, with multiple circumnavigations of the globe; its crew, all members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, navigates by only the stars and the waves, informed by generations' worth of experience at sea.

"Voyaging sharpens all your skills to be one with the ocean," said Archie Kalepa, 50, the Hokule'a crew's head of safety and a big wave surfer from Maui. "When you're on a canoe that's very small, you don't have any instruments for navigation. You purely rely on situational awareness. You rely on being able to read the clouds and the swells. It's just like surfing, but on a much larger scale."

Crew members of the Hokule'a announce their arrival by blowing conch shells. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society

Captain James Cook, who became the first European to make formal contact with Hawaiians in 1778, gives history its first written account of surfing as we know it.

"Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost heights, they choose that time for this amusement: twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore," he wrote. "Their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore."

Cook was astonished at the sight of men and women gleefully putting themselves into what any seaman of his day would consider absolute peril—most European sailors in those days didn't know how to swim. But the Hawaiians had been on the island for more than a thousand years when Cook arrived, and their long voyages had imparted an intimate knowledge of the ocean and, in turn, an unrivaled confidence in its waters.

"The Polynesians felt the ocean was a power that connected us, not separated us," said Austin Kino, who at 28 is one of the youngest members of the Hokule'a crew. He's been training as an apprentice navigator for nearly a decade. "It only made sense that when they finally spread out and settled, and learned how to live sustainably, that they had the time to explore and have fun in the ocean—to push the limits of what's possible."

That livelihood, however, was destroyed as haoles, or Hawaiians of European ancestry, took over the island in the 19th century, overthrowing the monarchy in 1893 (with backing from the US), and imposing an extractive, sugar-based economy, built on the backbreaking labor of locals. It was a grave period of history for native Hawaiians, who suffered the loss of their land, their health, and many of their cultural traditions. Hawaii was annexed by the US in 1898, but didn't become a state until 1959.

Life aboard the Hokule'a. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society

By the 1970s, a small but growing contingent of Hawaiians looked to reconnect with their roots and preserve a cultural heritage on the verge of being lost forever. The Polynesian Voyaging Society, the organization behind Hokule'a, was founded in 1973. By that time, the celestial navigation tradition was nowhere to be found on the Hawaiian Islands; Thor Heyerdahl's controversial Kon-Tiki theory, suggesting that Polynesians arrived in Hawaii by accident rather than voyaging prowess, was still circulating. The society had to go all the way to Micronesia where one of the few remaining Polynesian celestial navigators, a man named Mau Piailug, lived. He passed on his knowledge to the Hawaiians and helped them revive the ways of their ancestors.

"When this project first started, nothing that was associated with Hawaii—or Polynesia—was considered popular. If anything, it was all expected to fail," Kino said. "When Hokule'a successfully navigated to Tahiti [from Hawaii in 1976], you saw all the culture come back, from hula to language. Now we're preserving that legacy."

Today, preserving indigenous heritage around the world is a key mission of the Hokule'a journey. At each port, whether it's in Cape Town or Manhattan, the society invites a local indigenous group to grant permission to land. In New York, the society asked permission from the Ramapough Lenape Nation, Moraviantown Delaware Nation, Shinnecock, Unkechaug, Mohegan, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. These exchanges are especially meaningful to Kino, a native Hawaiian who is committed to carrying on his cultural traditions.

"The journey is really about celebrating indigenous knowledge," said Kino, who's set to take the helm as a master navigator in 2017. "For an indigenous culture to be thriving today is rare. We've seen a cultural resurgence in Hawaii. For us to be a success story, to celebrate this knowledge, it gives people hope."