Rising Sea Levels: The View from a Canoe

Decades ago, the legendary journey of the open-ocean canoe Hokule‘a revealed secrets of Hawai‘i’s past and sparked pride in native culture. Now, a voyage around the world offers a new generation lessons about Earth’s uncertain future.
Kids play under the 62-foot double hull of canoe Hokule‘a, off Kailua.
Photo by Taylor Boger

This article from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. It has not been updated.

Haunani Kane rises from the hulls of Hokule‘a, the legendary double-hulled Hawaiian canoe. She stretches her back, stiff from squatting in the tight space where she’s been sanding fiberglass. She removes her protective gear and scrunches up her face. “It gets so sticky,” says the 24-year-old.

The old Hawaiian proverb komo mai kau mapuna hoe means “dip your paddle in” or join the effort, and Kane is one of a dozen volunteers gathered on this warm August evening at the Marine Education Training Center outside downtown Honolulu to restore a boat that rewrote history.

In 1976, Hokule‘a’s voyage to Tahiti helped prove that ancient Polynesians were not drifters who accidentally discovered the Hawaiian Islands, but expert navigators. The boat launched a cultural revival in Hawai‘i. But when it was dry-docked last year on O‘ahu and stripped down to its shell, it was rotten from sailing 140,000 nautical miles.

Kane is part of a group called Kapu Na Keiki—meaning “to hold the children sacred”—young voyagers who are now helping repair and restore Hokule‘a with the hope of taking her on a four-year worldwide journey beginning in 2013.

Join Our Monthly Supporters

A handsome middle-aged man in mismatched flip-flop sandals, a torn polo shirt, and cuffed jeans surveys the volunteers’ work. This is Nainoa Thompson, who was part of Hokule‘a’s first crew and, in 1980, became the first Hawaiian on record in hundreds of years to navigate a voyaging canoe using traditional wayfaring, relying on the ocean swells, waves, sun, moon, stars, and seabirds to cross the open seas. Thompson’s lifelong work has been to demonstrate to Hawaiians how vital, resilient, and strong their traditions are.

Now as the generation originally shaped by Hokule‘a grows older, Thompson sees the 2013 journey as an important step to help Hawai‘i’s youth define their identity and face threats to Hawaiian culture and economy, such as climate change. Thompson believes Hawai‘i can become a model for sustainability and the canoe can serve as a classroom for examining climate change. He says his organization, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, has mandated that 40 percent of the worldwide crew be under the age of 30.

Thompson is both exacting and ambitious with his young crew because he knows what a powerful force wayfaring has been in his life and for Hawaiian culture.

Hokule‘a’s lessons

In 1973, artist Herb Kane, anthropologist Ben Finney, and researcher Tommy Holmes set out to show that ancient Polynesians were skilled sailors and knowledgeable navigators who purposefully explored and settled small bodies of land, including the most isolated archipelago on Earth, the Hawaiian Islands.

They designed Hokule‘a and named it after the “Star of Gladness”—Arcturus in Western astronomy—a guiding zenith star that helps sailors find Hawai‘i. They formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society and developed a training program to test the abilities of hundreds of people who hoped to be part of Hokule‘a’s 2,400-mile inaugural voyage from Maui to Tahiti. Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the tiny Micronesian atoll of Satawal, would be at the helm. They selected 24 additional men and women, including Thompson, who would join the return crew, which would fly to Tahiti and sail the canoe back to Hawai‘i.

Thompson had spent all his life on the ocean, fishing as a child in east Honolulu and paddling outrigger canoes in Waikiki after graduating high school. Hokule‘a merged the fractured elements of Thompson’s life: his love of the ocean, his heritage, his culture. He sensed this voyage would be deeply important.

The crew set off from Maui on May 1, 1976, and arrived in Tahiti 34 days later. Thousands of Tahitians greeted Hokule‘a and dozens of children swam out to board the vessel on its arrival. The canoe’s return to Hawai‘i prompted celebrations and major media coverage.

The 1976 voyage touched off a movement to revive Hawaiian culture and played a key role in the Hawaiian Renaissance as people learned about their ancestors’ accomplishments. Over the next several years, public schools began requiring the teaching of Hawaiian art, hula, lifestyle, and geography. Native communities founded language immersion schools to revive the Hawaiian language.

Kapu Na Keiki members Haunani Kane and Jason Patterson prepare one of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s canoes for a short sail with high school students in August. Photo by Sena Christian.

Meanwhile, Hokule‘a’s first journey stirred renewed interest in sailing and wayfaring. Mau Piailug returned to Micronesia, and the Polynesian Voyaging Society attempted to learn wayfaring on their own by reading and experimenting. But in 1978, tragedy forced them to reexamine their methods. A big-wave surfer named Eddie Aikau joined Hokule‘a’s crew, and in March of that year, the voyagers attempted another sail to Tahiti. But Hokule‘a capsized.

Aikau insisted on paddling for help. He strung some oranges around his neck, grabbed a portable strobe light, tied a life jacket around his waist, and set off. By midnight, the U.S. Coast Guard had rescued his friends after a pilot saw flares and requested aid. Aikau was never found.

The death of a beloved crew member taught the Polynesian Voyaging Society something: They needed skills that could not merely be reconstructed from books. Thompson traveled to Micronesia to ask Piailug to teach him traditional wayfaring. Piailug agreed but not without a fight. At the age of 1, he had been chosen by his grandfather to become a sailor, and he was sailing by age 5. He told the crew—who were in their 20s—they were too old and if they wanted someone to learn they should send their sons.

Eventually, Piailug relented. The crew spent two years studying under him, learning how the navigator looks for the position of the sun and stars and observes wind directions and swell patterns, which have different heights, lengths, shapes, and speeds that alter the course of a canoe.

Since their studies with Piailug, not one member of Hokule‘a’s crew has been lost at sea. In 1980, Piailug’s training allowed Thompson to lead Hokule‘a on a successful voyage to Tahiti and back—and the crew became the first Hawaiians in generations to regain the traditional knowledge of navigating the oceans over long distances. In speeches since then, Thompson has credited wayfaring with renewing Native Hawaiian pride.

The deep sense of cultural dignity, the capacity to envision what lies ahead, the connection with the natural world—these will be essential skills as Hawai‘i faces an uncertain economic and ecological future. That’s why Thompson feels it is so important to pass on navigation skills to the young members of Kapu Na Keiki.

Thompson came up with the idea for the 2013 worldwide voyage after Hokule‘a’s 1992 trip to the Cook Islands. As he journeyed home, he spoke by satellite phone with NASA astronaut and Hawaiian native Lacy Veach, who was orbiting Earth on a space shuttle. Thompson invited the astronaut to join the crew on a sail. The astronaut told Thompson of looking out of the space shuttle over Hawai‘i.

Volunteers work on refurbishing Hokule‘a while the canoe is dry-docked at the Marine Education Training Center in Honolulu. Photo by Cole Allen.

“He saw the islands and the planet in one vision—that planet Earth was just an island like Hawai‘i, in an ocean of space, and that we needed to take care of them both if the planet was to remain a life-giving home for humanity,” Thompson says in a statement for the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Thompson and his father later discussed how Native Hawaiian ­knowledge and values had enabled islanders to care for their land and seas for nearly 2,000 years. Through careful management of natural resources, Hawai‘i sustained a large, thriving, self-sufficient population until the arrival of Western explorers. The men felt they should share those values with the world.

For Thompson, getting to the deepest levels of navigation means looking inside himself and visualizing his own journey. He trusts his ancestors to show him the way in the hardest of times. He knows that sometimes when out at sea he will understand how to respond to a situation without knowing why. These are the intangible lessons he must pass on to future navigators and the lessons he hopes all young Hawaiians learn. Hokule‘a shaped and defined the lives of its older crew members, and Thompson believes it can do the same for their children.

“We want to give them the canoe and help them with their dreams, not ours,” Thompson says.

Making connections

Kaina Holomalia dropped out of high school to “screw around,” influenced by the drugs and alcohol around him—until he met Thompson a decade ago and enrolled in the Myron B. Thompson Academy, a charter school where students learn math and science while sailing canoes. He soon joined Hokule‘a’s crew.

In 2009, Holomalia went on one of Hokule‘a’s roughest sails. Rain poured down. Clouds covered the sun and stars. Eighteen-foot swells lashed the canoe.

“It was a big lesson of how deep are you connected?” Holomalia, now 27, says. “When you cannot see the stars, you go into a different way of navigation from feeling, from heart.”

In a brief clearing, navigator Bruce Blankenfeld spotted the position of two stars and visualized the whole astronomical map in his head. They arrived at their destination safely.

“We broke everything we could’ve broken and repaired it. We got hurt and mended each other,” says Holomalia, a robust man who wears his hair in a ponytail and is now a captain. “I’ve had a hard life. These canoes got me out of it. The values and love we share, our bond on the canoe is what makes these canoes voyaging canoes. On these canoes, you find fate, hope, and love.”

Fate because they’re living out what their ancestors taught them, hope for Hawai‘i’s future, and love for those onboard. When you are surrounded by nothing but water, Holomalia says, you take care of each other no matter what.

“We are always trying to figure out how to live forever,” he says. “A way to live forever is when you pass away and what you’ve taught lives on through your students. We had great leaders; now we’re losing a lot of them. It’s time for us to step up.”

Although Holomalia is only a few years older than the youth of Kapu Na Keiki, they see him as a mentor who can teach them about navigating whatever challenges lie ahead. The youth seek his guidance, although their own challenges may differ.

Kapu Na Keiki also works together to confront more than personal struggles. Member Haunani Kane, for instance, directs her focus to the threat of rising sea level, which she considers the biggest threat facing her island home. She attends the University of Hawai‘i and is writing her master’s thesis on the topic.

“This is very important because most of Hawai‘i’s coastal areas are characterized not only by large, flat, coastal plains, but also by high populations,” Kane says. “Many of the coastal areas also hold high cultural and ecological significance.”

Scientists predict global sea level will rise a meter or more by the end of this century, drowning coastal communities such as Waikiki, displacing residents, and threatening the tourism industry. As fossil fuels become increasingly more expensive and difficult to extract, and as unpredictable weather disrupts global food and agriculture production, Hawai‘i will need to become more self-reliant. Hawai‘i currently imports 90 percent of its food, according to several recent reports.

“I’ve had a hard life. These canoes got me out of it. The values and love we share, our bond on the canoe is what makes these canoes voyaging canoes.”

As part of Kapu Na Keiki, Kane encourages people to change their behaviors for the sake of the islands’ future. She helps lead schoolchildren on short sails, teaching them about trade winds and how to make a star compass.

“We have been looking at how we can use the canoe to address the issues of sustainability and climate change,” she says. “Sailing on a canoe with limited supplies and provisions forces everyone to be sustainable and conserve food, water, and other resources. You really get a better appreciation for those things.”

Kane hopes to be part of the crew that sails around the world.

The journey ahead

As several young voyagers work in the dry dock and the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, Lehua Kamalu of Kapu Na Keiki works on her laptop computer, using Google Earth to plan statewide sails in 2012. The group is using these trips to prepare for the worldwide voyage and to identify the culturally, educationally, and environmentally important sites they’ll visit in 2013. Thompson used to handwrite the sail plans. Now, the crew relies on a hybrid of traditional and modern methods.

“This is our young influence,” Kamalu says, pointing to her computer.

Like the other members of Kapu Na Keiki, Kamalu is committed to sustainable energy. The 25-year-old college student studies mechanical engineering and is considering a career in renewable energy. For now she often expresses her passion for sustainability by clearing trash from the beach or swimming a mile out into the water to snag a floating piece of garbage.

During the worldwide voyage, Hokule‘a’s crew will share curriculum about conservation, coral reef ecology, and native plants with educators they meet in places like Australia, the Galapagos Islands, and Rapa Nui. They are discussing how to make the journey itself more sustainable—for instance, using an escort vessel that has the capability to sail or run on solar-powered engines.

Volunteers, including those from Kapu Na Keiki, have logged some 15,000 hours refurbishing Hokule‘a since September 2010. Kane returns weekly to sand fiberglass.

“I am not too sure if it is because of voyaging or if it’s just who we are, but I know that we all really value our culture, our family, our land, and our ocean,” Kane says as Hokule‘a’s repairs near completion. “I hope our generation is able to give our children a better Hawai‘i than what we have today.”

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.