'Dignity to Our Ancestors': Hōkūleʻa's World-Round Voyage To Thread a 'Lei of Hope'

Hokule'a arriving at Aotearoa -- the northern island of New Zealand -- in 2014.
Hokule'a arriving at Aotearoa -- the northern island of New Zealand -- in 2014.Kaipo Kiaha

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By Audrey Cleo Yap

It's been years since Hōkūleʻa has been home, but it's getting closer to it. The Polynesian voyaging canoe is currently in the last third of a three-year voyage around the world and is scheduled to dock in New York City’s North Cove Marina in Battery Park City on June 5, in time for World Oceans Day on June 8.

Since departing from its home dock in Hawai’i in May 2014, the vessel has traveled some 26,000 nautical miles on its Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, threading a “lei of hope” around the world and spreading messages of environmental preservation and sustainability.

"It was really about changing a world view. You had this re-framing and re-thinking of Native Hawaiians not coming from a second-rate homeland but from the great navigators"

Along the way, Hōkūleʻa — built and navigated by the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) and a rotating roster of volunteer crew members — have met with the Dalai Lama, United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as visited and formed partnerships with various environmental advocacy organizations. It's also proved that methods used by Polynesian explorers could navigate the oceans.

“The whole movement from the beginning really intended to explore and relearn and rediscover and recapture the past, to bring dignity to our ancestors,” master navigator and PVS president Nainoa Thompson told NBC News.

Over 200 crew members employ ancient Polynesian navigational methods of tracking stars, winds, and waves, only using modern instruments in unexpected conditions or emergencies. Notable stops have included the Greater Barrier Reef in Australia, South Africa, Bali, Mauritius, and Brazil.

A Hokulea crew member using Polynesian navigation techniques to path find.Kaipo Kiaha

By the voyage’s scheduled conclusion in June 2017, Hōkūleʻa will have stopped at over 100 ports and 27 nations accompanied by its escort vessel, Julie’s Cat.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though, Thompson, who started his navigation training with PVS in 1979, said.

“The East Coast has been difficult for us because we’ve never sailed in inland waters in the kinds of currents we’re in over here. We’re not used to it. They’re the kinds of places we didn’t have a chance to train for, but at the same time coming up the East Coast has just been amazing,” he said, speaking from Hōkūleʻa while it was docked on the Potomac River last week.

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The crew has faced logistical challenges including adhering to maritime laws, docking restrictions, and obtaining visas. They have also contended with Mother Nature herself, like when inclement weather forced it to divert from South Africa to Mozambique last year. When the canoe finally did reach South Africa, Thompson said they had to be tethered to a shrimper’s boat amid dangerous gale force winds.

Nainoa Thompson, left, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and master navigator, on board Hokulea with a fish caught from the ocean.Photo by Sam Kapoi / Courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

But it’s a spirit of adventure and purpose that has driven the Polynesian Voyaging Society since its founding in 1973 by professor Ben Finney, artist Herb Kane, and sailor Charles Tommy Holmes. In an effort to provide a counter-narrative to the idea that ancient Polynesians were primitive voyagers and to prove that they purposefully navigated the Pacific Ocean using sophisticated methods of wayfinding, PVS modeled the Hōkūleʻa — whose name means “star of gladness” — after traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes.

He said his participation was partly motivated by the “anger and rage” he himself felt growing up. “It was really about changing a world view. You had this re-framing and re-thinking of Native Hawaiians not coming from a second-rate homeland but from the great navigators,” he said.

Hōkūleʻa successfully completed its first major voyage from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1976. When the vessel set out for Tahiti again in 1978, it capsized amid stormy weather, resulting in the death of crew member and renowned Native Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau.

According to Thompson, Hōkūleʻa’s current journey started in 2008 when PVS put out an open call for interested volunteer crew members, to which some 1,300 people responded. After rigorous physical and academic training, that list was whittled down to approximately 360 qualifying crew members, hailing from all over the world. The diversity of the crew is intended, Thompson said.

“The idea was under the belief that diversity is our strength. We have crew members from at least 14 different countries, 11 Pacific countries. We intentionally try to get someone from the place we’re sailing to to prepare us to go to a country, so that we can understand enough to be respectful and be caring for their world view,” he said.

Volunteer Hokulea crew members navigating the ocean during the 2015 leg of the craft's three-year voyagePhoto by Aina Paikai / Courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Part of that is also understanding the plights of indigenous peoples across the globe. During its two-week stay in New York City, Thompson and PVS will be meeting with local Native American leaders and officials. Like at other stops on the journey, the crew hope to gain a better understanding of local environmental issues, like community efforts to replenish the area’s oyster population.

“Mālama honua” means “caring for island Earth.” And from the journey so far, Thompson said he is encouraged by what he has seen, both in efforts from local organizations and the members of his crew.

Thompson also hopes he will be able to reunite with UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon at some point.

“In 2014, when we were in Samoa, [Mr. Moon] gave us a glass bottle. He had handwritten a note pledging his work to the membership of the UN to protect the world’s oceans,” Thompson said. “Hōkūleʻa has become the vessel to carry these commitments from around the world. So we’re hoping that, if he can fit it into his busy schedule, the secretary general will sail with us, and we will give him the bottle back. That’s an important day for us — to say we’ve kept our promise, too.”

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