Sailing aboard Hokule‘a
Four Maui County residents recount the voyage of a lifetime
Three years after embarking on a journey around the globe, Hawaii’s world-famous voyaging canoe is almost home. In June, Hokule’a will return to the islands after more than 60,000 nautical miles and 100 ports in the South Pacific, Africa, the Caribbean, the East Coast and South America.
About a dozen Maui County crew members have helped guide Hokule’a or her sister canoe Hikianalia through the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage. Four of them shared their stories of harrowing seas, communities working to save the oceans and the many lessons they plan to bring back to Hawaii.
“It’s not the end of the voyage,” said crew member Kawika Crivello of Molokai. “When Hokule’a comes home, the work begins.”
Maui-born waterman Archie Kalepa is no stranger to the sea, but sailing aboard Hokule’a has shown him new facets of the ocean. He’s watched the temperature and swells change with each location, weathered three-day storms and seen glowing algae light up the sea.
“The colors I saw, it was like (the movie) ‘Avatar,’ “ Kalepa said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
Kalepa’s next adventure is in the blue waters of the Galapagos Islands, an isolated archipelago more than 600 miles west of Ecuador. The Panama-to-Galapagos leg is “uncharted territory for the canoe,” Kalepa said hours before his flight to Central America on Jan. 11.
On his fourth leg of the worldwide voyage, Kalepa was most looking forward to diving the reefs around the Galapagos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“The whole thing is about educating ourselves, and being in that kind of atmosphere, it will be an eye-opening experience, I’m sure, to see how an untouched marine life flourishes,” Kalepa said.
The islands boast rich wildlife, from marine iguanas to giant tortoises and penguins, according to UNESCO. Humans occupy only a small portion of the 127 islands, islets and rocks of the Galapagos — 97 percent of the land has been declared a national park by Ecuador. But, as in Hawaii, invasive species, increased tourism and illegal fishing threaten the environment.
The Hokule’a’s crew plans to explore the islands to learn what’s being done to preserve them, Kalepa said.
“And from that we can take notes and look at how we can become better stewards in our own backyard,” he said.
Kalepa, who first sailed with Hokule’a in 1987, is one of 10 crew members on the Galapagos leg. On board, the retired lifeguard serves as safety officer and watch captain.
The high seas challenge even veterans like Kalepa. He recalled getting caught in a bad storm while traveling from Tahiti to the Cook Islands. Swells washed over the canoe, and “it was all hands on deck for 72 hours.”
“When we’re out in a little canoe like that in a big ocean, things get awoken within you, which is your senses,” Kalepa said. “You pay attention to those little details on the water and the canoe. Just having the confidence to navigate ourselves through that kind of weather . . . is part of what kept us safe.”
Kalepa plans to stay with the canoe until Easter Island. He isn’t sure if he’ll be on the return leg to Hawaii, but said that the home stretch “is when we’ve got to be the most careful.”
“It’s like driving home — accidents happen 10 minutes away from home,” Kalepa said. “So we cannot let our guard down.”
Hokule’a’s travels have motivated Kalepa to continue to protect “our own backyard, the island of Maui.” He wants to find ways to replenish reefs, such as getting the Kahoma Stream in West Maui flowing from mauka to makai again so that more fish can spawn. Being out on the ocean every day has shown him the realities of climate change, Kalepa said.
“It’s when you’re in the elements that you begin to understand these things,” Kalepa said. “And you realize, I have to change.”
An unusual reception
Sailing through the waterways of the southeastern U.S. last month, Kawika Crivello and his fellow crew members knew something was different.
Choppers flew overhead. Police cars with lights swirling stopped on the bridges. U.S. Coast Guard boats pulled up alongside Hokule’a. Police had gotten calls, they said, reporting illegal immigrants, possibly Haitians, sailing down the coast. They checked IDs and left, but the next day, the whole scene was repeated.
Ironically, the crew had sailed those same waterways just a few months earlier, without incident.
“Hokule’a has never been boarded like that,” Crivello said. “We’ve been all over the world and, all of a sudden, it was really, really uneasy to be looked at as immigrants.”
So instead of bringing its usual message of environmental awareness, the crew focused on aloha, Crivello said. They went to schools, befriended locals and talked about Hokule’a. They listened as people spoke of the racism that had resurfaced since the presidential election.
“When we would meet outside in their neighborhoods, at first you could see a little wall, and you penetrate that with aloha,” Crivello said. “After a while, they want to get to know more about you. They come the next day, and they want to speak to you. They take you out to lunch, to meet their families. To this day they still email you wanting to know how you’re doing.”
Malama honua, caring for the Earth, took on a new meaning, “not just the physical part, but the spiritual part too,” he said.
Crivello, 47, started sailing with Hokule’a in 1994. He’s a community outreach coordinator who works with at-risk children on Molokai. On the canoe, he’s an education specialist — teaching people as well as learning from them.
In March, the crew visited another place where social tensions were high. Hokule’a sailed into Cuba shortly before then-President Barack Obama arrived. The Cubans were visibly divided between those still loyal to dictator Fidel Castro and those who wanted to see Cuba move forward.
“They would get into shouting matches in the streets,” Crivello recalled.
Just as they would do on the U.S. East Coast, crew members visited homes and listened to the locals. Sharing the aloha instilled in him by his mentor and uncle, George Helm, brought Crivello to tears, he said.
Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappeared in March 1977 while paddling from Maui to Kahoolawe to stop the U.S. military’s bombing of the island.
In Havana, “I thought about him, my Uncle George Helm, and speaking on stage and singing the message of aloha aina,” Crivello said. “It was surreal for me, and I broke down. Everything I say comes from my elders.”
During the worldwide voyage, Crivello has also been to New Zealand, Australia, Brazil and the Caribbean. He isn’t sure if he’ll crew the final leg, but said that the return will bring “amazing mana.”
“Back in the ’70s when Hokule’a came home, it galvanized our people,” Crivello said. “There’s many things that happened because of Hokule’a and the movement of the renaissance.
“Who would’ve thought Hokule’a would sail around the world?” he mused. “To talk about malama honua, world struggles and solutions and ideas exchanged, that’s what Hokule’a did. . . . So that when she comes home, it’s with substance.”
On its way to Maui in 1975, Hokule’a sailed past Chad Kalepa Baybayan’s house, sparking a fascination he’d always had with “how the island came to have been settled by the first oceanic mariners.”
Eventually he was invited on board and, in 1980, Baybayan crewed Hokule’a as Nainoa Thompson navigated the canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and back for the first time.
“It was the culmination of a lifelong aspiration to sail on board a canoe,” he said. “I never realized it was the beginning of what’s become a lifestyle for me.”
Now, it’s a passion he shares with his daughter, Kala Baybayan Tanaka. Both have sailed on the worldwide voyage, twice together. Baybayan, 60, is a navigator and captain. Tanaka, 33, is an education specialist and apprentice navigator.
Baybayan has spent much of the past few years aboard Hokule’a, sailing about 20 legs of the worldwide voyage. He’s one of a handful of captains. Most, like him, have been sailing since the 1970s and ’80s.
In 2014, father and daughter journeyed together from Hawaii to Tahiti, the first big test for Tanaka and other apprentices.
“On that 15th day, to fish an island out of the ocean . . . we were just going crazy,” Tanaka said. “We were just so excited that we did it. . . . Being Hawaiian, I know somewhere down the line, my ancestors came here on a canoe.”
Last year, the Baybayans sailed from Virginia to New York. The environmental crises along the Eastern Seaboard particularly struck Tanaka. In Virginia, Tangier Island is losing about nine feet every year as sea levels rise. The tightknit fishing village reminded Tanaka of home.
“People are born there and people die there,” she said. “We get there and we learn that their island is literally disappearing. That kind of hurt.”
In New York, overfishing has depleted the oyster reefs that once served as natural ocean filters. Some of the waterways are so polluted that residents cannot eat certain fish on a regular basis, she said. But there, the crew met students at New York Harbor School who are working on a solution known as the Billion Oyster Project. The students plan to raise and return 1 billion oysters to New York’s waterways.
“This is the prime example for me of where education needs to go,” said Tanaka, an educational coordinator for Hui o Wa’a Kaulua, Maui’s voyaging nonprofit. “Empower the students to create the change, because this is their world that they’re inheriting.”
Tanaka said she’s still a student herself. Ten years ago, she sailed with her father for the first time on the Hokualaka’i canoe from Oahu to Maui.
“Actually, my mother told me, ‘You need to take your daughter,’ “ Baybayan said. “I never knew she was interested. So what mom orders me to do, I got to (do).”
At night, Baybayan taught the crew about the stars and, in the morning, he helped Tanaka listen to the sound of dolphins breathing alongside the canoe.
“That was the hook,” she said. “Then I wanted to know everything after that.”
Navigating, she learned, was all about getting comfortable with the stars, the swells and a lack of sleep. On voyages, immersed in the elements, “you cannot help but learn,” she said.
Baybayan, the navigator-in-residence at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said he doesn’t “show any kind of favoritism” toward his daughter on the canoe.
“I treat her like I would treat any other crew member,” he said. “She’s got to carry her own weight. She’s highly capable, very talented. I rely on her to perform a lot of tasks.”
While the whole crew is family, it’s special to share the voyage with an immediate family member, Tanaka said.
“He’s a very quiet person at home. He’s quiet on the canoe, too,” she said. “I just really enjoy this special relationship that I get to share with my dad. I would love it if my kids would want to do this.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.