Hokule‘a returns to Hawaii after worldwide voyage

The Polynesian Voyaging Society’s sailing canoe Hokule‘a arrives at Magic Island on Saturday. -- AP photo

When Jeff Balinbin took his voyaging students to drape a lei over Hokule’a at the canoe’s homecoming, he might just have been giving them a glimpse of their future.

The five intermediate and high school students from Maui have been training to be on the canoe, learning about the stars, ocean safety and CPR. Someday, they could be the ones sailing home to cheers after a three-year global voyage, as the Hokule’a crew did Saturday.

“The kids right now are just totally blown away because they’re given another awesome responsibility . . . of helping to take this lei over to Oahu from Maui and presenting it to Hokule’a,” said Balinbin, a teacher at Maui High School and educational assistant with Hui O Wa’a Kaulua, Maui’s Voyaging Society. “I can see these kids one day being crew. I can see them inspiring other kids to do this.”

After three years on the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage, Hokule’a is home. Her twin hulls have pushed through more than 40,000 nautical miles of ocean, touching waters off of Tahiti, Australia, South Africa, Cuba and about 150 other ports, often joined by sister canoe Hikianalia. Two hundred forty-five crew members have participated on the voyage. Along the way they spread a message of environmental awareness and connected with many around the globe who are doing the same.

The members of the Maui High School Junior Voyagers Club (the program started at Maui High but is open to all schools) are just the kind of crowd the voyage aimed to inspire.

“I think everyone (on the crew) is excited knowing that the people of Hawaii’s excited about the canoe making its way back to its homeland,” Maui resident and Hokule’a crew member Archie Kalepa said. “I remember in 1976 when Hokule’a came home, there was a revival of Hawaii, its culture and the Hawaiian people, and this is going to be the second revival for the people of Hawaii in many ways.”

Maui will get a chance to celebrate the homecoming in person soon enough. In August, the Polynesian Voyaging Society plans to launch a statewide sail, said Sonja Swenson Rogers, communications director for the society.

Long journey home

Hokule’a’s first stops to Tahiti and Samoa were familiar waters, places where people had come to recognize the canoe on the horizon. But later journeys to places like the Caribbean were “in real stark contrast,” because Hokule’a wasn’t widely known there, Molokai resident and crew member Eric Co said.

“It was a new and welcome challenge to kind of share that story and also learn about other island people elsewhere,” he said. “One thing that has really stuck with me . . . is that there’s a lot more that connects us than makes us different. . . . I think there are international and global issues right now, like climate change, that are just as real to the people in the Caribbean as they are to people in Polynesia and Micronesia.”

Co was an ocean specialist and cook on the canoe, “my two passions.”

“It’s fun. It’s a challenge,” he said. “You’re basically using a camping stove to cook three meals a day for 12 to 14 people.”

Meal times are special. That’s when the crew can recharge and talk story. When the weather is bad, meals “can be a treat to look forward to,” Co said.

Hokule’a comes with bins of rations planned by experts in ai pono (the concept of eating well). But on board, there is neither ice nor coolers. Crew members only catch enough fish to feed themselves and toss back any excess.

“Sailing Hoku is a lot less meaningful if you’re not sailing over a sustainable ocean,” Co said.

For Kalepa, one of the most special sails of the voyage was the Galapagos-to-Rapa Nui leg, when he guided the crew as solo captain.

“Everything felt so connected and so right,” said Kalepa, a retired lifeguard who usually serves as safety officer and watch captain. “It’s something you can’t really explain.

“Seeing Rapa Nui for the first time, and the moai, and the heiau there and the statues was really, really incredible,” Kalepa said. “Then seeing people that look just like Hawaiians. It was like being home, but not being home. For me I would say it was probably one of the most rewarding sails that I’ve had the opportunity to sail on.”

The voyage has featured challenges, like the major swells off South Africa and a three-day storm that Kalepa and the crew weathered between Tahiti and the Cook Islands. It’s also opened Kalepa’s eyes to the wonders of the sea. Hokule’a’s mana has brought people to tears while in port, and has had a profound impact on the souls of every crew member as well. Kalepa is confident about Hokule’a’s future.

“There’s a lot of people, from the old-timers, guys like Snake (Ah Hee) and Nainoa (Thompson) and Kalepa (Baybayan). These guys shared and taught us a lot,” he said. “The next generation is in good hands. I think Hawaii’s very secure with the fact that we now have not one, but many navigators that can guide the future of voyaging and navigation.”

Hokule’a’s next mission

The three-year voyage is proof “that we can sail around the world,” Kalepa said. The question now is, “What are we going to do next?”

“I think there’s a lot of thought going into that right now,” Co said.

An important part of the return home will be to stop by the other islands, not only to bring things the crew members have learned but to get caught up on what happened while they were gone, Co said.

“I think the question will be, what are we doing to take care of our own place back home?” Kalepa added. “Taking care of the sea, making sure that our rivers run from the mountain to the sea, making sure that we as humans do the right thing for the betterment of the future of Hawaii and its people.”

The crew has observed how countries around the world protect their reefs and coastlines. Kalepa remembered the Galapagos Islands, which holds tour guides and visitors alike to “high standards.” Everyone gets the same training and follows the same rules to protect marine life, he said. When Hokule’a arrived, the hulls were scrubbed, backpacks were checked and shoes were cleaned in bleach to make sure no invasive species were brought to the islands.

“They do a really fabulous job, and I think Hawaii can learn a lot from that,” Kalepa said.

In addition to raising environmental awareness, Hokule’a is also about growing new voyagers.

Balinbin said that, because of the worldwide voyage, “more and more kids are going to see that this is accessible.”

“I think that living in today’s society, especially being a teacher, there’s never enough opportunities for kids to learn traditional stuff,” he said. “If they don’t have opportunities to do stuff they naturally enjoy and at the same time navigate this modern world, we might continue to have students that just don’t fit in, and they’re going to have a hard time succeeding in life.”

On Saturday, the students joined members of the Lei of Aloha group to present the mile-long lei.

“We’re just real proud of her accomplishments, going out there and touching other cultures and showing the world that we’re not that different from each other,” said Ron Panzo, a Lei of Aloha member and owner of Nalu’s South Shore Grill in Kihei. “Our mission statement is, ‘We are one.’ It brings people together. It’s the same mission (as Hokule’a).”

About 100 people worked on the lei for four days, including people from Maui and the Mainland. A group on Kauai also contributed a portion of the lei.

In its early years, Hokule’a’s mission was about keeping a tradition alive. Now it’s a full-fledged program that’s trained countless voyagers.

“Hoku needs to sail forever, and I think it’s something that isn’t about being preserved anymore — it’s about growing it,” Co said. “It’s about getting that mindset back into the mainstream fabric of our consciousness. Until then, things like sustainability just are going to be buzzwords. There needs to be some kind of transformative process for all of us to understand what it really means to have these islands sustain us.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.


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