When the Hokulea voyaging canoe project started in 1975, there was no one left in Hawaii who knew how to navigate the boats, according to the traditional Polynesian method that brought the first inhabitants to the Islands.
Today, as the Hokulea is nearing the end of a three-year journey around the globe, there are more than 20 Hawaiians with the skills, knowledge and training to navigate the boats.
The sailing canoe will make its return to Oahu on June 17. There are several celebrations, presentations, commemorations and community outreach programs scheduled around the event.
It started as a project of the Polynesian Voyaging Society to build a traditional, double-hulled sailing canoe and to relearn the old techniques for navigating using the environment rather than instruments. The first journey for Hokulea was an interisland test run from Oahu to Maui in March 1975. The next year the canoe and its crew completed the first long-distance voyage to Tahiti.
The Hokulea is also forever linked to legendary Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aikau, who joined the Hokulea's crew in 1978. Early on in a journey to Tahiti the ship capsized off the coast of Lanai. Aikau paddled on a surfboard to get help, but was lost at sea while the remainder of the crew was rescued.
Because no Hawaiians knew the navigation technique, a wayfinding teacher, Mau Piailug, a traditional navigator from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, was recruited to lead the Hokulea's first voyages and teach apprentice navigators. Over the following four decades, the Hokulea completed several voyages, including trips to Easter Island, New Zealand, Micronesia and Japan.
"Wayfinding takes some years to learn, and more than anything it requires a lot of time at sea to learn all of the skills," said Bruce Blankenfeld, a Polynesian Voyaging Society wayfinder and instructor. "Before even going to sea you need to learn the celestial bodies, where they set in the east and the west. You have to learn the cycle of the moon and how it travels. Then, half of your voyage is reliant upon the sun ... You learn about reading the waves and using sea birds to find land."
The worldwide voyage began in May 2014, and the sailing canoe will have traversed 40,000 nautical miles when the trip is complete, with stops in Samoa, Australia, Panama, Florida, Brazil and the Galapagos, among others.
"It's been a great learning journey. The Hokulea and all of the voyaging has been responsible for a lot of cultural changes in the Islands," Blankenfeld said. "It started off as a project to document voyaging, to document the process and navigation techniques. It has gone so far beyond that, and now it's part of the movement of rediscovery of the culture."
During the voyage the Hokulea crew's mission has been to foster new connections between various communities and appreciation for the natural environment. They hit some rough weather along the way, like when someone was blasted overboard by a wave during a storm in the Indian Ocean, but there have been no major problems, Blankenfeld said.
"Everywhere we stop is special. And we always make wonderful connections and experience things that are brand new and exciting," he said.
In Australia the canoe's crew met with aborigines who had recently been granted back some of their ancestral lands and were going through a similar period of cultural rediscovery. In South Africa they learned about the history of Nelson Mandela and the political movement that led to the dismantling of apartheid.
"It's absolutely been amazing what has been accomplished in a relatively short amount of time," Blankenfeld said. "Now we have the third generation of navigators and captains that are up and coming. They are set for the next 30 to 40 years."
Hokulea Return Events and Activities
The Hokulea will be received with a homecoming celebration starting at 8:30 a.m. on June 17 at Oahu's Magic Island.
The Hawaii Convention Center will host a three-day summit on the worldwide voyage and the Hokulea including educational programming and community outreach events June 18 to 20.
In honor of Hokulea's return, local artist Kamea Hadar is painting a 165-foot tall mural of Hawaiian moon goddess Hina, who was said to have guided Polynesian voyagers, on the 14-story Halawa View apartment building near Pearl Harbor.
For more information on the events surrounding Hokulea's return visit http://www.hokulea.com/home/.