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Odyssey for the Earth

When Hōkūleʻa arrived in Tahiti in 1976, 17,000 people—half the island’s population—came to the beach to greet her. The 62’ double-hulled voyaging canoe had sailed successfully from Kualoa to Pape‘ete in 31 days without the aid of modern instruments. In doing so, Hōkūleʻa reconnected Hawaiians to their ancestral roots. The journey affirmed that the Pacific diaspora was the methodical plan of skilled seafarers rather than the chance discovery of accidental drifters. It was a watershed moment in Polynesian history.


For Hawaiians, the event signified a reclaiming of cultural identity that catalyzed the Hawaiian renaissance. Over the next three and half decades, Hōkūleʻa would continue to serve as a living emblem of Hawaiian pride. And in the course of sailing 140,000 miles around the Pacific, she would begin to write her own story.


She would introduce Nainoa Thompson as the young Hawaiian protagonist in search of his own identity and purpose. She would introduce Mau Piailug, the master navigator from Satawal whose traditional knowledge was at risk of being lost forever. Nainoa would seek out Mau in Micronesia and learn celestial navigation, compelled by the message instilled in him by his father, Myron Thompson: “The voyage is not about you. It’s about children not yet born who need this story.”


Hōkūleʻa would introduce a hero named Eddie Aikau, a fearless lifeguard with a perfect track record who would attempt to save his crew as they clung helplessly to the keel of the overturned canoe, drifting away in gale-force winds and gigantic storm swells in the middle of the Kaiwi Channel. He would paddle his surfboard toward Molokai with some oranges and a bag of poi around his waist, never to be seen again. Nainoa would remember why Eddie joined the crew of Hōkūleʻa: “I need to bring pride and dignity back to our kupuna and give it to our children.”


And the story of Hōkūleʻa would propose a dream. It would come from Lt. Colonel Lacy Veach as he gazed at the Hawaiian Islands from the window of the space shuttle while orbiting in the sea of space. “This is the Island Earth,” he realized. “It’s our only home that we have… Infinitely beautiful. Infinitely fragile. We need to take care of it or it won’t take care of us.”


In 1992, when Hōkūleʻa turned 16, Lacy Veach told Nainoa, “You need to go around the world. Take Hōkūleʻa. Let her connect with the earth and let the earth connect with her. Come learn the planet.” Veach believed Hawai‘i could be the laboratory for positive change, and Hōkūleʻa a school that would encourage children to explore and empower them to take care of the planet.


“Every cell in my body says we’re on the wrong sail plan for humanity,” Thompson agrees. “Our world view is in trouble, but never in the history of mankind has there been a movement where strangers, on their own, are responding to the damage of Earth with extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion.” These stories, he says, are the ones that need to be shared, the values that need to be taught.


Hōkūleʻa’s past is now prologue: At the end of May 2014, the voyaging canoe will leave Hawaiian waters, embarking on a mission to circumnavigate the globe as the ambassador of peace that Veach envisioned. The four-year, 47,000-mile odyssey—the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage—will take Hōkūleʻa to 85 ports in 26 countries.


She will be escorted by Hikianalia, a 72-foot, 21st century sailing canoe that will serve as a platform for global story sharing. Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia are a pair of stars that rise over Hawaii together.) While Hōkūle‘a will travel by the rules of traditional navigation—no instruments to indicate time or location (no iPhones permitted!)—Hikianalia, in contrast, is a very high-tech canoe that houses a digital media center, an array of sixteen solar panels and 186kWh of battery storage that can keep laptops and cameras charged, as well as power twin electric motors for several hours if need be.


Onboard, forty percent of the crew will be under age 40. This was a mandate by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a formal application of Veach’s theory of change: We can prepare the next generation to redirect the course of the planet by equipping them with the tools for learning and the right values to guide them.


“Fundamentally, our job is about succession,” Nainoa says. “We invest in young people today, because that is going to define what tomorrow is going to look like.”


In 2016, when the canoe reaches Rapa Nui, all the “old guys” will disembark and the young navigators will steer the canoe to Tahiti on their own. Among the apprentices is 27-year-old Lehua Kamalu, who developed the sail plan.


“When you’re trying to do something that no one’s ever done, it all goes back to process,” says Kamalu, explaining how she considered more than a dozen factors that dictate the voyage’s course and timetable. These include ocean conditions and storm seasons, port facilities and availability of provisions. “Basically we’re trying to reduce chaos and risk as much as possible.”


What kinds of risks? After circling the South Pacific through mid-2015, with stops in Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Aotearoa, and Australia, Hōkūleʻa will sail east, endeavoring to stay ahead of hurricane season. At the tip of Queensland, they will have a tiny window to navigate through the obstacle course of shallow reefs and islands in the Torres Strait, where a dangerously fast current can outrun the canoe.


A visit to Indonesia will deliver Hōkūleʻa into the Indian Ocean, home to the world’s highest incidence of piracy and rogue waves. This segment will be crewed by veteran voyagers, and the canoe will “go dark” while traversing pirate territory.


Leaving Madagascar, the canoe will travel through the Mozambique Channel, where large swirling eddies can wreak havoc for wayfinders. The warm Mozambique current will take them down the east coast of South Africa before intersecting with icy waters from the Antarctic. The convergence of these waters produces the turbulent storms that make the Cape of Good Hope notorious among sailors.


The willingness to voyage to where no canoe has gone before is what the founders of Google X, Google’s think tank for solving the world’s biggest problems, identify as “moonshot thinking.” That’s what inspired Google—whose work in research and development is as forward-thinking as sailing without instruments in a double-hulled canoe is traditional—to partner with the worldwide voyage. While Google X seeks to recreate the process of problem-solving, Hōkūleʻa introduces a new paradigm in the process of learning.

Rich DeVaul, head of the Google X Rapid Evaluation team, talks about the audacity of the Polynesian voyagers in the opening lines of their “Moonshot Thinking” video: “No one had ever been that way before. No one even knew if there was anything that way before. It was amazing, and it changed the world.”

“If we become afraid to take these great big risks, we stop inspiring people. We stop achieving things,” DeVaul continues, describing the same thing that drives the Mālama Honua worldwide voyage. "And the biggest nightmare scenario is that we won’t have what it takes to solve the really big challenges.”






“We don’t train for the sunniest day. We train for the worst day,” Nainoa is known to repeat. Safety is the top priority, and training is rigorous.


Most of the preparation takes place at the Honolulu Community College’s Marine Education and Training Center on Sand Island, Hōkūleʻa’s headquarters on land. Training involves both classroom and hands-on, experiential learning—man-overboard and emergency drills, hoisting and dropping the sails, tossing and tying the lines, learning how to use all the equipment, and sailing and steering the canoe. Crewmembers must also pass a demanding fitness test, swim test, and safety exam.


Similarly intense is the labor to ready the canoes: lashing and rigging using miles and miles of rope; sanding and glassing the hulls, the holds, the ‘iako (crossbeams), the deck, the masts and the spars; purchasing and organizing the supplies, food, and water needed for several weeks at sea. So far, volunteers have contributed 26,500 hours to the effort. 


A few nights a week, the crew gathers under the fluorescent lights of the chilly METC classrooms, going over long, detailed task lists and filling the whiteboards with even more lists. Among the supplies that must fit into each crew member’s 48-quart cooler: baby wipes and hand sanitizer; clothespins, caribiners, and tweezers; crafting tools and a journal; omiyage (gifts) for foreign hosts; quick-drying clothes that also keep you warm; gloves to prevent rope burn; Gold Bond powder for chafing.

“All of these things are safety issues. Success is 95 percent preparation,” reiterates master navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, Voyaging Director for the worldwide voyage. With more than 100,000 miles of sailing under his belt, Blankenfeld will captain Hikianalia when the canoes head to Tahiti.


An ʻōlelo no‘eau (proverb) points out that tiny details, like small ocean currents, are as important as the big picture: E kuhikuhi pono I na au iki a me na au nui o ka ‘ike. “Instruct well in both the little and the great currents of knowledge.”





The wayfinder sets his course by securing as many clues as possible. He watches where stars rise and set, and he notes their altitude as they cross the sky’s meridian. He observes the rhythm of the swells and the gathering of the clouds. He looks for seabirds and land vegetation adrift.


It makes sense, then, that the worldwide voyage will exercise this traditional approach to encourage people to mālama honua. ‘Oiwi TV staff will participate in each leg of the journey, documenting everything the canoes encounter—from ecological damage to protected marine conservation sites—to illustrate the planet’s health. Crew members will capture video of unseen islands through the eyes of remote-controlled drones. Sustainable practices in local communities will be shared as “learning journeys” to form a library of indigenous knowledge. And through live Google Hangouts, teachers will be able to answer questions from students on the other side of the planet. Thanks to satellite communications installed on Hikianalia, lessons from these floating classrooms will be accessible online at, affectionately referred to as the third canoe on which the whole world can sail along.


As Lacy Veach envisioned, this voyage is not only about education, but also about research. Through a “Science At Sea” program, the crew will study plankton populations, water quality, marine debris, hydroponics, marine mammal acoustics, and fish populations. The data will be relayed to leading scientists at the University of Hawaii, NOAA, and MIT.


The way Nainoa frames it, this research is critically urgent. “The ocean is the engine for climate. It’s the engine for protecting our biodiversity. Of the next four breaths you take, three come from the sea. It’s a thing we need to protect.”






At a recognition ceremony for the Polynesian Voyaging Society at the Hawai‘i State Capitol in March, legislators assembled to wish the crew well. Rep. Richard Fale underscored the weight of their journey with his simple commendation: “So many hopes and dreams are being carried with them.”


Some of these wishes are expressed on the underside of Hōkūleʻa’s hatch covers, which were painted by students from the Hawaiian arts collective 808Urban. One includes this message: “Voyagers, may your huaka‘i continuously bring you to new places, both physically and spiritually. No matter how far you are from home, your ‘ohana is always with you.”


When things get tough—which they inevitably do—Nainoa says, “We find strength in knowing Hawai‘i is with us.”


And not just Hawai‘i. The flow of blessings bestowed upon Hōkūleʻa and its crew is generous and universal. Contemplating what draws people to the canoe, Nainoa suggests that Hōkūleʻa reinforces a view of the world that is honest. Hōkūleʻa’s crew members believe her spirit absorbs the curiosity of every visitor and the dedication of every volunteer. Engraved in her beams are the names of those who devoted their lives to her. Every time she sails, they sail with her, along with all who have been a part of her story.


Watch captain and apprentice navigator Kaleo Wong, who will conduct cultural protocol during the voyage, reminds the crew about the importance of spiritual safety. “The pule (prayer) is not just to check a box before doing something,” he says. “We are asking for a safe voyage from our ‘aumakua and from our kupuna, the people who are with us that we can’t see.”


As Hōkūleʻa circles the globe, her destiny will be guided by the values that built her—the determination of Herb Kane, the compassion of Myron Thompson, the kindness of Mau Piailug, the courage of Eddie Aikau, and the vision of Lacy Veach.


Nainoa refers to his father’s observations: “Seeking, planning, experimenting, taking risks and caring for each other. The same principles that we used in the past are the ones that we use today and that we will use into the future. No matter what race we are or what culture we carry, these are values that work for us all."


A version of this story appeared in Hana Hou! in 2014.

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