Hōkūleʽa Sails Worldwide with Healing Messages

“Every journey begins with a dream, a vision that can unite others,” said Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Pwo (expert) navigator of the Hōkūleʽa. “When people come around a set of shared values, they can achieve extraordinary things.”

Thompson recounted the dream of the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hōkūleʽa, from its original goal of cultural rediscovery, sailing from Hawai’i to Tahiti using only the stars, currents, winds, and birds, with no modern navigation instruments on board, to the current Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, which brought the Hōkūleʽa to Washington, DC, in May.

Thompson stands at a lecturn, an image of the Hōkūleʽa projected behind him.

Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Pwo (expert) navigator of the Hōkūleʽa, shared his dreams and adventures at the National Library of Medicine in May.
[Photo by Bill Branson]

In a special presentation at the National Library of Medicine, Thompson passionately conveyed how the Hōkūleʽa became an icon of the revitalization of Native Hawaiian cultural health and well-being.

Hawai’i’s canoeing tradition is thought to go back more than 2,000 years, when the Polynesians arrived in Hawai’i from Tahiti and other South Pacific islands by traveling 2,500 miles in ocean-going double-hulled canoes. Canoes thrived as part of Hawaiian culture for millennia.

Connecting to a culture that was in danger

About 200 years ago, the arrival of Western explorers to Hawai’i brought Western diseases, such as malaria, for which the Hawaiians did not have resistance. As a consequence, the Native Hawaiian population was decimated. The population declined from about 800,000 to roughly 24,000, explained Thompson, and native language, arts, traditions, and stories were restricted or even outlawed.

Against this backdrop, Thompson explained that when he graduated from high school, “I had no idea where my ancestors came from. I had no idea how they got here. I had no idea what a voyaging canoe was. And in many ways I was wandering around, because spiritually, I had a need to be connected. If you cannot connect to your ancestors, what can you connect to?”

Meeting Hawaiian artist-historian Herb Kawainui Kane helped Thompson reconnect. Thompson explained that Kane had “the Hōkūleʽa in his mind before anybody understood anything about it. He had this dream. He painted that oil painting, ‘Discovery of Hawai’i,’ of that first canoe.”

Bringing the Hōkūleʽa back to life

From historical research, Kane reconstructed what he thought the Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoes would look like. He prepared the original sketches of a full-scale Hōkūleʽa that when built would be 60 feet long, 20 feet wide, with two hulls and two main sails, and weighing 25,000 pounds fully loaded.

But the boat needed more than to be built. It required an experienced traditional navigator. Very few were still alive, and Thompson explained how they were fortunate to find Mau Piailug, from the island of Satawal in Micronesia, who agreed to navigate the Hōkūleʽa maiden voyage to Tahiti while training Thompson and four others as navigators.

Maps and sea charts spread out on a table

The Hōkūleʽa’s East Coast navigation maps [Photo by Bill Branson]

A star was born

The double-hulled voyaging canoe was completed in 1975, and named Hōkūleʽa, the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, the Star of Gladness.

When the Hōkūleʽa departed Hawai’i in 1976 for a successful 5,000 mile round trip voyage to Tahiti, it fulfilled Kane’s dream of demonstrating that voyages over long ocean distances could be accomplished with a double-hulled canoe navigating by the stars.

Tragedy at sea

The second voyage of Hōkūleʽa in 1978 was hit with tragedy and painful lessons learned that would mean that an escort boat with communication equipment would always be available for future voyages. As recounted by Thompson, the Hōkūleʽa departed Hawai’i in stormy weather. The boat encountered gale force winds and seas of 12 to 18 feet in the Moloka’i channel, between O’ahu and Moloka’i islands.

The Hōkūleʽa capsized just after midnight. Eddie Aikau, a highly respected surfer athlete and trained lifeguard, paddled on his surfboard hoping to get help.

Aikau didn’t make it to land, but the rest of the crew was rescued. When they learned about Aikau’s death, the crew fell into despair.

Changing course

Thompson shared how in the surviving crew’s moment of need, his father, Myron Thompson, met with them and “changed the course from depression, from weakness, to believing, to strength.” Thompson said, “My father talked about the power of vision. See your destination. Know your future. Know the path, know where you’re going, and most importantly, know whom you serve along the way.”

And Thompson explained that his father emphasized further training, that “95% of your voyage is before you leave. It’s in the training. It’s in the preparation. That’s where you guarantee success.”

And so it was. Thompson and the Hōkūleʽa crew trained intensively with Mau and other teachers and mentors to hone their skills for the voyages to come.

Success at sea

The Hōkūleʽa has since sailed on many successful voyages, to the Western Pacific, Japan, Aotearoa, Rapa Nui, and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, among others. Along the way, the Hōkūleʽa has become an icon of the broader renaissance in Native Hawaiian culture, language, traditions, healing, and education.

A double-hulled voyaging canoe rests on the still waters of the Potomac River

The voyaging canoe Hōkūleʽa in Washington, DC
[Photo by Bill Branson]

The idea of going around the world emerged from the Hōkūleʽa voyages to other cultures in Polynesia and elsewhere. As Thompson explained, “Let’s go and understand and be with the earth; the only island we really have is humankind. And somehow understanding that we are more than just a community in Hawai’i, or even the Pacific Islands, we are children of the earth.”

The Hōkūleʽa’s Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage of peace, health, and ecological preservation is currently on a 60,000 nautical mile journey around the world, stopping at 100 ports in 27 countries.

At every port, Thompson emphasized, the crew seeks to engage local children and youth in helping the next generation “be ready for and successful in the issues of global warming and in finding new solutions for energy and ways to care for the earth.”

By Dr. Fred B. Wood, Outreach & Evaluation Scientist, Office of Health Information Programs Development, National Library of Medicine

Credits: This article includes excerpts quoted from Nainoa Thompson, “E Ho’i Mau: Honoring the Past, Caring for the Present, Journeying to the Future,” Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being, Vol. 10 (2015), Kamehameha Schools.

More Information
Video: Nainoa Thompson’s Special Lecture on the Hōkūle’a and Native Hawaiian Health
NIH Record: “For Native Hawaiians, Canoe Instills Pride, Healing”
Native Voices Exhibition: NLM Hōkūleʽa microsite
Updates on the Hōkūleʽa Worldwide Voyage, including schedules, events, and the crew blog