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Hokule’a Log: Voyage to Rapa Nui Part 1

by vrecinto on March 27th, 2014


In preparation for the start of the Worldwide Voyage in May 2014, we are pleased to re-posting Sam Low’s stories about the Hokulea’a.


Hokule’a Log: Voyage to Rapa Nui – Part One By Sam Low

In 1999 Hokule’a – a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe – set out from Mangareva to voyage to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Her Navigator, Nainoa Thompson, would find his way as his ancestors once did – without charts, compass or instruments of any kind. This is part one of a multipart series. Please feel free to share this. Aloha. Nainoa Thompson: “We cannot just be talking about and reading about our cultural revival we have to live it. We have to practice it. As we voyage we are creating new stories within the tradition of the old stories, we are literally creating a new culture out of the old.” The Challenge By 1995, Hokule’a had sailed almost eighty five thousand miles since her launching twenty years earlier. She had voyaged between Hawaii and Tahiti five times, between Tahiti and New Zealand twice, and she had visited the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Cooks, the Australs and Samoa – all the corners of an immense tract of ocean that geographers call the Polynesian Triangle – except one, the eastern corner, which is occupied by a tiny island in an immense and empty sea. Europeans know it as Easter Island, but throughout Polynesia it is called Rapa Nui. “We have never sailed to Rapa Nui before not because we didn’t want to,” Nainoa once said of the voyage, “but because we didn’t think we could do it.” In 1999, he decided to try. The trip Nainoa envisioned would be made in five segments – Hawaii to the Marquesas, the Marquesas to Mangareva, then on to Rapa Nui and back to Hawaii with a stop in Tahiti. Every one of those passages would be difficult – but none more than the third segment – the one to Rapa Nui. Setting out for Rapa Nui from Mangareva, Nainoa expected to tack into almost constant headwinds, extending the distance Hokule’a must travel from 1500 seagull flying miles to more than 4000 zigzagging ones. Every mile would be cold and wet. The constant head winds would try the crew’s endurance. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that Rapa Nui is a tiny target, only 14 miles wide. Navigating without instruments or charts, Nainoa and his crew would have to find the island by using only a world of natural signs – stars, waves and flight of birds. As an example of the exactitude required, an error of only a degree of latitude, calculated by the flickering light of a distant star, would cause Hokule’a to sail past the island. The next landfall would be South America – two thousand miles away. The voyage, as Nainoa envisioned it, would be the ultimate test of the skills of ancient navigators and explorers, it would be a journey deep into the past – into the heart and soul of a people many consider the world’s greatest ocean explorers, and it would be an opportunity to reunite the people of Rapa Nui, long a colony of distant Chile, with their Polynesian family to the west. “We do not explore because it’s easy,” Nainoa told his crew as they prepared for the voyage, “we explore because it’s a great challenge. We go to Rapa Nui in great humility and respect for our ancestors, we go to rekindle the pride and dignity of our people and to reunite our ancient seafaring family.” The canoe set off on June 15th from Hilo and traveled to the Marquesas where she made stops at Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva, and Hiva Oa – each island seemingly more beautiful than the last. Going ashore, the crew saw ancient temples, wild horses, deep crenellated valleys rich with vegetation, and mountains arching into the sky – landscapes so perfect in their effect they appeared almost Hollywood stage sets. Here, they experienced moments of deep human connection. Enroute to Mangareva, Hokule’a anchored in Bounty Bay, Pitcairn Island, an isolated land of steep chocolate roads, fields rich with fruit and vegetables, and peopled by a large extended family – the descendants of the Bounty Mutineers. A few days later, the canoe docked at the government pier in Rikitea, Mangareva Island. On September 11, the crew that would sail the Rapa Nui leg set out from Hawaii for Mangareva. Preparations On September 11, 1999, on the Hawaiian Air flight to Tahiti, Nainoa is leaning over his seat, talking with crewmembers Shantell Ching and Mike Tongg. “We are going to the land of the people who I think were the greatest explorers of all time,” Nainoa says. “The Polynesians were the colonizers of the largest nation on earth, but this particular leg to Rapa Nui had to be the most difficult one of them all. We go there in great honor of the people who found this tiny island.” They discuss the weather – a series of low and high pressure systems are migrating from west to east along the track they will take from Mangareva to Rapa Nui – and they assess the possibility of riding one of the lows to the east. “It takes about 40 hours for a low to pass and it will bring winds from the west,” Nainoa says, “so if we jump off and sail with it, we can extend our time in the low to about 60 hours. At six knots that gives us 360 miles. Getting east may not be as much of a problem as we think, but finding the island, that will be a problem. Rapa Nui is tiny and there will be few if any birds to help us find it. This is going to be a very mentally demanding trip.” Everyone in the crew knows the voyage will be unlike any they have made before and they have all prepared themselves for it in unique ways. Aaron Young, for example, stays awake for 20 hours at a time, sleeping three or four, then practices what he calls “keeping busy.” “One thing you don’t want to do is let yourself get in a rut on the canoe,” he says. “You have to find something to do, be helpful, vigilant, look around to see what needs to be done. And to prepare mentally for that, I don’t allow myself any sloppy land habits, putting things off, for example. So before I leave on a voyage I get real busy doing chores – it gets my mind in shape for the discipline needed to be on the canoe.” Aaron also takes cold showers and increases his already strenuous level of physical exercise. “It’s hard to go from a comfortable life on land where you sleep in a warm bed to being aboard the canoe where you are often cold and wet and you take baths in seawater and go to the bathroom over the side,” he says. Farther back in the aircraft’s cabin, Doctor Ben Tamura, the medical officer, is reading an article entitled, “Preventive and Empiric Treatment of Traveler’s Diarrhea,” which was written by a colleague, Dr. Vernon Ansdell of Kaiser Hospital, a specialist in travel medicine. How has he prepared himself personally for the voyage? “I tend to get tendinitis when hauling on lines,” he explains, “so a few months before leaving I carry a tennis ball in my car. On the way to the hospital in the morning, I squeeze it with my left hand and coming back home at night, I squeeze it with my right to strengthen my arm and wrist muscles.” As on his last two voyages, Ben rewrote his will and spent a lot of time “cleaning house” as he puts it – tidying up his office work, sweeping out the garage, mowing the lawn – so he can focus totally on the voyage when it’s time to leave. He also conducted mental dry runs of what each day aboard Hokule’a might be like and counted up the number of tee shirts, shorts, towels and underwear he might need. “That helped me pack just what was really necessary,” he says, “and allowed me to simplify, to lighten up on what I brought.” But perhaps the most important preparation was what Ben calls “tolerance training,” getting his mind ready for the kind of caring – of aloha – that the voyage will require. Tolerance training is partly a matter of daily meditation in which Ben visualizes life on the canoe, and partly a matter of daily “anger control exercises.” “I took the last ten days off from work,” he explains, “and spent a lot of time surfing. I practiced letting other surfers take a wave, even though I was in position for it, and not getting pissed off when a surfer dropped in on me. Another thing I did,” he continues, “was even more difficult – practicing tolerance in commuter traffic.” “Voyaging aboard Hokule’a has really taught me a lot about the word love,” Ben goes on, “it’s a word that is really misunderstood. People think that you can only have real love between a man and a woman. That’s not what I’m talking about. My other trips have given me a feeling of what love is in an altruistic sense that I can’t put into words easily. It’s different than how classic literature portrays love. It’s like the word “aloha.” How can you define that? There are so many different meanings.” Sitting next to Ben on the Hawaiian Airlines flight to Tahiti is Mike Tongg. “I began to prepare about three months before going to Mangareva,” he says. “Every voyage is special. I feel like I am a servant of the canoe and, given my age (55 years old) I need to get in shape to handle the sails, the steering, and being in a difficult environment for so long. I also get ready mentally. I need to disassociate myself from the land and prepare my mind for the ocean and I do that by spending more time on boats. I begin to study the clouds and pay attention to the tides, be aware of sunrise and sunset. I try to get back in tune with nature.” Mike also reads his old diaries, written on the six previous voyages he has made. He exercises physically and he gets in touch with members of the crew to rekindle, as he puts it, “that bond of ‘ohana with the family I will sail with.” “The spiritual side of life is real important to me,” Mike continues. “The Lord has given me this opportunity for a purpose. In the past voyages, He has taught me that the strength to deal with hardships comes from within. I also look to the leaders of the voyage to learn from them. I see what I call a spiritual intellect in Bruce Blankenfeld and Nainoa, for example. They are dedicated and focused so that is an ethic that I try to emulate. In the past, in order to survive, the navigators had to focus and they needed inner strength. I need the same thing as a crew member, so I try to work hard on that.” The crew also needs to practice the philosophy of malama – of caring for the natural environment – of helping to create what Nainoa calls a sense of pono – of balance between all living things and the natural resources of the planet. As Nainoa explained in a recent interview, “The Polynesian genius is the ability to find sustainable ways to only take only as much from nature as nature can provide.” “The concept of malama,” explains Tongg, “may have evolved from our heritage of long distance voyaging. Our ancestors learned they had to take care of the canoe and that if they did, the canoe would take care of them; they also learned that they had to take care of each other.” The malama philosophy is part of the life of every member of the crew. “When I was younger,” says Mike Tongg, “voyaging was an adventure – a test – I just wanted to go, I didn’t think about much else, just getting on the canoe. But now I think about a lot of other things before I go. I think about my family and being sure they are comfortable with my sailing. I think about my larger ‘ohana, my community, and that all of us on the canoe represent our islands and our people – maybe hopefully even the aspirations of all people on planet earth. I think about what values the voyage has for all of us – both those aboard the canoe and those at home – the values of aloha, malama, of team work, self discipline, and of always having a larger vision of why we sail which will carry us through the hardships ahead.” “This voyage will test us,” says Nainoa. “There is no question about it. Each person aboard Hokule’a and our escort boat, Kama Hele, is totally committed to this voyage spiritually, mentally and physically.” Pausing for a moment, Nainoa peers out the window. He sees empty ocean below, a route he has sailed perhaps a dozen times. But the voyage to Rapa Nui will be across another part of this ocean – one that is totally new for him and his crew. “In the past, when only I was navigating, nobody else really understood the system,” Nainoa says, “it was just myself, and I would hallucinate, I would get very near collapse. But this time it would be foolish to do that, and there is no need because we have good navigators. We will have a top navigator on each watch. The navigator will double as a watch captain. Plus, frankly, at my age, I feel not as physically strong as I was twenty years ago. Just not. And being wise about that issue it is good to bring two experienced navigators, Bruce Blankenfeld and Chad Baybayan. While they are on watch, I can sleep and they can steer a course and when I get up they will tell me exactly where we have gone and I will recalibrate my own mental map. I think that’s what it’s going to take.” Bruce Blankenfeld and Nainoa are old friends, they fished together in a small commercial enterprise back in the seventies and Bruce is married to Lita, Nainoa’s sister. “Bruce is the most natural ocean person I think I have ever met,” says Nainoa. “Natural – everything is easy for him immediately. No adjustment time. No nothing. He is fine. Bruce changes from land stuff to ocean stuff by becoming extremely relaxed, extremely comfortable.” In appearance, Bruce is raffishly handsome. He has curly black hair, deep set eyes under prominent ridges, broad shoulders and thick canoe paddler’s forearms. He exudes a quiet self-confidence, a man who has answers to things. “Bruce is the kind of person that without the ocean you would take away half of his life. Nothing in his life would have the kind of importance and value without him having a connection to the sea, he is so innately inclined to the ocean.” The other watch captain is Chad Baybayan. Chad stands about five feet ten. A man whose physical center of gravity appears low to the ground, Chad has a swimmer’s body, suggesting a capability of delivering powerful strokes and a strong finishing kick. He is dark by genetic makeup (he is part Hawaiian, part Filipino) and because he spends so much time in the sun – running, swimming, physically preparing for long ocean voyages. Chad will readily tell you that sailing aboard Hokule’a has been the seminal experience of his life – accounting for his inner sense of confidence, for his happy marriage and fatherhood. “Chad is the academic,” says Nainoa. “He will study and train incredibly hard and he will get out here and he will force that training, he will force that information, he will mentally, academically, try to figure it out. He has an intensity, but if Chad gets too intense he gets tired. He needs that intensity but has got to find a way so that it doesn’t exhaust him.” “The reason why we could not do this trip before but we can now is because these guys command so much respect that there are absolutely no questions on the canoe. No debates. Authority has been totally earned by Chad and Bruce so it’s easy for anybody to get on board and serve them. That’s why it will work. But without that kind of 100% commitment by the crew to this kind of earned leadership this would be, oh man, a tough job.”

Author Sam Low has recently published a book about Hokule’a called Hawaiki Rising – Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance.

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