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Hokule’a Log: Voyage to Rapa Nui Part 6

by vrecinto on May 22nd, 2014

Hokulea sunset rapa nui

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

Hokule’a Log: Voyage to Rapa Nui – Part Six
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 six of a multipart series. Please feel free to share this. Aloha

Tuesday, September 21 – Departure

At 1:45 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time, with pu blowing ashore and on Kama Hele, Hokule’a leaves Rikitea Harbor under tow. We depart under a leaden sky but by the time we pass through the reef the clouds dissipate. At 4:05 p.m. Hokule’a drops the tow and takes position ahead of Kama Hele. With its GPS turned off, the escort boat will follow the lead of the Hokule’a’s navigators for the rest of the voyage.

Stratus clouds darken the sky behind us over Mount Duff. Cumulus clouds form ahead of us, in the path of the canoe and squalls march across the horizon – nasty green splotches on Kama Hele’s radar screen. Just as the sun sets, crewmember Max Yarawamai arrives aboard a local fishing boat from the airport. He completes the canoe’s crew of 12.

The night is sheened with silver moonlight. We see Temoe island pass abeam to port, or at least we see indications of the island – a sharp ivory line of surf followed by a darker line, the beach, and a waving fringe of color that must be stands of coconut palms. The wind blows from the north-northwest at about 15 knots. The swells are heavy.

Navigator Nainoa Thompson’s Thoughts Just before Leaving

“The weather will be difficult.”

“The pattern that has established itself in this area is a day of good weather, then the approach of a low and a couple of days of rain. Today is in-between, good weather and rain. Tomorrow and Thursday we may have good weather but I bet it will go bad again. Friday I think we’ll get rain. I wanted to leave now, otherwise we will have to wait until sunrise tomorrow to get through the reefs – another eighteen hours of delay. In eighteen hours we can go eighty miles toward Rapa Nui and the farther we sail east, the longer we will stay with the good weather.”

“I’m excited. We have been preparing for this voyage all our lives, we just didn’t know it. All of our studying, the academic side of our preparation, has really just laid the foundation for what is inside us, the other ways that we understand the world. I think back on times with my family when I was a young kid, and all the time that I have spent on the ocean. All of this has prepared me for thinking about the ocean and the heavens and the environment, learning about our culture and our history and our heritage, learning about being at sea, learning about the canoes and about each other. I believe we are on the eve of tremendous growth as a crew. So I’m both excited but also apprehensive about the difficulty of the trip ahead of us. This trip is going to be very difficult navigationally because of where we’re trying to go and because of the weather. The weather is now becoming a real factor.”

“I didn’t expect tropical lows forming and then dissipating around Mangareva. I expected subtropical lows forming to the south of us and moving to the east. They are there but that is not what is affecting us now – we are getting tropical lows from the north and that brings one-hundred percent cloud cover, rain, changing winds and squalls.”

“I think that we will be able to use some swells to navigate, probably from the south, but it depends on where the lows are situated to the south of us. They are the only weather systems that will build waves. The swells will come from low-pressure areas at thirty-five or forty degrees south. As long as the fetch (the area over which the wind blows) is long enough, the lows will generate swells that we can use, but will we be able to read them? We have to go to sea to find out.”

“The moon is big now. It is waxing, the full moon will be on September 25th, and that will be a help. I think the skies will remain overcast, about 70 – 80 percent, but if it stays like this or improves we can navigate. We have a big moon that will rise at about 2 p.m. When the sun goes down we will have Jupiter and Venus. The moon has a ‘cut’ to it, an edge, so we can tell where north is – the horns of the moon, tip to tip, point north, especially on the equinox. So the cut of the moon will help tell us where north is when the moon gets high. And I’m hoping that tomorrow the visibility will improve because that’s the weather pattern we’re in. The weather was bad yesterday, so hopefully it will be better tomorrow, but we don’t know. But at least we’ll be 100 miles along on our voyage.”

“Learning is all about taking on a challenge, no matter what the outcome may be. When we accept the challenge we open ourselves to new insight and knowledge. In the last few days, I have just tried to be quiet and to study – that’s how I prepare. I am thinking all the time about home, about the voyage, the weather, and the crew, about what we have to do to make this work.

“I think about home a lot because that’s why we do this. We love our homes, we love our people, we love our culture and our history, and we want to strengthen them. This is our opportunity, our chance to do something to support all those who care about these things. I want to thank all the people who gave so much to allow this voyage to take place, but who are not here now. They allowed us to take the risk, to do all of this. I want to thank all the families and children involved for giving us the chance to go. This voyage is about people – it’s about all our people.”

“When I think back on my life, it’s clear that I had no way of knowing that I would be here now doing what I am doing. When I began studying in school and gaining knowledge, I sometimes doubted the importance of that effort. But it’s the knowledge that I gained with the help of so many teachers that is allowing me to do what we are about to do.”

“So I hope that all our children will keep on pursuing knowledge. None of us knows where we are going, but at some point in our lives, that knowledge will allow us to jump off into the unknown, to take on new challenges, and that’s what I consider before every one of these voyages – the challenge. Learning is all about taking on a challenge, no matter what the outcome may be. When we accept a challenge, we open ourselves to new insight and knowledge.”

“When we voyage, and I mean voyage anywhere, not just in canoes, but in our minds, new doors of knowledge will open. And that’s what this voyage is all about. It’s about taking on a challenge to learn. If we inspire even one of our children to do the same, then we will have succeeded.”

A Difficult Voyage

Any voyage without charts or instruments is, of course, extremely difficult. For a compass, Nainoa, Bruce and Chad use the rising and setting point of stars. Waves also provide clues to steer by – the southwest swell, for example, that Hokule’a encounters as soon as she departs Mangareva. Generated by storms near Australia, 4500 miles away, it is satisfyingly deep and constant.

Longitude cannot be found without a chronometer, so the navigators rely on a system called, appropriately enough, “dead reckoning.” They estimate the time and speed they steer a given direction and, on a mental map, they place themselves along an imaginary course line toward their destination. Latitude is determined by estimating the altitude of stars as they cross the meridian, their highest point of rising. In all of these calculations, errors naturally accumulate.

“We can dead reckon our distance traveled, if we are careful, with maybe a 10% error, and we can guess our latitude with an error of about plus or minus one degree,” Nainoa says.

I do the math in my head – 10% of 1500 miles (the distance east- west from Mangareva to Rapa Nui) is 150 miles. Two degrees of latitude (along a north-south line) is 120 miles. So that produces a box of accumulated error equivalent to 18,000 square miles. Finding the tiny island of Rapa Nui (12 miles wide by 7 long) in that vast space seems at best improbable – but that’s a personal opinion, which I keep to myself.

Rapa Nui’s isolation presents yet another problem. On all their previous journeys, Nainoa and his comrades have never actually tried to find a single island, but have rather aimed their canoe at a chain of them. Tahiti, for example, is part of an island chain that stretches across some 400 miles of ocean – a navigational safety net. But on this voyage, there is no safety net. Rapa Nui stands alone in an empty sea.

“One thing has always been certain,” Nainoa once told us, “if we looked at this voyage scientifically there is almost no chance of finding Rapa Nui. If we thought that way, we would not have chosen to go. But you know what? I bet we find it!”

Nainoa’s first target is Pitcairn Island, about three hundred miles away, one of the few stepping-stones along the route to Rapa Nui.

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

This is a logbook and Sam takes all responsibility for errors in spelling and any other kind.


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