Pilot a Voyaging Canoe Across the Ocean

Canoe, SeaGoing, Smithsonian

Hōkūleʻa is currently in Key West after a historic crossing of the Atlantic. It will spend roughly May 15 to June 1, 2016, in the Washington, D.C. area. (Polynesian Voyaging Society)

More than just a desire to learn, a seat aboard the historic vessel Hōkūle`a requires skill, dedication and well, . . .obsession

It’s nighttime. The winds are blowing at 27 knots, with gusts of 35 to 40, and the seas are heaving at 15 feet. It’s close to midnight and we are out in the middle of the ‘Alenuihaha channel between the islands of Maui and Hawai‘i, aboard the 72-foot modern voyaging canoe Hikianalia.

It’s been a pretty smooth ride up to this point. In fact, we were towed all the way to the end of Maui from Honolulu Harbor, because the winds were dead against us. Entering this channel feels like the beginning of a true voyage. Now we have the sails up and the twin hulls of the canoe are gracefully stable despite the large waves.

I am at the helm with a young trainee, Ka‘anohiokala Pe‘a, and we are guiding the canoe by Mars over the starboard boom. Half of our crew of 12 is asleep below, in bunks inside the hulls, while the captain and navigator sleep in a little hut on deck.

What brought me here is the same thing that brought all the rest of the crew members here: an enchantment with oceanic voyaging, spurred by that great icon of cultural pride: the Hōkūleʻa. And for those of us who are trainees, a hope to crew on a leg of Hōkūleʻa’s Worldwide Voyage.

I first learned about the vessel in about 1986, two years or so into my move to Hawai‘i to study geography in graduate school. One of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Ben Finney, was a professor of anthropology on the next floor down. He came up and gave us a talk one day about Hōkūleʻa, and I was immediately hooked. As years went by, I would meet the great navigator Pius Mau Piailug not once but twice, interview navigators and voyagers, and I have written and lectured about how the voyaging canoe teaches us not only how to live on small islands, but how to live on our island Earth. And in 2013, I built my own outrigger canoe.

Now, there was just one thing left to be done: go voyaging.

“Okay, it’s time to tack,” announces our watch captain, Nahaku Kalei, a vibrant young woman who has been setting our course. We prepare to tack—to turn the bow of the canoe from one side of the oncoming wind to the other, which would change our direction by maybe 45 degrees. We try to tack. The canoe starts to turn, then slides back to its previous course. We try again. It doesn’t work.

Now all the crew is up, including the captain and navigator, and we try all kinds of tricks. We take down one of the sails to try to leverage the wind’s push on the boat. Not only does it not work, but also the sail jams as we try to raise it back up, and we spend an hour (or so it seemed) in 15-foot seas hoisting people up the mast to try to fix it.

The name of this channel, ‘Alenuihaha, means something like “big waves, feel your way through.” The giant mountains of Haleakala (10,000 feet) and Mauna Kea (13,700 feet) on either side not only force the ocean roughly through this pass, but the wind as well. We are all wearing foul weather gear. Some are or have been seasick, and I will be soon … read more, see more pics —>  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/

By Doug Herman  –  Smithsonian.com


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