March 31, 2014


This May, Master Navigator and Ocean Elder Nainoa Thompson will launch Hokule’a’s worldwide voyage from the island of Hawai’i. The theme is malama honua, which means to take care of each other and this island in the universe called earth, the only home we have.

There is a scientific aspect to the voyage as well. As nature guides Hokule’a and Hikianalia across the world, much focus will be on what lies beneath them.

“It’s a great voyage of peace, not just among ourselves, but making peace with nature,” said Sylvia Earle. Mission Blue and Dr. Earle are proud to be among the  scientists and agencies partnering on Hokulea’s worldwide voyage.

The voyage will include visits to marine areas that are being cared for and seeing progress and areas that need help. ”To take us along with her wherever she goes, to see the world with new eyes and to look under the canoe to see what’s happening,” Earle said.

“The worldwide voyage is in part about raising awareness about problems and challenges facing the ocean, but maybe more importantly it can point us in the direction of solutions where we can turn things around.”

“This is a mission of hope,” Earle said. “A voice for people, a voice for the ocean, really, a voice for the future.”

Below, Sam Low writes eloquently of his voyage on Hokule’a to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, which will give us a taste of what is to come during the upcoming Worldwide Voyage!                                                                                                                  ~ Ed.

Hokule'a. Photo: Sam Low
Hokule’a. Photo: Sam Low

A voyage to Rapa Nui on a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe inspires a vision for a sustainable planet.

“Bring her up.” The command from my navigator is soft-spoken, blending with the sibilant rush of our vessel through deep ocean swells. I am steering by a star just ahead—but the star has risen and arced north. I bring the canoe up into the wind and select another star.

“Good—right there,” comes the command.

We are sailing east seventeen hundred miles across open ocean from Mangareva in the Gambier Islands to Rapa Nui also known as Easter Island. Our vessel is called Hokule‘a – Star of Gladness – after Arcturus, which rises directly over her home in the Hawaiian Islands. She is a replica of the first such craft ever created by Polynesians thousands of years ago. We sail with no charts or instruments. No timepiece. No compass. We sail as our ancestors did, guided by a world of natural signs—the arcing stars, sun, and moon; the signs of direction in wind and swell; and the mental acuity of our navigator, who employs these subtle clues to find a tiny speck in an immense ocean. Rapa Nui is only thirteen miles wide. We must sail within thirty miles to spot it. If we miss it, the next landfall is South America, two thousand miles beyond.

Nainoa Thompson
Nainoa Thompson

On September 22, 1999, we jump off from Mangareva. As we make our way east through seas veined with tendrils of spray and scudding storm clouds, I watch our navigator, Nainoa Thompson, study the natural world about him for clues to steer by. I sense that he is willing himself back a thousand years to an era when Polynesian navigators sailed ancient routes across this same expanse of ocean. As a compass, Nainoa uses the rising and setting points of stars. Swells also provide clues to steer by. Departing Mangareva, we encounter a steep swell from the southwest, generated by a hurricane off the coast of Australia. We set our course by it during the day and at night when clouds obscure the stars.

To find his latitude, Nainoa observes the meridian crossing (the highest point of rising) of various stars. But it takes a trained eye. A mistake of a single degree in estimating a star’s altitude is equivalent to a sixty-mile error on the ocean. To find longitude, Nainoa uses dead reckoning. He estimates daily the course he has sailed and the distance made good.


I observe Nainoa staring hour after hour into what appears to be an empty expanse of sea. “When everything is going right,” he explains, “I get into a zone of concentration in which all of my relations with the canoe, the natural world, and the crew are integrated. I must be in that special place to navigate. When I’m in the zone, I have the star patterns in mind and I seem to know where I am even when the sky is cloudy. I anticipate the weather. It’s an awesome feeling.”

Sailing under an immense dome of sky, surrounded by a horizon populated only by clouds and stars, we begin to see our ocean world as our forefathers must have done, thousands of years ago.

Our ancestors fashioned seagoing canoes with stone tools. They used koa wood for the hulls, breadfruit sap and coconut husks for caulking, and coconut fiber rope for lashings. “When our ancestors went to the mountains to cut down trees they did not think they were taking the tree’s life,” crewmember Bruce Blankenfeld once told me. “They were just altering its essence, taking it from the forest and putting it into the sea, and in Hawai‘i the sea and the land are tied together. Everything in the sea has a counterpart on the land because on an island the land and the sea rely on each other for life.” Our ancestors, Bruce is telling us, understood the interconnectedness of all the Planet’s life forms long before the word ‘ecology’ was coined. 

On the seventeenth day, the winds blow strong from the northeast. Nainoa knows we are approaching Rapa Nui. At dawn on the eighteenth day, lookouts are posted.

Sam Low on Hokule'a. Photo: Polynesian Voyaging Society
Sam Low on Hokule’a. Photo: Polynesian Voyaging Society

As the rising sun paints the sea crimson, Max Yarawamai spots two holes in the clouds ahead, low on the horizon. “Checking first the one on the starboard side. I saw nothing there,” Max says, “so I switched to the hole on the port. I saw a hard, flat surface there and I watched it carefully. Was it an island? The shape didn’t change! We had found the dot in the ocean.”

With this landfall, the easternmost point of the vast Polynesian Triangle, Hokule‘a has proved the seagoing ability of craft like her and confirmed the genius of ancient Polynesian navigators. But she has also carried her crew toward a coherent new way of seeing their world.

“Learning to survive on long voyages forces us to consider how to survive on the islands we live on,” Nainoa Explains. “In Hawai‘i we are surrounded by the world’s largest ocean, but I see Earth itself as a kind of island, surrounded by an ocean of space. In the end, every single one of us—no matter what our ethnic background or nationality—is native to this planet. As the native community of Earth we should all aspire to live in pono—in balance—between all people, all living things, and the resources of our planet.”


Article by Sam Low,  Author of Hawaiki Rising – Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance

Sam Low’s new Book about voyaging aboard Hokule’a, Hawaiki Rising – Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Polynesian Renaissance is available on 


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