The sun sinks to a blue horizon as an ancient-looking boat with no motor and no navigating equipment rises and plunges on unending waves in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Native Hawaiian Nainoa Thompson stands on the boat’s open-air platform, wind and sea spray in his hair, feeling the rhythm of ocean swells beneath his feet. He watches carefully where the sun slips below the sea, just as he mentally marks the point where the moon rises. He studies the clouds, birds, and smells, and feels the wind’s subtle shifts on his bare skin. The boat has no enclosed cabin, and as crew members crawl into tiny, canvas-covered compartments to sleep, Thompson stays awake, studying the cosmos as he guides his craft through a world of sea and stars.
The boat is named Hōkūle‘a, and for more than 40 years, it has been doing the impossible. A re-creation of historic Polynesian sailing vessels, it’s a 62-foot-long, 20-foot-wide, double-hulled voyaging canoe made of wood and held together by six miles of rope. Eschewing all modern navigational technology—not even watches are allowed—its navigators steer by the stars. Initially, scholars, sailors, and even some fellow Polynesians didn’t believe Hōkūle‘a's crew could successfully navigate the open ocean.
Watch Adventurer of the Year nominee team Hokulea sail around the world using only the stars as their guide. Each year we comb the globe to find individuals with extraordinary achievements in exploration, adventure sports, conservation, or humanitarianism. These nominees have pushed the limits of human achievement, explored the world’s hardest-to-reach places, and worked to protect the planet for future generations. Get to know the Adventurers of the Year by clicking on the link in our bio. @hokuleawwv #AdvofYear
Yet for the past 40 years, Hōkūle‘a’s undaunted crew members have defied naysayers, rewritten history, and sparked a cultural revival across the Pacific. Now they’re in the midst of their boldest adventure yet—sailing their simple craft in an unprecedented circumnavigation of the planet.
Historians once insisted that Polynesia, the vast sweep of Pacific Ocean and a thousand widely scattered islands from Hawaii to New Zealand, was settled by chance, with early Polynesians in rudimentary rafts blown randomly from island to island. In the mid-1970s, a small group of people in Hawaii set out to prove them wrong. They re-created a classic Polynesian voyaging canoe and named it Hōkūle‘a, after an important star for navigation. Their dream was to sail across the sea to Tahiti and prove their ancestors were purposeful navigators of the Pacific.
There was one problem. After a century of cultural oppression, no Hawaiians remembered celestial navigation. Fortunately, there were still a handful of men on an isolated island in Micronesia who knew the old ways. One of them, Mau Piailug, agreed to teach the Hawaiians. In 1976, Hōkūle‘a's first crew, guided by Piailug, arrived in Tahiti after a 31-day, 2,400-mile, open-ocean voyage. To their surprise, a crowd of 17,000 euphoric Tahitians greeted them on shore. The seafaring culture of Polynesia was reborn.
“I don't think anyone really understood what was about to happen when they built this canoe,” Thompson says now.
At the time, Thompson was in his early 20s and struggling to find a direction in life. Inspired by Piailug’s accomplishment and the belief that his ancestors were master seafarers rather than blundering primitives, he immersed himself in the study of astronomy and oceanography and vowed to navigate Hōkūle‘a back to Tahiti again, this time with an all-Hawaiian crew.
In 1978, Hōkūle‘a once again set sail for Tahiti, this time with Thompson as navigator. But stormy seas capsized the vessel 12 miles from shore and the crew spent a cold night in the water clinging to the overturned hulls. Afraid they wouldn’t be found, 31-year-old lifeguard and surfing champion Eddie Aikau volunteered to paddle for shore on his surfboard. Ten hours later Hōkūle‘a’s crew was rescued. Aikau was never seen again.
The young Thompson was shaken and questioned whether he was ready to lead such dangerous voyages. But inspired by his and Aikau’s shared dream of native Hawaiians recapturing their wayfaring heritage, he recommitted himself. For the next two years he studied with Piailug, who one crew member called “the Yoda of the sea.” Gradually, Thompson came to read the sky’s signs, interpret the waves, and sense the almost imperceptibly subtle shifts in ocean swells that indicate the presence of islands yet unseen.
In 1980, Hōkūle‘a sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti and back again. Thompson was navigator. The lost tradition of Hawaiian wayfarers was reawakened.
For the next three decades, Hōkūle‘a, Thompson, and the Polynesian Voyaging Society set out on journey after journey throughout the Pacific. They met with indigenous peoples from Alaska to Japan. They created cultural curricula for schoolchildren. They inspired the building of dozens more deep-sea voyaging canoes across Polynesia. Thompson trained more Hawaiians—notably Bruce Blankenfeld and Chad Kālepa Baybayan—in the old ways of celestial navigation.
Then came their most audacious dream of all. Inspired by a conversation with Hawaiian astronaut Lacy Veach, who described seeing the Earth from space, Thompson and the PVS began planning to sail Hōkūle‘a on a 60,000-nautical-mile journey they titled the Worldwide Voyage. Thompson calls it “by far the most dangerous thing we’ve ever undertaken as a voyaging family.”
I wanted to be a part of something I could believe in. It was the voyage. And I've been there ever since.
For six years they studied meteorology, geography, storm seasons, and ocean currents to determine if the journey was possible. They stitched together a potentially viable route across the Pacific, through the Indian Ocean, around the southern tip of Africa, across the Atlantic, up and down the American East Coast, through the Panama Canal, and back to Hawaii.
They called their mission Mālama Honua—taking care of island Earth—and dedicated the voyage to building a movement for a sustainable world. After rigorous fitness testing, they chose a rotating cast of 350 from diverse cultural backgrounds to be Hōkūle‘a's crew. Though voyaging was traditionally for men only, they selected many women. With the goal of spreading their knowledge and message to upcoming generations, they involved as many young people and schoolteachers as possible.
They also screened crew members for mental toughness, a wise move considering they’ll be living with a dozen other people on a 55-by-14-foot platform on the open ocean for weeks at a time. Everyone gets a six-by-three-foot sleeping compartment in the canoe hull that can take on water in storms. All their possessions must fit in a 48-quart cooler. They bathe with saltwater and get one gallon of drinking water per day. In the meantime, they man sails, gather data on water quality and fish populations, and create lessons for teachers around the world.
In 2013, shortly after being blessed by the Dalai Lama, Hōkūle‘a set sail on its four-year voyage. Since departing, Hōkūle‘a and its crew have been visited by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Samoa, met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, and were hosted by Richard Branson in the British Virgin Islands. Many New Yorkers were shocked at the sight of the mythical-looking craft in early June of this year as it sailed up the Hudson River to be a focal point of the United Nations’ World Ocean Day.
Former Hawaii resident Kapena Alapai told Hawaii News Now, “I wouldn’t have ever thought I’d see Hōkūle‘a in New York City in my lifetime. It’s been amazing.”
Though their need to constantly interpret sea and sky means Hōkūle‘a navigators sleep only two to four hours per night, Thompson has mastered the art of taking micro-naps while standing. It sounds rough, but Thompson, now 63, wouldn’t trade it. He found his life’s direction—in more ways than one.
“I wanted my life to count,” he says, explaining why he devoted himself to wayfaring. “And I wanted to be a part of something I could believe in. It was the voyage. And I've been there ever since.”
Adventure: How many people are typically on board?
Nainoa Thompson: When we're sailing long, deep-sea, open-ocean voyages we have to be completely self-contained. We normally don't like to be over 12 people. The limiting factor is weight. For a 30-day leg we’ll take 2,000 pounds of food and a ton and a half of fresh drinking water.
How does the boat handle big ocean water in storms?
The double-hull voyaging canoe design, the predecessor of the catamaran, can handle a lot of weather. Other vessels will sea anchor in rough weather; we never do that. Even in a gale, if there's open water and no risk of going aground, we actually sail in the gale. We put a small sail in the front, bring all the weight back, and let the canoe find its way.
In many ways, Hōkūle‘a is not designed and engineered for the hurricane or for rogue waves. The Worldwide Voyage is a voyage of high risk. We know that if you're in a major hurricane, people will die. If you're in the rogue wave, you die. We did six years of research before we even left and asked a lot of questions. Do the wind systems on the Earth allow you to sail around it in the canoe? Can you keep it safe? We're so open, we're so exposed, we really are designed for the tropics. We're not designed for Southern Hemisphere, Roaring Forties kind of stuff.
So we designed our sail plan to stay out of those kind of conditions. The Pacific is big, it's deep, it's cold. In many ways, on the tropical side, barring hurricane season, it's a very safe place to be. That's what we knew. So we had to kind of re-train ourselves for oceans that were completely unfamiliar. What's good about that is that's how you learn about the Earth.
How do you guys go to the bathroom when you're on the boat?
Depends who you are [laughs]. When we're in the open ocean, we just hang on the side with harnesses so you don't fall overboard.
What inspired you to learn this type of sailing?
Thousands of years ago some genius figured out how to build the deep-sea voyaging canoe, the spaceship of our ancestors, that could sail far on the ocean. Two thousand years ago there was a vessel that arrived to Hawaii for the first time, put a human footprint on the sand for the first time. Two hundred years ago there's a whole new wave of Western explorers and things change in Hawaii. There was a loss of culture, loss of land, loss of heritage, loss of language. It was essentially losing who you are as a people. By 1924, my nearly pure Hawaiian parents were the first generation not to be taught our language and genealogy and culture. The public schools outlawed any teaching of first peoples’ language and culture in the schools.
I had no idea who my ancestors were, no idea where they came from, no idea how they got there. Even though that first footprint in the sand would suggest that that was the greatest feat of open-ocean navigation exploration of all time. It's like forgetting Apollo.
I was someone who was really trying to find his place in his homeland and trying to be a part of something worth standing up for. It was that vision [of sailing Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti]. So all of a sudden, we are re-learning our history and we're regaining a sense of pride and dignity. Hōkūle‘a was the light and flame that started everything.
What does native Hawaiian culture have to teach the modern world?
We have enough science. We have enough facts and figures to tell us that our sail plan right now is not a good one. At the same time, we're not making the shifts quick enough to deal with melting the ice, rising sea levels, changing the chemistry of the atmosphere, loss of wildlife, loss of biodiversity.
Two thousand years ago Hawaiians came here and built a population of 800,000 [some researchers have suggested slightly fewer] and everything they needed to survive was on the islands. They had a hierarchy of importance of life and human beings are like number four. You have rain, you have water, you have coral reefs coming first. So having indigenous knowledge coupled with modern science and technology, we believe, is part of figuring out a new sail plan.
What can your experiences sailing teach us about living sustainably on a global scale?
Our strategy is to constantly make connections—to good ideas, to other sail plans—whether it's in alternative energy, education, protection of the oceans. What we found was that past all the gloomy data there is a human movement. We run into thousands and thousands of people around the world doing extraordinary things that we're learning from all the time. We're finding a brand-new culture. It's not limited by racism. It's not divided by geography or nationalism. It's a culture of the Earth. A new, emerging culture that's based on the values of kindness and caring. That's where the hope is. In the end all we're trying to do is be a part of that movement and help that movement be successful.