In late 2012 I met one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever encountered, Nainoa Thompson, a quiet, unassuming character. He speaks in a soft, subtle voice, and upon an initial meeting you’d never guess this Hawaiian native is largely responsible for bringing Hawaiian pride, culture and values back into the mainstream.
As one of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), over the last three-decades-plus, Thompson has become a guru of sorts in the Hawaiian islands and PVS’s ambitions continue to grow each year. In 1976 PVS sailed Hōkūleʻa, a Polynesian voyaging canoe modeled on ancient crafts, free of modern navigational equipment, across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Tahiti, using the stars to guide their way. It was the first time in over 600 years anyone had done so, proving that ancient Polynesians had indeed sailed purposefully to what is now Hawaii.
Following the triumphant 1976 voyage, a new crew set sail from Honolulu in less than ideal weather on March 16, 1978, with legendary Hawaiian big wave surfer Eddie Aikau aboard. Hours in to the trip the boat hit rough seas, took on water and capsized, leaving the crew fighting for their lives in frigid waters off the Hawaiian island of Lanai. After a night bobbing in the sea, Aikau set off to seek help, paddling his surfboard in high seas and was never seen again. What had put Hawaiian culture and values back on the map had suddenly resulted in the loss of one of the island’s most beloved residents and threated to quickly undo all that had been achieved.
After some introspection, Thompson and PVS decided to not give up their cause, retooled, and came back stronger than ever, rebuilding their beloved Hōkūleʻa, opening a school to train young navigators in Hawaiian skills and culture, and brought Hawaiian values back to the forefront of local society. The dream was alive!
May 17, 2014 saw the official launch of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, a journey that will see two canoes, Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia, sail 47,000 nautical miles, visiting 85 ports in 26 countries over the next three years. The mission of the expedition is to highlight diverse cultural and natural treasures and the importance of working together to protect them, along the way creating global relationships, and exploring how to care for our oceans and planet.
With VIPs in attendance, including Jean-Michel Cousteau, the canoes left Honolulu on the island of Oahu to their first stop at Hilo on Hawaii, the big island. The boats were scheduled to depart Hilo on May 24th, but less than optimal weather delayed them, PVS leaders no doubt wisely thinking of that ominous day, March 16, 1978.
Sitting in a large circle with my 40-strong cohort from the Asia Pacific Leadership Program (APLP) in late 2012, our PVS classroom was dead silent. All eyes were honed on Thompson as he sat, hunched-over, recalling the last time he saw Eddie Aikau. Floating in rough waters, he was the final person to speak with Aikau, handing him a life jacket before the Hawaiian waterman paddled off and in to history. Thompson’s resolve, spirit, drive, and uniquely mild manner for leading others, a powerful combination, are no doubt instilled in every crewmember aboard Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia as they set off around the world. Wishing you all smooth sailing ahead.
- My APLP cohort Daniel Lin is blogging about the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage for National Geographic and generously allowed me to use his photos in this blog.
- Track the canoes’ voyage in real time.
- Watch a video about the voyage, featuring Master Navigator, Nainoa Thompson.
- ‘Like’ and follow the crew on Facebook.
- Read my blog about Nainoa Thompson.
- Read my blog about Eddie Aikau’s death.