Polynesian Voyaging Society President and “pwo,” or master navigator, Nainoa Thompson has plans for a new voyage that will take crews on four-year, 39,000-mile journey aboard a traditional wooden Hawaiian sailing canoe around the edge of the Pacific Ocean, relying primarily on ancient seafaring methods.
“Our work is about education,” Thompson said during a talk Thursday at The Community Library in Ketchum to kick off fundraising for the project.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society’s previous round-the-world sail of 2013-2019 reached 18 nations and eight of UNESCO’S Marine World Heritage sites, inspiring local communities while practicing how to live sustainably and celebrate ancestral knowledge.
The 150 ports call for the 42,000-mile Malama Honua (“to care for our Island Earth”) voyage included San Francisco and New York City, as well as many smaller harbors in Aotearoa (New Zealand), South Africa, Samoa, Indonesia and elsewhere around the globe.
The mission was to “weave a lei (Hawaiian flower garland) of hope around the world through sharing indigenous wisdom, groundbreaking conservation and preservation initiatives while learning from the past and from each other, creating global relationships, and discovering the wonders of the Island Earth,” the nonprofit organization states on its website.
While sailing across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans and through the Tasman and Caribbean seas, the voyage engaged 245 crew members and more than 200 educators who helped sail the double-hulled Hokulea, connecting directly with more than 100,000 people in communities around the world.
The society’s new four-year journey will make port in 27 countries and interact with 100 indigenous groups from the West Coast of North America to the South Pacific, and onward to Japan and Russia. It will be the latest voyage for a nonprofit research and educational organization that since the early 1970s has revived the ancient wayfinding techniques and cultural practices that thousands of years ago brought intrepid sailors more than 5,000 miles from Australasia to the most remot islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Thompson, 66, was born in Hawaii at a time when the native language and culture had been in decline due to an education system that neglected to pass on traditional knowledge, ceremony and genealogy.
“I had no idea that my ancestors were great voyagers and that they knew how to live on an island sustainably,” he said.
Thanks to a decades-long cultural revival, the Hawaiian language has rebounded and a new generation of navigators and sailors is being trained in their ancient traditions.
“In 1980 there were only about 100 native Hawaiian speakers,” Thompson said. “Today there are over 25,000.”
Citing his friend and mentor, the late Hawaiian-born astronaut Lacey Veach, Thompson said the new voyage will also be about keeping promises.
“Lacey asked that we go to see if humanity is still kind,” Thompson said.
The planned voyage will continue the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s tradition of raising awareness about threats to the environment, seeking community-based solutions and gathering and sharing indigenous knowledge in support of the cause.
“We reach back hundreds of years to the genius and talent of indigenous people, and use science to reach forward into the future,” Thompson said.
The legendary voyaging canoe Hokulea was designed in the early 1970s to prove that ancient Polynesian navigators who landed in Hawaii 2,000 years ago were capable of undertaking sea journeys of 2,000 miles or more, long enough to purposefully travel between remote archipelagos across the vast 60 million-square-mile Pacific Ocean.
For example, it would have taken pinpoint accuracy (to within one degree on a conventional compass, if they had used one) to navigate the 5,000 nautical miles from Hawaii to Easter Island, a mere 63 square miles in size. The question was, how could people have made the trip nearly 1,500 years ago? By accident or by design?
Historians acknowledge that Melanesian navigators were taking to the seas near Australia as far back as 5,500 B.C., but the traditional seafaring knowledge used on these voyages was all but lost when the Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded in 1973.
Relying on the scholarly work of David Lewis, Ben Finney and others, a group of Hawaiians eager to rediscover these ancient navigational practices, launched the 62-foot Hokulea catamaran sailing canoe in 1975. It was built to historic specifications and its crew would use ancient “non-instrument” navigation practices, including a star compass, knowledge of the movement of wind, sea currents and the flight of seabirds.
Thompson and his crew sailed Hokulea in 1976 from Hawaii to Tahiti, a distance of 2,250 nautical miles. It was the first time such a vessel had sailed from Hawaii in 600 years.
Since that time, the Hokulea has sailed more than 140,000 nautical miles across the Pacific, sparking a renaissance in Hawaiian culture and inspiring millions around the world.
Thompson has been awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, the Unsung Hero of Compassion Award from the Dalai Lama and the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
The voyages of the Hokulea and her sister ships have renewed the practice of traditional seafaring and boatbuilding across the Pacific, Thompson said. The noninstrument navigation system he re-created blends traditional principles and modern scientific knowledge, and is now a part of school curriculums throughout Hawaii and the Pacific.
“This shared knowledge and his broader work with the next generation of ocean stewards is done with a hope that they will protect and continue the connection between the ocean past and future,” the Polynesian Voyaging Society states on its website.
Thompson said he never would have gained the competence to continue making such risky but strategic passages had he not first reached out to “pwo” Mau Piailug, one of the last traditional navigators, from Satawal, in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia.
Traditional navigators rely on a deep knowledge of the ocean and stars, and a memory or “story” of the voyage as it unfolds, as well as a kind of “magic,” Thompson said.
“It’s all about the mind of the navigator and his or her relation to the nature,” he said. “It’s about values. There may not be another planet Earth, so why not take care of it?”
For more information, go to hokulea.com.