Story by Sonny Ganaden
Photos by Monte Costa
Morning light fills Kane‘ohe bay and illuminates Kanehunamoku, a replica of a traditional Polynesian double-hulled canoe, docked in front of Captain Bonnie Kahapea’s lawn. “Not too much wind, but a perfect morning to sail,” Bonnie tells me as we wade into the water with crew members Lei‘ohu Santos-Colburn, Noelani Duffey-Spikes and Kala Thomas. As part of the nonprofit Mana Ma‘oli, Kanehunamoku is a floating classroom for the ninth-grade students of nearby charter school Halau Ku Mana as well a training vessel for those who want to learn to sail a wa‘a kaulua, a canoe of the type that ancient Polynesians used on their epic transoceanic voyages of exploration and colonization.
The crew of Kanehunamoku is practicing something nearly forgotten until the first replica of a wa‘a kaulua, Hokule‘a, was built. That inspiring story—the resurgence of Polynesian wayfinding in Hawai‘i—is well known in the Islands. How Mau Piailug, a master navigator from Satawal, an island in Yap, taught a generation of Hawaiians what their ancestors had known: the techniques of navigating by the stars; how Hokule‘a’s successful voyage to Tahiti in 1976 proved that ancient Polynesians could have populated the vast Pacific by dint of their ingenuity and courage; how tragedy followed that success in 1978, when Hokule‘a capsized in heavy seas off Moloka‘i; how Hawai‘iloa was crafted throughout the 1990s using nearly all traditional materials; how the revival of traditional wayfinding has become a metaphor for the resilience and character of the peoples of Oceania and helped spark a wave of cultural pride here in the Islands now known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance.”
In the years since Hokule‘a’s maiden voyage, technical skills have been refined, more canoes have been built and the community of wayfarers has grown both here in the Islands and throughout the Pacific. At the moment, the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Hokule‘a and Hikianalia are preparing for a multi-year voyage around the world. But other, lesser-known canoes have been planned and built, and whole communities have rallied to support the massive endeavor that is a wa‘a kaulua. When Hokule‘a’s journey ends in 2017, it’s hoped that she will be met in Tahiti by an ‘ohana wa‘a, a family of canoes, one from each main island of Hawai‘i.
“Though I’d love to sail all day, we don’t have too long before we need to get back for the morning class,” Kahapea says as Santos-Colburn uses an outboard motor to get us through a reef pass a hundred yards offshore. “Kane‘ohe is the perfect place to train: with all the coral heads and constant wind, you need to be on the lookout,” Kahapea says. “We usually see a few craft beached every weekend from not paying attention.” Past a barely visible buoy, the engine is cut, the anchor dropped, and the crew sets the sails. “Two! Six! Heave!” Duffey-Spikes and Santos-Colburn breathe in unison while pulling a halyard. “You can tell they trained aboard Makali‘i from their calls,” Kahapea tells me, referring to the third voyaging canoe ever built in the modern era. A gust sweeps across the bay, luffing the sails, propelling the twin fiberglass hulls over the blue water. Thomas lets me handle the main sweep, the large paddle used as a rudder, and the wind tugs against our bearing toward Mokoli‘i islet, a.k.a. Chinaman’s Hat.
Our morning sail concludes too quickly as we turn toward shore. Kahapea directs the crew to unfurl a spinnaker, a downwind sail that was probably not used on traditional Polynesian canoes. “We’re not sure if they used jibs in the old days, but they must have used something similar for how fast it’s said those canoes were,” Kahapea says. “Hokule‘a has the most tricks: lateen mainsails, staysails, anything to catch the wind. We use what works best for us. We stay as traditional as we can, though.”
We motor the last hundred yards to shore, where a dozen teenagers are queued along the seawall, chanting an oli. “It’s the genealogy of the canoe,” Duffey-Spikes explains, and I can pick out names I recognize; the chant traces the lineage of Kanehunamoku to Makali‘i, the voyaging canoe from Kawaihae on the Big Island launched in 1995, all the way back to Hokule‘a. Soon the boisterous collection of 14-year-olds has gathered around Duffey-Spikes, who teaches them the rudiments of wayfaring, a basic sailing course that was taught on the shores of Kane‘ohe bay for centuries.