Family Reunion

Story by Derek Ferrar. Photo by Elyse Butler

It was ten years ago, the first time I was lucky enough to cover the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a overseas, that I heard the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s pensive leader, Nainoa Thompson, begin to talk about the idea of taking the revered canoe on a journey around the globe. I was hanging out with the crew in a dockside dojo in Hiroshima, Japan, and we were trying to get our heads around the enormity of what the atomic legacy of that city represents for humankind. “To me, Hōkūle‘a is a bridge across cultures that can allow us to navigate toward a more peaceful future,” Nainoa said then. “So I think we have no choice but to continue to sail around Island Earth, to carry a message of aloha and respect.”

“Wait, what—a voyage around the world?” I confess to thinking. “Nainoa and his nutty ideas.” But then there I was a decade later, perched on the sea wall at Honolulu’s Magic Island park this past June among fifty thousand of my fellow citizens, waiting to welcome the wa‘a (canoe) back from her epic three-year voyage around the globe to spread a message of mālama honua, or caring for the Earth. Nainoa’s crazy dream had become a reality.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, and huge video screens projected the action to the crowd squeezed among the TV news trucks and welcoming phalanxes of lua warriors and hula dancers. But despite the crush this was a day for aloha, and the parade of strangers pressing past each other was all smiles and shakas. I managed to find a spot out toward the point, where families gathered under tarp tents they had pitched the night before—generations joining to witness this historic moment in the shared life of our islands.

I had last taken leave of Hōkūle‘a a year and a half earlier in South Africa, literally as far away from Hawai‘i as you can get on this planet. Over there she was an unknown curiosity in a faraway port, but she somehow buzzed with a new mana, or spirit, of unfamiliar seas and peoples.

Now I found my heart beginning to race as seven other canoes from around Hawai‘i and the Pacific preceded her one by one into Ala Wai Harbor. And then there she was in the distance, crab-claw sails unfurled, surrounded by a flotilla lei of watercraft. As she cleared the point at a regal pace and glided to rest amid a clamor of chants and cheers, her mana seemed to shine forth like never before.

Since leaving home she had journeyed more than 40,000 nautical miles and visited more than 150 ports in 23 countries and territories. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had sailed aboard her in Sāmoa, and peace icon Desmond Tutu had welcomed her to Africa. She had cruised the Great Barrier Reef, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, put in at Havana, hopscotched the East Coast and passed through the Panama Canal. Her crews had engaged with dozens of indigenous communities and spread the mālama honua message to hundreds of thousands.

When Nainoa, up to his ears in lei, spoke to a circle of reporters after the welcoming ceremonies, I asked what the idea of home meant to him now. “It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” he reflected, “but home to me has always meant a place where you’re always safe—a loving place, where you are nurtured by your community.” The voyage, he said, had been “about Hōkūle‘a being the needle that weaves together a lei of good among all the negative going on in the world. And we know now more than ever that Hawai‘i is the right place to lead in this, driven by the value of aloha and the depth of ancient knowledge that we are part of the land and the sea, and they are part of us.”

The bottom line, he said, allowing himself a cautious smile, “is that we borrowed this canoe from our ancestors and our children to share with the world, but with a promise to bring her back. And today we are home.” HH