Issue 8.6: December 2005/January 2006

Women of the Canoe

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa

navigators Ka‘iulani Murphy,
Catherine Fuller and Shantell Ching

The first time that Penny Martin saw the double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a glide majestically into Moloka'i's Kaunakakai Harbor, she fell in love. “It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen sail into the harbor,” she says adoringly.

That was in 1975, the year before Hokule‘a’s roundtrip odyssey to Tahiti, a journey that affirmed history’s accounts of Polynesian migration—that ancient seafarers traversed the wide ocean to discover Hawai‘i using only nature’s compass: the stars, the sky, the wind and the waves. Penny was living on her homestead on Moloka‘i when the head of her canoe club announced that Ben Finney, one of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, was coming to recruit crewmembers. She attended the meeting and asked one question: “Are you going to take women?” The answer: “Of course, we won’t have women.”

But then the PVS organizers reconsidered and decided that they would allow two women to join Hokule‘a’s landmark sail—on the return trip. Thanks to a fortuitous meeting with two crewmen on a short plane trip from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu, Penny was selected, along with a female paddler from Kaua‘i named Kiani Reiner. Together they became the first modern-day women voyagers in June 1976, sailing from Tahiti to Hawai‘i, retracing the journey their ancestors had made 1,500 years before. The newspaper headline read, “All Male Crew Plus Two.”

“You know, we've come a long way from ‘plus two,’” Penny says now. She’s referring to the new generation of female voyagers, about a dozen of whom have taken leadership roles—navigator, doctor, nurse, cook, documenter, canoe builder—in the past two decades. In the ’80s, the outstanding women included Marion Lyman, Jo-Anne Kahanamoku-Sterling and Elisa Yadao. They were followed in the ’90s by Pomai Bertelmann, Pi‘ikea Miller, Moana Doi, Catherine Fuller, Shantell Ching and Ka‘iulani Murphy.

“I'm so happy to see the women who came after us,” Penny continues. “I think, ‘Wow, they're so much more than I ever thought I was.’ They are talented, strong, remarkable. And I feel a kinship with them because they are women of the canoe.”

The crewmembers affectionately call the canoe “Mom,” the navigator “Dad.” The job of the navigator is to keep the canoe on track—it requires a keen understanding of weather, a pure devotion to the sea and unconditional faith in the sixth sense. Polynesian navigators guide the canoe without manmade instruments, relying instead on knowledge, experience and conviction to chart their course.

Catherine Fuller works on one
of the Hokule‘a's hulls

As a directional aid, the canoe is divided into thirty-two sections of the star compass, which are marked by bright strips of tape. Navigators learn approximately 100 to 150 stars, and they know where those stars rise and set. They might use fifteen a night, noting the stars’ sequential ascents, like twinkling stepping-stones across the dark sky. Daytime is much more challenging. Navigators can use the rising sun’s path on the ocean to figure out their orientation, but after the sun reaches overhead and its path disappears, they must also use whatever is at hand: waves, tradewinds, clouds, birds.

“Navigators have to be able to make a decision and be okay with it,” explains Catherine Fuller to a group of students visiting the Hokule‘a from Iolani School, where Catherine teaches social studies to sixth graders. She exudes a casual calmness that belies the huge importance of her job at sea. Like her fellow female navigators, she is modest to no end.

Catherine first became involved with Hokule‘a in 1993, after making the acquaintance of master navigator Nainoa Thompson, who paddled for her canoe club, Hui Nalu. Thompson was taught to sail by the stars by Micronesian voyager Mau Piailug, the grandmaster who reintroduced the technique to Hawai‘i voyagers during Hokule‘a’s maiden sail in 1976. Thompson has since tailored the method and taught it to select apprentices.

Wearing sunglasses, board shorts and a water-resistant top—standard issue for time at sea under the unrelenting sun—Catherine’s bronzed skin glistens with sunscreen as she walks around the canoe’s deck, describing what life at sea is like.

“Your personal space shrinks,” the thirty-eight-year-old crewwoman says, explaining that all of your belongings must fit into a twelve-gallon cooler. Downtime is spent writing in journals, playing music, doing arts and crafts, reading books, doing laundry when it rains, eating and hanging out. Catherine reminisces about playing poker with M&Ms; chocolate, she says, is like gold on the canoe.

The navigators also try to sleep as much as possible whenever they're off watch. The crew’s quarters are tight, with five shared six-foot long, head-to-toe compartments along each side of the canoe. “Trying to find the most comfortable sleeping position almost becomes an art,” Catherine laughs.


She tells the story of her 500-mile leg on the sail to Pitcairn, the first voyage where she experienced solo navigation. Finding Pitcairn, as she describes it, was like “looking for a needle in a haystack.” The canoe ran into eleven days of flat weather, followed by a storm and squalls that sent the vessel rocking and rolling, circumstances that can be disorienting, albeit exhilarating, for the navigator. She started to figure out the math—trigonometry, that is—and concluded that they would meet landfall in sixty-one miles, around 1 p.m. When they started to see birds, she and the other navigators knew they were nearing shore. Her dead reckoning was right on. The first glimpse of the fringe of coconut trees was overwhelming to the point of tears, Catherine remembers: “Tava Taupu [a veteran Hokule‘a crewman from the Marquesas] came up to me and said quietly, ‘Good girl.’ That probably meant more to me than anything.”

Catherine recently got her U.S. Coast Guard-issued captain’s license. A captain on a voyaging canoe executes all of the onboard operations and may also serve as navigator. The veteran of two long voyages—twenty days from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in 1995 and twenty-four days from the Marquesas to Pitcairn in 1999—and dozens of short trips, Catherine offers an insightful reflection: “Before you leave, you have to settle everything first. You leave land things on land, and you make space for the ocean.”

The reverse of that journey—leaving the canoe and returning to land—is, Catherine says, probably the most challenging part. After one voyage, she stayed home for three days. “It’s such big culture shock. I just spent three months with three T-shirts and three pairs of shorts ... what do I do with all this stuff?”


Shantell Ching tightens Hokule‘a's lashings

When Shantell Ching returned home after navigating on the 2000 voyage back from Tahiti, she stayed home for a month. “At sea, your senses become extremely acute. It’s like if you’re blind, you learn to rely on your other senses,” explains the thirty-seven-year-old educator.

Shantell’s first exposure to Hokule‘a came when she was ten years old, and the original crew came to speak to her fifth-grade class at Kapalama Elementary. She remembers the slide show, and she remembers being extremely curious about how the navigators read the stars and the weather. When she was twenty-seven, she met Nainoa Thompson at a sea trial for Hawai‘iloa.

“I was in the right place at the right time surrounded by the right people,” she says. She started working as a part-time office clerk for the PVS and began hanging around to observe navigator training. In 1995, she was tapped to join the Hokule‘a voyage from Hawai‘i to Tahiti (the same voyage Catherine was on). Later that summer, she jumped aboard Hawai‘iloa as it sailed from Ketchikan to Juneau, Alaska, stopping at nineteen different ports. In 1999, she was the sole female aboard the Mangareva to Rapa Nui voyage. And in 2000, she was the primary navigator from Tahiti to Hawai‘i, assisted by Ka‘iulani Murphy and Kahualaulani Mick.

As Shantell talks about canoe voyaging, she makes numerous cultural references, using Hawaiian terms that articulate the dynamics of the Polynesian tradition more clearly than English words. She explains that gender is not an issue with the crew, that instead it’s a matter of each individual’s kuleana, privilege or responsibility.

“It’s not a competition between what I can do and what men can do. Laulima [working together] is key to successfully accomplishing the task,” Shantell says with a gentle voice and regal composure. “Everyone respects and treats each other like family.”


The first lesson Shantell learned at sea was to trust her instincts. “The navigator serves as the eyes of the canoe. Your kuleana is to find your destination. But my personality is I’m so precise,” she begins. “On our first night at sea, it was so stormy, and the clouds were so thick that I couldn’t see one star. I began pacing on the deck, and I remember thinking, ‘Just show me one.’ [Veteran navigator] Bruce Blankenfeld could sense my anxiety. So he asked me, ‘Where’s the moon?’ I thought it was a trick question. ‘Is it on the right side or the left side?’ he asked. So I pointed to it on the right. And I finally realized what he was trying to show me: As long as I kept the moon on the right side of the canoe for a period of time, we were heading home.

“It was a very simple lesson in a very few words,” Shantell continues. “What it taught me was to keep it simple. Don't try to take your land traits to sea. On land you always want to be in control. You'll only get frustrated. When the clues aren't there, make the best of it. When they do appear, you can always reorient yourself.”

Shantell’s devotion to the canoe is, she says, driven by purpose, pride and destiny. “What I’m doing is what I ought to have done,” Shantell reflects. “You only know who you are by knowing where you came from.”

Signs of a higher power reveal themselves to the crewmembers regularly at sea. Catherine describes the dolphins that came at night, swimming through glowing plankton that traced their wake trails in the water “as if they were taking us somewhere.”

“The canoe knows where it has to go,” she adds. Shantell echoes that mystical notion, saying, “The canoe goes where it wants to go. It definitely has its own mana.”

Ka‘iulani Murphy checks a star compass
as she prepares for a journey

Ka‘iulani Murphy, at twenty-six the youngest of the female navigators, tells the story of a powerful occurrence on a return trip from Tahiti. The crew had been waiting two weeks for enough wind to depart. On a fair morning that dawned with favorable conditions, they set sail. Just as they were leaving, gray clouds rolled in, bringing rain, thunder and continuous lightning.

“That night, you could see lightning flashing all around us, the entire horizon was lit,” she remembers. “Everything is based on weather. On land, you can hide from it. But once you make that departure, you’re in it.”

Ka‘iulani recalls seeing smoke on the mountain where lightning had started a fire. And while her hand was resting against the mast, she felt a jolt pass through her arm. The way she describes it, the crew was not fearful but in silent awe. “The küpuna were giving their blessings for a safe voyage home,” she says.

Many might not see lightning and thunder as blessings; that view makes more sense if you know that the fire goddess Pele was among the first voyagers who sailed to Hawai‘i by canoe. (Legend has it that her favorite sibling was her youngest sister Hi‘iaka, who was hatched from an egg that Pele kept warm in her armpit during the long journey to Hawai‘i.) Pele’s brothers were Kanehekili, who appears as thunder; and Keuaakepo, who appears as showers of fire.

Ka‘iu, who hails from the Big Island town of Waimea, started paddling canoe when she was ten. She attended school at Kamehameha on O‘ahu, and later, at the University of Hawai‘i, where she enrolled in a Hawaiian Studies course that Nainoa Thompson was teaching. In 1997, she began helping out with Hokule‘a when the canoe was in dry dock. Her first voyage was a sea trial to Moloka‘i.

Ka‘iulani began learning how to navigate, learning valuable lessons from Nainoa. “You have to be very observant,” she explains. “You have to use everything—how the wind changes, the clouds, the stars. Maybe you’ll see them half the time; maybe you won’t see them at all. Nainoa always told me that he can tell me what he sees, but he can’t show me. I have to figure out how I can read the signs.”

Blessed with the charisma of her Irish father and the beauty of her Hawaiian mother, Ka‘iulani is a natural leader. She looks like a carefree surfer girl with her toned physique and a deep tan fashioned by lots of water time. But she exudes a patience and confidence that indicates she’s serious and smart about what she’s doing. She commands an unquestionable respect from her crewmembers—big, stalwart watermen who obey her directives willingly.

Watching her in action as she guides the canoe, it’s clear that Ka‘iulani has found her calling. Just like Shantell and Catherine, she exhibits an innate comfort and belonging on the canoe, and you suspect there’s no place she’d rather be.


This year, Hokule‘a celebrates her thirtieth birthday, and at thirty, she is very much alive. Tethered to the dock, she appears eager to break free. Her noble presence is the result of the pride and great workmanship that went into building her. The core of her physical strength comes from two strong hulls made of plywood and fiberglass. Ten miles of rigging ropes wind their way up and down her two masts, their job to secure or release the sails that let her fly. The spirit of ancient Polynesia is sewn into her red, crab-claw sails, and when those sails are opened, they flap proudly with the collective soul of her past and present crews. In 2006, Hokule‘a has a full schedule: She will travel to Mau Piailug’s home island of Satawal, to Guam, to nineteen prefectures in Japan, Tahiti, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

Penny Martin says that becoming a crewmember requires more than just being in the right place at the right time. “The canoe finds us,” she believes. “All of us have a purpose. Nainoa—he realized early on that he was meant to be a navigator. Everyone contributes something.

“We must be able to take all the things we learned from living on the canoe and apply them to living on the island,” she says, listing the common traits: being surrounded by water, having limited resources, living in close quarters. “Life is so simple on the canoe. You know exactly what you’re going to do. And if you do everything right, then it’s smooth sailing. You wish everything on land could be so simple.”

Penny brings up one of the most poignant moments of her adventure: Hokule‘a’s arrival in Tahiti in 1976. Standing waist-high in water, waving, she was part of a 17,000-person welcome. “When she came around the corner, I was standing there in the multitude of people and hearing them call out to the canoe, saying, ‘Welcome home, we’ve been waiting for you, what took you so long?’” she recalls. “And I realized this is a part of me. This is where I’m from. This is who I am.”

“Now I think, ‘Oh my God, I’m the kupuna!’” she laughs. “That was a revelation. Some of the kids weren’t even born at the time I went. That’s the incredible thing—what I saw as the end of our journey was just
the beginning.” HH