KANEOHE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than a dozen local high school students are making history sailing to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as the first group of youth to visit Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument.
"I'm very excited. It's hard to describe with words because I've never experienced something so monumental as this and a lot of responsibility rides on us too because we're the youngest to ever go up there. It's exciting and very humbling," said 16-year-old Kawaiola Lincoln who will be a junior in the fall at Christian Liberty Academy.
The 14 Halau Holomoana students come from public, private and charter schools across the state and have been training for their trip to Papahanaumokuakea for the past year.
"This is the very first time for Kanehunamoku Voyaging Academy that we're doing this training program and this is the first trip that youth will be entering the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument as a group. It's never been done before," said Bonnie Kahapea-Tanner, Project Director of Kanehunamoku Voyaging Academy, and traditional Native Hawaiian way-finding captain.
Over the next ten days, the students will cover more than 1,000 miles onboard Makani Olu, the state's only tall ship and only sailing school vessel. They'll be navigating using both modern-day instruments and ancient Polynesian wayfinding techniques, which they've been practicing aboard Kanehunamoku.
"We're using the stars, the winds, the ocean currents to just guide us to our destination. As smart as our ancestors were they passed this on -- that intelligence to us -- and by using all these natural resources, it's amazing what we can find," said Kaimana Gomes. The 17-year-old will be a senior next fall at Damien Memorial High School.
The students will follow the sun to Mokumanamana, where they're expected to arrive just after the summer solstice. They'll stop in Kaho'olawe on their return home.
"Kaho'olawe is also known as Kanaloa. It and Mokumanamana lie on the 23.5 degree Tropic of Cancer and so to link those two places in one single voyage hasn't been done to our knowledge in any recent history," explained Kahapea-Tanner, who says the voyage offers an incredible opportunity for the students to connect to their Native Hawaiian culture. "Not only will they start to understand the cultural significance and the important role that Polynesians played in ocean going and exploration, but also they'll start to understand a little bit more about how they will become the caretakers of these places."
Malama Honua, or caring for our earth, is the central theme of Hokule'a's worldwide voyage -- and it's not lost on these hopeful future navigators.
"I believe malama kekahi i kekahi (to care for each other). Since the land took so much care of us, that's what I can do to give back," said 17-year-old Luka Nae'ole, who just graduated from Kula 'o Samuel M. Kamakau and plans on a career with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Organizers say the program is designed to deepen their Native Hawaiian cultural foundation, while introducing them to the maritime industry in hopes they'll find careers on the water they'll love and excel at like their ancestors.
"We want our local youth to embrace their oceanic heritage and then also understand that they can make a living on it they can have a career. Hawaiians have been excellent watermen, navigators and wayfinders," said Kahapea-Tanner.
"I'm going to try and get my degree in Marine Biology and Hawaiian Studie, but also from this program -- I really, really enjoy voyaging a lot so hopefully somewhere in that direction," said recent Kamehameha Kapalama campus graduate Hina Keala about her future plans. "I canoe paddled and I kayaked so I've kind of been bouncing from one boat to another -- so this is just moving on to a bigger boat and it's so exciting," the 18-year-old said.
Ku'umealoha Gomes says she has watched her 17-year-old daughter, Keikilani, grow from her experience with Halau Holomoana.
"This has kind of like lighted a fire in her to think about what her options are," Gomes said, adding that when her daughter first started the program she was interested in mechanical engineering but now she's interested in marine engineering.
"What she's really interested in doing now is building ships or repairing waʻa," Gomes said. "As young people they're walking in the steps of their ancestors and for them -- it's kind of like bringing that part of them alive too. They are so fortunate these young people."