Tradition, elation marks Hokulea’s triumphant homecoming

In moving ceremony, huge crowds welcome Hokulea home
Updated: Jun. 18, 2017 at 12:21 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

MAGIC ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a moving and powerful ceremony, tens of thousands crowded into Magic Island on Saturday to welcome Hokulea home from her unprecedented, three-year voyage around the globe and to show their support for the trek's core message -- to care for the earth.

The double-hulled sailing canoe, officially a "state treasure," was greeted with chants and cheers — and its crew members with lei, hugs and tears.

Hokulea sailed into the Ala Wai Boat Harbor about 9:45 a.m., the culmination of a worldwide voyage meant to share a message of environmental sustainability and caring for Mother Earth.

In a special ceremony after Hokulea's return, Mayor Kirk Caldwell presented Hokulea master navigator Nainoa Thompson with a key to the city of Honolulu, and urged attendees to take the lessons of Hokulea's voyage to heart.

"The Hokulea talks to the future, to the keiki," he said.

Thompson was visibly moved as he addressed the crowd, saying that he was "standing here on behalf of the many."

"Thank you, Hawaii. Thank you for the moment," he said. "I am very humbled to tell you right now that Hokulea is home."

For many looking on, the homecoming ceremony was moving, magical -- and an affirmation of how far voyaging has come.

"Just being here and feeling the mana that's here, it's something to enjoy which brings tears to my eyes," said Bert Wong, who came to Ala Moana Beach Park to celebrate Hokulea's homecoming -- and to celebrate his son, Kaleo, a Hokulea navigator. "This is so powerful."

The crowds started gathering early, well before dawn.

By 6 a.m., an hour before the homecoming ceremony was set to start and more than three hours before Hokulea was set to sail in, thousands had already crowded into Ala Moana Beach Park, setting up chairs and blankets along the shoreline to watch history in the making.

Derek Valdez came down to Magic Island with the whole family. "It's a historic event and part of our culture," he said. "We're witnessing voyaging. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho said he could feel the mana in the crowd.

"This is a very special day," he said. "Today is the day that we honor our kupuna. The crew has been throughout the world. We took the Hokulea around the world and spread the love. There's much more to come."

Before Hokulea's arrival, other voyaging canoes from around the state and the Pacific made their way into Magic Island. Each was welcomed with traditional chants as their crew members disembarked.

Kaiulani Kamalu's four sisters have all sailed on the Hokulea, and she said the energy and anticipation in the crowd as attendees waited for Hokulea to arrive gave her chicken skin.

"It's everybody coming together," she said. "I like seeing people all happy and saying hi to each other. and coming together around one thing."

Donovan Leandro, a paddler, brought his two children to the park so they could witness Hokulea's return. He said he got teary-eyed as he heard crowds chanting to welcome voyaging canoes in.

"It's a pride thing to me," he said. "It's like welcoming a family member home."

During her sail around the globe, her crew using only ancient navigating techniques that employ the sun, stars, waves and seabirds, Hokulea traveled more than 40,000 nautical miles and docked at 150 ports. She stopped in Tahiti and Brazil, in South Africa and New York City, in Cuba and the nation's capital.

All along the way, Hokulea crew members sought to share the journey's message — Malama Honua, to care for the earth — and learn more about how communities in just about every corner of the globe are trying to live more sustainably and look more seriously at their impact on the planet.

"The heart of all of this is exploration," said Bruce Blankenfeld, a master navigator and the voyaging director for the Hokulea's worldwide voyage. "There is so much to learn, the big quantum leaps in knowledge happens when people look outside of the box."

Blankenfeld has sailed the Hokulea for thousands of miles, and said the canoe's ohana extends far beyond the crew members — to friends and family, to fellow navigators, and to all those lives touched in ports around the world.

"The larger community being a part of us that's a huge thing," Blankenfeld said. "There is huge mana in that, there is huge love in that, and that's what all of this is about."

A journey, years in the making

In the early 1990s, a worldwide voyage for Hokulea was just a dream — the type of moonshot-sized goal that comes once in a generation. But on Saturday, Hokulea's unprecedented sail around the world became a momentous chapter in the history of Polynesian voyaging.

The round-the-globe voyage took more than six years to plan and more than two years of intensive crew training.

Lehua Kamalu, of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, said preparations for the historic trip were downright grueling.

"We had so many meetings with meteorologists, NOAA, many folks at the university -- what kind of weather can we anticipate," she said.

MORE: See more stories, videos, and interactive graphics on Hokulea's historic voyage at For thousands who attended Hokulea homecoming, a moment of pride, chicken skin and aloha 'Coming back': Hokulea's journey spurs rebirth of canoe cultures in Pacific

"All those years were constantly trying to think through the different scenarios -- what were the crew going to look like, how should they be trained, what kind of weather situations would we be approaching?"

Apprentice navigator Jenna Ishii said research also touched on security issues, including piracy and regional violence.

"We actually flew to places like Australia, South Africa, and place we had no connections with to make sure that the first time Hokulea arrived was not the first time they heard about us," she said.

Added Miki Tomita, the society's Learning Center director: "We had this two-tiered plan of canoe safety and exploring the stories around the world. We generated a number of different contingency plans and best possible plans and also along the way gave ourselves some flexibility."

There were 31 legs to the global voyage, each lasting anywhere from three to eight weeks. More than 250 crew members took part; they ranged in age from 20 to 76.

Crews for the Hokulea and partner vessel Hikianalia rotated out 12 at a time at each major port of call. The voyaging canoes are wind-powered and Hokulea was being guided strictly by ancient Polynesian wayfinding.

Ishii said the conditions were at times trying. Sometimes, they were dangerous.

But then there the moments she savored.

"The most emotional part of navigating voyaging is when you're on Hokulea at night time and your looking up, it's a clear sky, and those stars are your friends, and you know that the navigators of the past used them to find their way and they're the same stars we use to find our way as well," she said.

A wayfinding renaissance

When Hokulea made its historic return home Saturday, she was joined by several other Polynesian voyaging canoes from around the Pacific. They traveled from Tahiti, Fa'afaite, New Zealand and Okeanos.

All those vessels underscore how Hokulea has helped spur a rebirth of canoe cultures across the Pacific since her maiden voyage to Tahiti in 1976.

Polynesian Voyaging Society navigator Kaleo Wong is hosting Tahitian navigator Tautuarii Taraufau, and several others from Tahiti.

"It's a homecoming really. It's not just our canoe arriving here," Wong said. "It's our people from different places in the ocean coming back to Hawaii."

Taraufau added, "Hawaiians teach us because we forget all those things."

He wants more Tahitians to come to Hawaii to learn long-distance wayfinding.

"I'm proud to be a part of their sailing program," said Taraufau.

His family has been hosting the Hokulea crew since 1976, when excited well-wishers almost sunk the canoe as they tried to climb on board.

Wong said modern voyagers have successfully navigated in the path of their ancestors who used ancient science to find new lands across the Pacific.

"From understanding our language and our culture, we know that Tahiti is definitely an ancestral homeland of ours," he said. "But there was a period of maybe a couple hundred years where there was a disconnection with them because we are separated by 2,500 miles of ocean."

He added, "Hawaiians and Tahitians are the same people and we are just lucky that we started to bring this culture back that continues to bind us together."

Polynesian voyaging was near extinction when, in the 1970s, a group of traditional navigators, scientist and explorers founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society to revive traditional wayfinding and exploration.

Shortly afterward, Hokulea was built. It had been 600 years since the last wave of Pacific voyaging.

Hokulea's crew members didn't just need to learn how to sail, but how to navigate the open ocean without any modern-day tools or instruments.

Indeed, Hokulea's worldwide voyage -- and its homecoming Saturday -- is the culmination of decades of dedication, planning, preparation and training, voyaging society members say.

"We are in the wake of our ancestors," said Blankenfeld, Hokulea's captain and navigator. "And the heart of all of this is exploration. Every time we voyage, we grow, we learn new things."

Blankenfeld has been sailing with the Polynesian Voyaging Society since he completed high school, finding comfort in the sea and pride in Hokulea's voyages.

"It's an honor, a real privilege," he said. "A fantastic opportunity culturally, educationally and just personally, to be a part of something such as this."

From the beginning, he said, Hokulea was built to document navigation, both cultural and ancestral.

"These canoes were built to go over the horizon and explore what is out there," said Blankenfeld. "So, that's what they did for thousands of years, and that's what we are still doing, because the Malama Honua voyage -- it's a vision."

Looking to the future (and the 'Moana' effect)

You might assume that a worldwide voyage is something of an ending. How to top it? What's next?

But the Polynesian Voyaging Society sees things differently. This is just the beginning. Voyaging has an educational and cultural value, Blankenfeld said, that expands beyond the islands and it is not stopping here.

"Hokulea was built as Hawaii's canoe, she is a state treasure, a cultural treasure, a living treasure, but she is our canoe — Hawaii's canoe," he said. "We know everyone is proud of her and we are just so grateful."

And Hokulea is returning from its global voyage in the wake of the wild success of Disney's "Moana," the animated feature about a Polynesian girl who sets off on an adventure on a double-hulled sailing canoe.

Ishii, the apprentice navigator, said in Tahiti and other spots earlier this year, Hokulea was greeted by "Moana" movie scores (like "How Far I'll Go"). She said the move is also spurring more young people to research or pursuing wayfinding.

"I think it's no question. During my generation, Hokule'a was already alive and well, and it was a fact that Polynesians voyaged and navigated and they were the greatest explorers of their time," Ishii said.

Livestream feed of Hokulea hoolaulea sponsored by Scott Hawaii.

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