Captain Mel Paoa, A Life of Aloha and Humor
With much sadness and deep aloha, the Polynesian Voyaging Society and voyaging ʻohana mourn the unexpected loss of beloved Hōkūleʻa captain Mel Paoa on August 8, 2015. Mel dedicated almost 40 years of service to Hōkūleʻa and our voyaging community. He provided humble leadership from Molokai, always with deep affection in his actions and joy in his eyes.
A paramedic on land, Mel was a valued medical officer, cook and captain on Hawaiʻi’s canoe. He last crewed on Hōkūleʻa during the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage late last year on the leg from American Sāmoa to the Kingdom of Tonga and Aotearoa (New Zealand), keeping his crew well fed, healthy and laughing.
Mel’s passion for the ocean and the voyaging ʻohana led him to become the designated Molokai captain on the Hōkūleʻa. He told Molokai Middle School students last year that he first touched the legendary double-hulled voyaging canoe in 1977 and never let go. “Don’t let anybody discourage you or say, ‘no you can’t go or do that,’” he advised youth. “You have to challenge yourself.”
In 1985, he did his first open-ocean sail on Hōkūleʻa at the age of 32 — 12,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti to French Polynesia and finally the Cook Islands.
Having grown up on Molokai, Paoa met his wife, Donna, in Waikiki, where she had moved from Colorado to work as a lifeguard. They moved together to Molokai, where they raised their children. Donna became a college professor, while Paoa began work as a paramedic.
When he retired in 2013 after 35 years, Paoa was the longest-serving paramedic in Maui County.
“He was the first paramedic from Molokai,” said fellow American Medical Response employee Scotty Schafer at Paoa’s retirement. “He’s the one who broke the barrier. All the other guys that went to paramedic school, we all owe it to him.”
Under difficult and stressful emergency situations, Paoa was known to keep his composure while working skillfully with patients and families, according to his co-workers.
“This is not a job, this is a love for the community and the people,” said Paoa in 2013. “It’s really hard to work on Molokai because half the people you’re related to, the other half you know,” he joked.
“As news of his passing spread through ‘ohana waʻa, it was this quality that was most evident in the stories of his life,” noted fellow crewmember Maui Tauotaha. “All of the stories recounted something funny he said or something crazy he did. It occurred to me that a life remembered with laughter is one that was well lived, and his was.”
After her retirement last December, Donna said she was looking forward to spending more time with her husband. Paoa joked that they were working to get to know each again.
“It’s hard having to look at each other 24 hours a day,” he had chuckled mischievously, his signature papale flopping low over the loving twinkle in his eye.
Paoa’s life was also defined by aloha.
“He was the epitome of what aloha is,” said Kawika Crivello, a fellow crewmember that Paoa took under his wing in 1994. “I was very fortunate to have him as a mentor and teacher.”
Crivello said he trained under Paoa over thousands of miles and hundreds of hours, and has gone on to do ocean crossings on the Hōkūleʻa, and carrying on, with others, the legacy Paoa shared.
“He’s touched many people, you can see it in every place he went to — he’s spoken of so highly,” said Crivello. “He’s quiet and humble, but wherever he went he really left that mark of aloha…. People speak of him and their eyes light up.”
Before leaving last year for the Sāmoa leg of the voyage, Paoa said that no matter where he goes, he keeps his eye on Molokai.
“Everywhere I sail, I always look to see what direction Molokai is so I know where home is,” said Paoa. “I always look.”
Elements of this story were contributed by the Molokai Dispatch newspaper.