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Crew Blog | ʻĀina Paikai: The Floating Classroom

Aina Paikai Crew blog by ʻĀina Paikai

These being the final days of our voyage, two emotions begin to swell; the excitement of reuniting with loved ones and the regret of leaving the ones you’ve come to love. Such is the case with every departure and arrival in this journey of life, but something about exploring the deep blue wilderness with strangers turned comrades makes this inevitable end as sweet or sour as it gets.

Throughout the entire Leg 29, from Rapa Nui and now a hundred miles from our final destination of Tahiti, master navigator and captain extraordinaire Bruce Blankenfeld has taken a step back in both of those duties and assumed the role of professor aboard Hōkūleʻa, schooling the remaining crew of 12 with a nightly lesson in Navigation 101.

What at first could be considered a general lecture in astronomy has graduated into the application of ancient wisdom, especially with the not-so-well-known canoe compass.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the star compass, an equally divided pie composed of houses, quadrants, and cardinal points, passed down from Papa Mau and redesigned by Nainoa. I’ve seen many presentations where the compass is printed on a giant mat, laid flat on the floor, and the presenter explains as best he or she can to a doubting audience as to how it’s possible to travel the Earth without maps, charts, or GPS.

Other props are included like a model canoe, a wooden bird, an orange soccer ball that represents the sun etc. Most often, I’ve noticed that the audience definitely has a deeper appreciation for voyaging after the presentation, but I can’t imagine they truly understand it. After witnessing it more than 10 times myself, only now can I extract its relevance.

Here on Hōkūleʻa, somewhere around 15 degrees in the southern hemisphere, we are completely surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. And if you can imagine at night, the sky is clear, the wind is light but constant, moving us forward at a steady pace, and the swells beneath us pass through gently, rocking us too and fro. In this setting, the waʻa is the premiere space for learning.

After dinner and clean-up, Uncle Bruce has us gather aft to quiz us individually. The night sky his black board and his laser pointer the chalk, he chooses one star out of millions, calls it by name, gives us it’s declination and then asks us what house and quadrant does it rise and set. Then he’ll give us a scenario like, “If we are heading in the direction of Manu Kona, where does this star need to line up along the canoe?”

Intimidating at first, mainly because we don’t want to answer wrongly, Uncle Bruce reassures us that the beauty of this art is in the simplicity. The key is to place ourselves within the star compass, let the canoe be our needle and the elements our guide.

The impossible notion of reading the stars, wind, and current, now are practical tools that don’t seem so outrageous anymore. What was skeptical to most makes complete sense on this floating classroom, which also makes perfect sense as this is where it was originally taught for generations.

And although we are much more confident, like I said, our class is very introductory. It would be remiss of me to not mention how often our navigator Kaleo Wong had studied prior to this voyage and even during our short stints at land, so that we successfully hit our targets safely. His training demands memorizing the names and declinations of over 200 stars, calculate speed and mileage including drift from the currents, and prepare his body for little to no sleep for consecutive days, weeks at a time; definitely a 400 level course.

Admittedly, Bruce and Kaleo consider themselves students, even after being so successful in fishing islands from the sea. In fact, their main philosophy is ʻimi ʻike or a continual search for new knowledge. They inspire us all with that notion of constantly striving to get better and because of this they are the best teachers.

On behalf of the crew, we’d like to mahalo all of our teachers who have helped us on our voyage of life and continue to do so as we sail on. We thank those that allowed us the opportunity for this growth and like our kumu who have enabled us to explore and adventure, we now share their fate in grooming the next generation of stargazers.

Aloha,
ʻĀina


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