Crew Profile

Hōkūleʻa Moʻolelo: Tava Taupu

sam_lowAs Hōkūleʻa re-enters the Polynesian Triangle on the last legs of her Worldwide Voyage, we take a moment to celebrate earlier voyages and the crew who helped her find her way. Hōkūleʻa is currently in Nuku Hiva, the birthplace of veteran voyager Tava Taupu. The original version of this profile was written by crewmember and documenter Sam Low as he voyaged with Tava from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 2000.


Hokulea Moolelo GraphicOn April 6, 1945, Tava was born in Taiohaʻe on Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands. His father tended cattle in the mountains above his home and he captained an interisland trading vessel. He also built canoes for fishing and sailing, and he taught Tava the art of seafaring and carving.

As a young man, Tava went to Tahiti to learn to carve wooden tiʻi (sculpted figures called kiʻi in Hawaii) from his uncle Joseph Kimitete. Papeʻete, the capital, was a place where young Tahitians liked to rough up boys from the outlying islands, so Tava learned to box.

Boxing changed his physical habits – when others his age would turn to drinking and smoking, Tava turned to training. “When I went boxing, I got proud,” he recalls. “I was amateur, six rounds. I exercise, forget kid stuff.” What Tava doesn’t tell you is that he boxed so well he earned the title of lightweight champion of French Polynesia.

IMG_4228“I first learned about Tava’s boxing when I was on a voyage with him in 1980,” recalls Kālepa Baybayan. “We were going to go out on the town and Tava began to get dressed up. Then he stood in front of the mirror and began shadowboxing. It was scary. I always knew him as an extremely gentle person, and now I was seeing his wild side. Wherever we went, he was like a superstar. People came up to talk to him. I was surprised how many people knew him in Papeʻete.”

In 1970 Tava came to Hawaiʻi on a visa arranged by Kimitete’s son. He worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Lāʻie, building traditional houses and carving tiʻi – in general, carrying on the traditional arts of the Marquesas. In 1975, he saw Hōkūleʻa for the first time.

“When I saw Hōkūleʻa, I think ‘what is this big canoe?’ I never see big canoe like this in the Marquesas. We have 30-foot canoes with outriggers, single canoe, not double canoes. I am excited. It all comes back to me – my ancestors. I feel my ancestors all around me. I wonder how they sail this canoe? How they survive on the ocean? Right after seeing her, I began to work on her. I work at my job all week and go spend weekends working on the canoe.”

In 1975, Tava sailed on Hōkūleʻa interisland. Later he learned from Mau Piailug how to build canoes in the traditional Satawal Island way, with sennit for lashing and coconut husk and breadfruit sap for caulking. At about the same time, he met Nainoa, who was just beginning to study the stars.

IMG_4208“I met Nainoa at Ala Wai. He is a very quiet guy because there is something he is learning by himself – the stars. I see him looking at the sky. I never know what he is looking at. ‘What you looking?’ I ask. He say, ‘I looking at stars. I learning navigation, to be a navigator.’

Since meeting Nainoa and beginning to voyage aboard Hōkūleʻa, Tava has sailed tens of thousands of miles aboard the canoe. “I always ask Tava to come with me,” Nainoa says. “Tava loves the canoe and what it stands for. He gives the canoe his life, and the canoe gives him her life. Tava takes care of me while I am at sea and he provides a net of security around the entire crew. He makes it comfortable for me to concentrate on navigation.”

Uncle Tava Taupu working on a fish hook.
Uncle Tava Taupu working on a fish hook.

During one voyage, an important piece of equipment went overboard, and Nainoa impulsively went in after it. When he finally got back on board, he was shivering uncontrollably – near hypothermia. “I was just sitting there on deck unable to get warm and Tava came up from behind me and hugged me,” Nainoa recalls. “He shared his warmth so his friend would not be cold.”

It was surely the warm, caring side of Tava that his wife Cheryl saw in 1980 when they first met. Tava and Cheryl have two children – Rio and Helena. Tava worked many years for the National Park Service at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, as a cultural expert, demonstrating woodcarving and canoe making. Today he is retired from the Park but continues to carve.

Tava Taupu Hokule'aIn 2000, when I interviewed Tava on the canoe as we voyaged from Tahiti to Hawaii he told me “It’s time for retirement. I am 55 years old. I like to see my wife on the land. I like to build my house now. I am excited.”

Over the years, Tava had become so integral to Hōkūleʻa that to see her without him standing on her deck at the forward manu, dressed in his bright red malo would be like seeing the canoe with only one mast – or with some other key part of her missing.

“I come on the canoe when I am young,” he told me, “and now I am looking – ʻMaybe some of the young people are like me?’. It’s time to leave the canoe, so the young people can learn. You have to learn to sail by hand – how to steer, how to trice, how to look at other people, how to behave. The canoe’s mana means all the crew take care of the canoe and the canoe take care of the crew. The canoe take you all the way home.”

Uncle Tava Taupu on the steering sweep with Kalā Tanaka.
Uncle Tava Taupu on Hikianalia’s steering sweep with Kalā Tanaka.

For a number of years Tava did stay ashore, but the lure of the Mālama Honua voyage called him out of retirement to sail aboard Hōkūle’a’s sister canoe, Hikianalia, from Hawaii to Tahiti and on to Samoa in 2014. And now, at the age of 72, he is aboard Hikianalia on the way to Tahiti to greet Hōkūleʻa when she arrives there prior to setting out for her return to Hawaii.

Will he retire after that? All bets are off!


HawaikidustjacketrightcoverThe above moʻolelo was adapted by Hōkūleʻa crewmember and documenter Sam Low from his book – Hawaiki Rising, Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance.

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