Crew Profile

The Journey of a Lifetime

This post was written by Mike Cunningham.

Looking back on that day when I witnessed Hokulea’s first successful voyage I am reminded that we can all play a part in this important movement to protect our environment.

40 years ago I stood in awe on the roof of the Hawaii Yacht Club to witness the triumphant return of the voyaging canoe Hōkūle’a from its historic voyage to Tahiti and back. This was no ordinary ocean sail but rather a confirmation that the early explorers who populated the Hawaiian Islands possessed advanced navigational skills which allowed them to travel thousands of miles from Polynesia to Hawai’i without the aid of modern navigational tools. Guided exclusively by the stars and ocean swells (without charts, sextant, radio or even a wrist watch), these modern voyagers had proven that this nearly extinct navigational skill could be used to guide the first explorers to the Hawaiian Island chain.

Being an onlooker filled me with pride and admiration for the Hawaiian people who for the first time in their history could claim that the first discovery and settlement of these islands was the result of a planned expedition carried out by incredible navigators and not the result of being blown north from the South Pacific and ending up in these islands purely by accident, as some previously believed.

Since this historic event in 1976, the 60 ft, double-hulled Hōkūle’a has sailed over 140,000 nautical miles throughout the Pacific without the use of modern navigational tools, and she remains the catalyst for the rebirth of this nearly extinct navigational skill.

(Irish) Mike Cunningham
(Irish) Mike Cunningham

I have followed all of her voyages and looked with a combination of pride and envy on those hand-picked sailors who were chosen to take part in this uniquely Hawaiian endeavor and never considered that a non-Hawaiian from Boston would ever be found among those who would be chosen to participate in Hōkūle’a’s upcoming journey to circumnavigate the planet earth.

Ten years ago I joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society as crew, and eventually served as captain of, the escort vessel Kamahele, accompanying Hōkūle’a on deep-sea voyages to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Honolulu to Japan, and a 2,000 mile round-trip training sail to the tiny Island of Palmyra. During the training for these voyages, I was also able to sail on Hōkūle’a and experience the unique mana (spiritual power) of this voyaging canoe which has become a cultural icon and the source of immense pride for the Hawaiian people.

Our voyage to Japan witnessed an outpouring of support for the PVS mission beyond non-instrument navigation and called attention to the need for better stewardship of the world’s dwindling ocean resources as we have also experienced here in Hawai’i. It was during this voyage that the decision was made to carry the message of Mālama Honua (Care for Island Earth) around the world, and planning commenced for the upcoming World Wide Voyage.

On May 17th the voyaging canoe Hokule’a and her sister Hikianalia departed on a four-year voyage that will cover 47,000 miles to 26 countries in a continuing mission of environmental sustainability. The crew for the inaugural leg from Hawai’i to Tahiti will retrace previous voyages of Hōkūle’a to French Polynesia; this voyage will be an important training tool to develop the next generation of navigators through the mentoring by Hōkūle’a veterans from the 1976 and subsequent voyages who will pass on the nearly extinct ability to navigate the vast expanse of open ocean without modern instruments.

For myself, as the oldest crew member (by far) at 72 on this first leg of the WWV, my selection as a crew member is the source of immense personal pride, and my goal is to share the knowledge based on past sailing experiences with these youthful, future captains and navigators who are committed to the continued stewardship of our ocean and cultural resources.

Looking back on that day when I witnessed Hokulea’s first successful voyage I am reminded that we can all play a part in this important movement to protect our environment regardless of age, personal background or training. I hope that through the extensive media coverage of this extended voyage all of you reading this will take time to sail along with these dedicated sailors and educators during this epic event and gain a new perspective on challenges and solutions that impact our environment.

-(Irish) Mike Cunningham

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