The Story of Hōkūleʻa
Embedded in the story of Hōkūle’a and the culture that created her is the story of a 2000-year-old relationship with special islands and the sea. It is a story that was almost lost, and was close to extinction. But ultimately it is a story of survival, rediscovery, and the restoration of pride and dignity. It is a story of a society revaluing its relationship to its island home. It is a story that is crucially important as the world’s populations struggle with the ability to live in balance with our island that we call Earth. It is a story that is still being written for our children and all future generations.
Hōkūleʻa, our Star of Gladness, began as a dream of reviving the legacy of exploration, courage, and ingenuity that brought the first Polynesians to the archipelago of Hawaiʻi. The canoes that brought the first Hawaiians to their island home had disappeared from earth. Cultural extinction felt dangerously close to many Hawaiians when artist Herb Kane dreamed of rebuilding a double-hulled sailing canoe similar to the ones that his ancestors sailed. Though more than 600 years had passed since the last of these canoes had been seen, this dream brought together people of diverse backgrounds and professions. Since she was first built and launched in the 1970s, Hōkūle’a continues to bring people together from all walks of life. She is more than a voyaging canoe—she represents the common desire shared by the people of Hawaii, the Pacific, and the World to protect our most cherished values and places from disappearing.
Voyages of Rediscovery
Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976 was a tremendous success. The Tahitians have great traditions and genealogies of ancestral canoes and navigators. What they didn’t have at the time was a voyaging canoe. When Hōkūle‘a arrived at the beach in Pape‘ete Harbor, over half the island’s people were there, more than 17,000 strong, and there was a spontaneous affirmation of what a great heritage we shared and also a renewal of the spirit of who we are today.
“When Hokulea arrived at the beach in Papeʻete Harbor, over half the island’s people were there, more than 17,000 strong, and there was a spontaneous affirmation of what a great heritage we shared”
On that first voyage, we were facing cultural extinction. There was no navigator from our culture left. The Voyaging Society looked beyond Polynesia to find a traditional navigator to guide Hōkūle‘a: Mau Piailug, a navigator from a small island called Satawal, in Micronesia. He agreed to come to Hawai‘i and guide Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti. Without him, our voyaging would never have taken place. Mau was the only traditional navigator who was willing and able to reach beyond his culture to ours.
Tragedy: The Loss of a Legend
In 1978 Hōkūle‘a set out for Tahiti again. The heavily loaded canoe capsized in stormy seas off of Moloka‘i. The next day, crew member Eddie Aikau left on a surfboard to get help. Crew member Kiki Hugho remembers, “We were hours away from losing people. Hypothermia, exposure, exhaustion. When he paddled away, I really thought he was going to make it and we weren’t.” But the crew was rescued; Eddie was lost at sea. After the tragedy, Nainoa Thompson recalls, “we could have quit. But Eddie had this dream about finding islands the way our ancestors did and if we quit, he wouldn’t have his dream fulfilled. He was saying to me, ‘Raise Hawaiki from the sea.’”
A Generation of Renewal 1975 – 2000
In 1979, Mau returned to Hawai’i to train Nainoa Thompson to navigate Hōkūle‘a and to guide us in recovering our voyaging heritage. In 1980, Nainoa replicated Mau’s 1976 voyage; he also navigated Hōkūle‘a from Tahiti back to Hawai’i, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 600 years. Mau sailed both to and from Tahiti to support Nainoa.
After the first two voyages to Tahiti, Hōkūle‘a continued to sail in the wake of our ancestors, including a two-year voyage to Aotearoa (1985-1987) and a voyage to Rapa Nui (1999), one of the most isolated islands on earth, at the far southeastern corner of the Polynesian Triangle.
With each of her voyages in her first twenty-five years, Hōkūle‘a brought revelations of how our ancestors navigated across open ocean, found islands, and settled Polynesia.