When the Polynesian Voyaging Society canoes Hokule‘a and Hikianalia leave Hilo May 23 on a 26-nation, 47,000-nautical-mile journey of discovery, Chad Kalepa Baybayan will represent the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
The 57-year-old Baybayan, ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center’s navigator in residence and one of five Hawaiians initiated into the Order of Pwo — a 3,000-year-old society of master deep-sea navigators — has been a member of PVS since 1975 and set sail on his first voyage aboard Hokule‘a in 1980.
“We left from Hilo and Nainoa Thompson was the navigator on board. It was his first time navigating,” Baybayan said Thursday from Oahu, where he’s helping prepare the vessels for the voyage. Both double-hulled canoes will depart Honolulu for Hilo on Saturday, an interisland jaunt expected to take between 48-60 hours.
“I started my apprenticeship in 1980,” he said. “I got very interested in the navigation process on the way to Tahiti and Nainoa recognized that there needed to be some kind of process to transfer that knowledge. So he invited me back to sail from Tahiti to Hawaii. So it was on that 1980 voyage that I got very much involved in the process of voyaging and navigating.”
The worldwide voyage is called Malama Honua, which means “to care for our earth.”
“Malama Honua is a mission towards stewarding the planet,” Baybayan said. “It’s about identifying other organizations throughout the Pacific and around the world who are doing work in environmental stewardship, and being able to articulate and tell their stories, so we can build a network of like-minded organizations and tell their stories.”
Baybayan was 19 when he joined PVS and was deemed too young for Hokule‘a’s 1976 voyage to Tahiti, but was inspired by the celebrated journey.
“I saw an article when I was attending college on the mainland as a freshman, and it had Herb Kane’s artwork in it, and it really captured my imagination,” he said. “I came back home and Hokule‘a had just sailed from Honolulu to Maui, and I lived in Lahaina, so it sailed in front of my house. From there on in, I was just magnetized.
“I have always been excited about history and the mythology of our people, and it just so happens that I was born in the right generation, I guess.”
Among Baybayan’s journeys aboard PVS canoes, one stands out in his memory.
“I think in 1995, when I actually solo navigated Hokule‘a back to Hawaii from Nukuhiwa, that was probably the most memorable, because I had full control of the vessel and full responsibility for navigating and shepherding the crew,” he said.
The 62-foot-long Hokule‘a is almost 40 years old and, by design, lacks amenities found in most modern vessels, but does have photovoltaic cells to store solar power. Hikianalia is less than two years old. The 72-foot-long canoe, built in Aotearoa (New Zealand), has the design of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe with today’s technology.
“It’s really our communications platform and that’s how we’re gonna engage the world about the mission and its goals and mission,” said Baybayan, who will serve stints on both canoes during the worldwide voyage and blog about the canoes’ experiences.
The ancient art of wayfinding, which uses the stars, waves and other natural phenomena for navigation, was a part of Hawaiian culture that had been lost when Hokule‘a first set sail almost four decades ago. Mau Piailug, a pwo, or master navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal in Micronesia, was the navigator for that voyage, and he taught Thompson the skills necessary to navigate the canoe without instruments. Thompson, in turn, taught Baybayan and others.
“Mau was our premier mentor,” Baybayan said “His form of wayfinding is totally traditional in that it including using all natural clues for orienting and making successful passages on the ocean.”
Mau died in 2010, three years after conferring pwo status to Hokule‘a navigators Thompson, Baybayan, Bruce Blankenfeld, Shorty Bertelmann and Chadd ‘Onohi Paishon.
In the Hawaiian tradition, Baybayan, who is fluent in the Hawaiian language as well as wayfinding, is paying the knowledge forward.
“That’s part of my job description at ‘Imiloa, to work with and bring along a new generation of navigator/wayfinders,” he said. “I see my role now more as mentor and teacher and I just want to continue facilitating learning on board the canoe.”
As Hawaiians looked to Micronesia seeking knowledge they’d lost, other Polynesians now look to Hawaii to reconnect them to their seafaring past.
“There’s a whole crop of new navigators who have been inspired by Hokule‘a’s success,” Baybayan said. “Besides the five Hawaiian pwo navigators, there’s two Cook Islanders and three Maori pwo navigators, and that’s all the result of Hokule‘a’s previous voyaging missions.”
The technology aboard Hikianalia will enable Baybayan to communicate with his family, which includes his wife, Audrey, three grown children and three grandchildren. He acknowledged, however, being away from them will be difficult.
“It is a sacrifice for me to be away from my family, but it’s also my work, my job,” he said. “I bring a professional demeanor to the responsibility of stewarding these canoes. Our environmental mission is foremost in my mind and obtaining our goals and object.”
Baybayan described his PVS experience as “mytraining ground for who I am as a person today.”
“It’s taught me about social responsibility and stewardship and thinking differently about the planet we live on,” he said.
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaii tribune-herald.com.