Thursday | October 27, 2016
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One ‘ohana, two canoes

The Polynesian Voyaging Society canoes Hokule‘a and Hikianalia arrived after 1 a.m. Tuesday at Hilo’s Radio Bay, but there was little rest for the sailors preparing the same morning for a grueling, three-year world voyage.

The canoes, or wa‘a, depart Hilo on Saturday — waves and weather permitting — for Papeete, Tahiti, the first international leg of Malama Honua, a 26-nation, 47,000-nautical-mile voyage. The mission, according to the PVS website is “to find and grow inspiring practices to protect our earth for future generations.”

“I’ve been on almost all the voyages, but to me this is special, especially going around the world and to help get to save the planet itself. It’s gonna be exciting,” said Abraham “Snake” Ah Hee, a 68-year-old Lahaina, Maui, native who has been with Hokule‘a since the return leg of its maiden voyage to Tahiti in 1976.

“The people, the crew, you sail together, you become ‘ohana,” he said.

Ah Hee was aboard during Hokule‘a’s darkest night, March 16-17, 1978, when a rogue wave capsized the vessel close to midnight, about 5 1/2 hours out of Honolulu, and the crew clung for their lives to the overturned hulls.

Daybreak came and the canoe was drifting away from aviation routes, decreasing chances of the tiny vessel being spotted in the open ocean. Ah Hee paddled off on a surfboard to summon aid.

“Sometimes, you just got to go without thinking of what is out there,” Ah Hee said. Seeing a low-flying plane, he incorrectly assumed rescue was imminent.

“The Coast Guard plane was over us. I thought it spotted us, so I wen’ turn around, you know,” he said.

After a long wait and no contact by planes or vessels, lifeguard and champion surfer Eddie Aikau departed on a surfboard, never to be seen again. The rest of the crew eventually was rescued.

Ah Hee said he still thinks of Aikau every day.

“Sometimes, you give a life to save the rest of the lives on the crew,” he said.

Crew member Kekaimalu Lee of Mililani, Oahu, graduated less than a week ago from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with degrees in Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language. The 23-year-old plans to attend graduate school and teach voyaging in the UH system.

Lee said he’s inspired by Ah Hee and other veteran crew mates.

“The legacy of the canoe, her first voyage in 1976 and getting to sail with some of those very first crew members who took her down to Tahiti in 1976, hearing their stories and reliving that legacy with them, it’s really awesome to spend some time with those men,” he said.

Lee was part of the Malama Hawaii statewide sail last year, in preparation for Malama Honua, as was Noelani Kamalu, a 29-year-old from Kaneohe, Oahu, who teaches math and science at Halau Ku Manu Public Charter School in Honolulu’s Makiki neighborhood.

Kamalu, whose younger sister, Lehua, is also aboard Hokule‘a and on the same watch with her older sibling, said she’s looking forward to the experience and becoming a leader.

“I think you have to be in order to sail on this voyage,” she said. “The idea of Malama Honua (is to) create a more sustainable world — not just more sustainable, but one where we care more for our planet. It can be as simple as picking up trash on the side of the road. … It’s something that I’m deeply passionate about at this point, much more than I was before.”

Not all the voyagers are from Hawaii. Two, Tua Pittman and Peia Patai, are pwo (master) navigators from the Cook Islands. Both were inspired by Hokule‘a’s 1985 port call in Rarotonga.

“When Hokule‘a first sailed into the Cook Islands, I was mesmerized by what she represented,” said the 55-year-old Pittman. “She’s our mother, Hokule‘a, and … she’s given birth to so many other canoes.”

The 45-year-old Patai was a teenager when Hokule‘a came calling, and he was “hooked ever since.”

“Celestial navigation had disappeared, so we had to come to Nainoa and Mau and learn navigation,” Patai said, referring to Nainoa Thompson, pwo navigator and PVS president, and Mau Piailug, the late, legendary pwo navigator from the Micronesian island of Satawal who navigated Hokule‘a on the maiden Tahiti voyage and taught Thompson the art of wayfinding.

“The reason we’re here is we made a promise to Mau Piailug that we would continue on this eternal voyage of making sure the knowledge is passed on to our youth, and that we take care of our environment and our communities, and make sure that we pave a better path for our future,” Pittman noted. “Just being part of the culture of the wa‘a connects you with who we were before. It reminds us of the brilliance and the intelligence of our ancestors. And it humbles you because we’re able to be part of what they started for us.”

The younger crew members are also excited to connect with the seafaring tradition of their forebears.

“There’s nothing more central to Hawaiian and Polynesian culture than the canoe, ‘cause that’s how our kupuna came to Hawaii in ancient times,” Lee said. “And getting to experience what they experienced, see what they saw, feel what they felt, and to arrive at land after many, many days at sea must be an extraordinary experience, and I can’t wait to experience that, like our kupuna did many, many years ago.”

To track Hokule‘a’s progress online, visit

Email John Burnett at


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