Thursday | May 25, 2017
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Youth learn ancient art of Hawaiian sailing

They’re living just about any child’s dream: to become full blown, capable sailors.

Saturday afternoon, a hui of 10 middle school kids sat in a circle at Kiholo Bay and talked about very real, sometimes frightening, and life-changing experiences they’ve had learning the ancient art of Hawaiian sailing in the Na Pea program over the past eight months.

They’ve been drilled in the basics: marine safety, CPR, basic principles, and lately, they’ve gotten to apply it in an increasingly independent way. Just four kids, a canoe and the wind.

To judge from the way they talk, the lessons have taken a grip on these youngsters.

“You need to be really clear-minded because anything can happen and one mistake can lead to 1,000,” said Nahoni Chaul, a Konawaena 8th grader who was the hookele, or steersman, on a recent voyage out of Hookena.

Chaul and her crew were cruising nicely along until it came time to turn. Then they almost rolled over, and the mast fell. With quick thinking and a lot of effort, the crew scrambled to right the situation and made it back to the beach. They were shaken, and wiser.

Orion Smith learned about jibing, or going with the wind, seductive in its speed but risky for rollovers and broken masts. Trinity Klawansky, an 8th grader at Konaweana, learned about irons, where a canoe is facing into the wind, sails flapping, and can’t go anywhere. Students learned to climb onto the ama, or outrigger, to keep a canoe upright and make sure lashings are secure as the ocean worked to identify weaknesses in their skills.

On Saturday, each sailing team was tasked with designating a steersman, rigging the canoes without adult help and sailing to the place where they were to camp that night. The students were to sleep under the canoes, and if it rained, under the sails.

Kalani Nakoa, organizer of Na Pea, wanted the lessons to be deeper than principles of sailing.

“They’re not just learning it, they’re feeling it,” Nakoa said. “Everything you need to know in life you can learn on a canoe: sustainability, teamwork, observation, working with your environment instead of against it.”

As Na Pea kids learned to sail their canoes straight and true, Nakoa used talk story to make sure the lessons referenced back to life and its challenges.

“Stay off the rocks, that’s an obvious one,” he said. “What are the rocks in your life? Drugs? Teen pregnancy? Getting into a car with someone who has been drinking? Heavy winds: a major challenge or test. If you adjust your sails, you can move forward with style and grace.

“It’s not just learning how to sail an ancient canoe, it’s learning how to move forward, into the future.”

Na Pea teaches the life skills in four sailing canoes that belong to Nakoa and Na Pea instructor Dale Fergerstrom.

‘We’re trying to get the kids to learn on small, single hull canoes because you really have to pay attention,” Fergerstrom said. “The good thing with small canoes is you have smaller problems that you can fix quickly.”

In its first full year, the program is a collaboration of the Nakoa Foundation and the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, and is supported by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. The current group of students will be with the program until December. They will be following the worldwide voyage of the Hokulea in real time via satellite, seeking both practical and spiritual lessons from the pros. In turn, they’ll pass it on.

“These guys graduate into a leadership role, and they teach what they learned,” Nakoa said.

Along with lessons on caring for the aina, students learn the various winds of West Hawaii —- the eka, or west wind; the kehau, a mauka wind —-and what they mean to sailors. They learn that the weather has the last word— like the raging mumuku wind that blows from the east over Waimea and out to sea, and can kill a sailor.

From Kuulei Keakekalani, whose family lineage traces back to Kiholo, the students heard a story from the old times and were reminded of the dangers of sharks beneath the surface.

“Be flexible, have multiple goals, keep yourself centered,” Fergerstrom said. “Find your landmarks, and sail away from the rocks.”

Saturday afternoon, the students were learning not just about sailing and constructive values but also about the ecosystem of Kiholo Bay. The youths helped clear algae from fishponds and learned about balance in the waterways.

“We’ve been opening the door to outdoor education, nuturing the next generation of caretakers for this place,” said Rebecca Most, marine coordinator for the Nature Conservancy, which oversees a portion of the bay.

The Nature Conservancy also hosts a work day open to the public every third Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those interested can e-mail Rebecca Most at For more information, visit

Email Bret Yager at


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