On March 8, the Hawaiian canoe Hokulea spent its 41st birthday in the British Virgin Islands, just one of many stops in a three-year voyage around the world to create global relationships and raise environmental awareness about the Earth’s oceans.
Hokulea is a full-scale replica of a wa‘a kaulua, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe. Hokulea and its crew depend heavily on the earth’s natural resources. Instead of instruments, celestial navigation is used to chart the canoe’s course.
“We need the wind to move us,” Kālepa Baybayan, the canoe’s captain said. “It is basically rudimentary. It is all wayfinding to guide the canoe.”
He added that the vessel cruises at about seven knots, but can reach speeds of 15 knots. The canoe is named after the brightest star, Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes. Arcturus is the zenith star of the Hawaiian Islands and was often used in Polynesian navigation when traveling between islands.
Hokulea left Oahu in May 2014 and will spend the next three years circumnavigating the earth covering 47,000 nautical miles with 85 calls to port in 26 different countries. The voyage is named Mālama honua, a Hawaiian concept that means “to care for our island Earth.”
A sister canoe, Hikianalia, is journeying around the Hawaiian Islands on a similar campaign.
Baybayan said the weather has been the biggest challenge so far.
“We had one man go overboard, but we were able to recover him right away. We have been sailing smart. We have been staying in port during bad weather.”
Baybayan has sailed on all the major Hokulea voyages since 1975. When asked how many hours he has sailed on the canoe, he couldn’t provide an answer.
“I don’t keep track of things like that,” he said. “It is easier for me to tell you how many times I haven’t been on Hokulea than how many times I have been.”
While in the BVI, the crew spent time visiting schools and other stewards of the earth. On March 5, they met with BVI resident and billionaire Sir Richard Branson on his island of Moskito for two days.
Sir Richard greeted master navigator Nainoa Thompson and the crew and welcomed them to his island. While there they shared their respective efforts and thoughts about ocean conservation. During the visit, Mr. Thompson honored Sir Richard as a “Great Navigator of Island Earth” for his contributions for making the world a better place.
“On behalf of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Worldwide Voyage, it was an honor to bring Hokulea to Moskito Island while we are sailing through the Caribbean,” said Thompson. “We were able to learn more about Sir Richard Branson’s work to conserve the Caribbean and hear how the region is becoming a leader in ocean conservation and sustainability.”
On March 11, Hokulea and its crew left the BVI for Cuba, a trip they expected to take seven to ten days.
“The British Virgin Islands are like the jewel of the Atlantic,” Baybayan said. “It is wonderful here; it is too bad we have to leave.”
Baybayan said the voyage serves several purposes, but mainly spreading the word about environmental stewardship of the ocean.
“We live in the islands and we understand how critical the ocean is.”
The voyage also helps celebrate world cultures. When Hokulea makes port, the crew goes into the community for outreach programs to spread the word about their voyage.
“We try to collect information about the culture and the indigenous population,” Baybayan said. “We collect stories about the different NGOs that are doing good work.”
The canoe accommodates 11 to 14 crew members, who rotate out about every month. So far there have been more than 20 legs of the most recent voyage. Each new crew flies into port and gets acquainted with the boat before taking over.
Despite the long hours at sea on a small vessel, Baybayan said the crew remains in good spirits.
“It is critical that everyone gets along,” he said. “If they don’t get a long they are not invited back. It is pretty easy.”
The crew keeps themselves entertained by “telling stories and playing music.”
“We have just a guitar and small ukulele,” Baybayan said.
Todd VanSickle is a journalist living and working in the Virgin Islands.