The Lost One

On a warm evening in 1976 Hokule’a set sail for its second voyage. Six hours later, Eddie Aikau was lost to sea.

Even before joining Hokule’a’s crew, Aikau was a legend on the island of Oahu.

Eddie Aikau, from the Internet

Born in Maui, he started surfing the waves of Kahului before its present-day harbor existed. He dropped out of high school and took a job at the Dole pineapple cannery so he’d have more time to surf. One day he rode 40-foot waves at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, making him a bona-fide big-wave surfer with a contagious smile whom the professional surfing community instantly embraced.

A few years later, a Hawaiian Renaissance swept the islands and Aikau got caught up in the wave. The movement had been prompted by a growing ideological consciousness among Native Hawaiians, and a push for self-determination and sovereignty. The formation of the Polynesian Voyaging Society acted as a major catalyst by providing a venue through which participants could learn about the history and accomplishments of their people.

A couple years later, in 1978, the Hawaii State Constitutional Convention presaged the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which led to a comprehensive Hawaiian culture curriculum introduced into public elementary schools, requiring the teaching of art, lifestyle, geography, hula and vocabulary. Language immersion schools were created and Hawaiians re-found their voice.

Aikau wanted to take part in the movement. He already had a good image in the community, mainly because he was a genuinely good guy, so when he tried out for Hokule’a’s crew, he made it, no problem. On March 16, 1978 at Magic Island, he strapped a surfboard to the canoe and Hokule’a launched into a strong northeast tradewind. Backup vessels had accompanied Hokule’a during the maiden voyage to Tahiti, but this time it sailed alone.

Eddie Aikau surfing, also courtesy of the Internet

The canoe took off that day but it shouldn’t have. An overloaded Hokule’a traveled down the rough Molokai Channel as 18-feet waves crashed down, and after developing a leak, the canoe capsized between Oahu and Lanai. Crew members hung on for dear life. Aikau estimated that Lanai was only 12 miles away and he insisted on unstrapping his surfboard and paddling for help. He strung some oranges around his neck, grabbed a portable strobe light, tied a life jacket around his waist, and set off.

By midnight, the U.S. Coast Guard had rescued his friends after a pilot saw flares and requested aid. Quickly, others embarked on what would become the largest air-sea rescue effort in Hawaiian history, but Aikau was never found.

“Eddie is a good example of real aloha,” Flip Cuddy told me several years ago. At that time, Cuddy was director of the Eddie Aikau Foundation. “The community needs heroes, especially the kids. You look at the problems with crystal meth and you look at how commercialism has run over the islands … Eddie is a vehicle to help Hawaiians with their dignity.”

Since 1978, not one member of Hokule’a’s crew has been lost to sea. The voyaging ohana learned the hard way of an unforgiving ocean and its impatience for an unprepared crew. PVS had been forced into an unyielding confrontation with itself and chose to try again.

“We recognized that we were not committed to voyaging in a deep enough way,” Nainoa Thompson told me. “We can’t just go sailing.”

Immediately after Aikau’s death, Thompson traveled to Micronesia to ask master navigator Mao Piailug to return to teach traditional wayfaring. Piailug returned but not without hesitation. At the age of one, he had been chosen by his grandfather to become a sailor and he was sailing by age five. He told the members of PVS — who at the time were in their 20s — that they were too old and if they wanted someone to learn they should send their sons. Nonetheless, he agreed.

“We didn’t need Mau to help us find Tahiti, as much as we needed him to help us find ourselves,” Thompson said. “Hokule’a is about knowing who we are and who we come from.”

In 1980, Hokule’a journeyed again to Tahiti but this time Thompson navigated the traditional migratory course. And, today, 34 years after Aikau’s disappearance, his legacy lives on — through educational programs in schools, an annual Quicksilver surfing contest held in his honor and with the familiar bumper sticker motto, “Eddie Would Go.”

So, We Finally Meet

Yesterday, I had the privilege of hanging with six members of Kapu Na Keiki — young voyagers with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. We met at the Marine Education Training Center, operated by Honolulu Community College and where Hokule’a and two other canoes are docked.

Members of Kapu Na Keiki

We took a cab to the center after my sister wisely suggested we do so, rather than my plan of a two-hour bus ride (with a 40-minute walk in there somewhere).

“Noooo, I’m not getting on the stinking bus,” Julia whined.

Not after our debacle of a bus ride the previous day when we spent five hours on the bus (make that five different buses) roundtrip for three hours of kayaking in Kailua.

“You in the military?” asked our hotel bellhop, as we requested a taxi service to the center.

“No, I’m going to do an interview there,” I said. “You heard of the Polynesian Voyaging Society?”

Blank stare.

“Nainoa Thompson?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, shaking his head in agreement, smiling. “Oh yeah, Hokule’a.”

Turns out he’d been on the famous Hawaiian canoe, much to my envy, during a celebration a few years back after a successful sail. Later that day, at the center, I would finally come face to face with Hokule’a. I’d been waiting five years for this day.

Caring For An Island Home

The Polynesian Voyaging Society celebrates the 35th anniversary of its maiden voyage this year. Here’s a look back on one piece of the group’s history …

In 1990, the Polynesian Voyaging Society went on a mission throughout the Islands of Hawaii. The goal: find a large and healthy koa tree so it could construct a double-hulled voyaging canoe made entirely of natural materials.

This turned out to be easier said than done.

The Internet says Swifty's guitar is made from a koa tree.

For centuries, Hawaiians had prized the resilient, reddish wood and built canoes from the logs. They used cordage woven from coconut husks and tree bark as lashing, and coconut fibers and sap from breadfruit and other trees to seal cracks and seams. They lashed two hulls together with crossbeams and added a deck between the hulls to create double canoes capable of voyaging long distances.

The depletion of the koa population, due to grazing and logging, prevented the crew from locating a single koa tree adequate for the hulls of a canoe. So, after a nine-month search without any luck, PVS volunteers gave up.

Under the leadership of Wright Bowman, Jr., the Polynesian Voyaging Society did end up building the canoe — with the help of native Alaskans who supplied two, 400-year-old spruce logs in a priceless gesture of friendship. They named it Hawai’iloa, after the fisherman who, it is believed, discovered and settled two islands, which he named Hawai’i after himself and Mau’i after his eldest son.

In 1995, Hawai’iloa traveled from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska to give thanks to the Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian people for the donation of the spruce logs. During the spring of that same year, voyages took Hokule’a to the Marquesas Islands, where Hawaiian settlers are believed to have originated. On the way back, five other canoes accompanied Hokule’a, four of which also used traditional navigational methods.

A beautiful painting of double-hulled canoes by Herb Kane.

They relied on the direction of birds’ flights, the movement of waves and swells, the rise of the sun to travel the open seas.

But the Polynesian Voyaging Society learned a valuable lesson from the koa tree debacle. Succeeding with their continued efforts to revitalize and maintain traditional navigation meant caring for, and preserving, island ecosystems — and encouraging others to do the same. So, they wrestled with a question: How could they motivate people to change their behaviors for the sake of our oceans?

Loss To The PVS ‘Ohana

The Polynesian Voyaging Society lost a special member of its family March 8 with the death of Herb Kawainui Kāne. A Hawaiian artist, historian and cofounder of PVS, Kāne, 82, passed away on the 36th anniversary of Hokule’a’s maiden launch. He helped design this voyaging canoe and served as its first captain.

Herb Kawainui Kāne, Hawaiian artist, historian and cofounder of Polynesian Voyaging Society, passed away March 8.

Kāne helped usher in the Hawaiian Renaissance. A statement on the PVS blog says, “his vision of drawing upon our heritage to build our future was not just the founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, but the basis of rediscovery of pride for thousands of Hawaiians.”

I hope my “Wailing Peacocks” project will offer insight into the legacy he’s left behind.