My Blog’s Origin Story

I started this blog to support my two Kickstarter projects — read on!

Kickstarter Project No. 1

On the 29th day of Nainoa Thompson’s first voyage as a student navigator, he sees two birds fly south overhead. He orders the crew aboard the double-hulled voyaging canoe named Hokule’a to sail in the direction of their flight. These seabirds travel a short distance out to sea at dawn to eat and return to land at night, which means the canoe’s destination, Tahiti, must be nearby. At sunset, a crew member climbs the mast but does not see land.

They lower the sails, heave in the Pacific Ocean and wait.

By late the next morning, Thompson feels panicked. One of Hokule’a’s crew members saw a bird fly out of the north and Thompson, convinced the canoe passed the island during the night, has the crew reverse direction. But another man — who spied a little fish in the bird’s beak — advises him to turn back. This is nesting season and beforesunrise the feathered animal had flown out to sea to hunt for food to deliver to its babies. Later, the bird would fly out to feed itself.

The man with the wise advice is Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the tiny Micronesian atoll of Satawal who had come to the islands of Hawaii to pass on his knowledge of ancient Polynesian wayfaring, which relies on ocean swells, waves, the sun, moon, stars and seabirds to travel the open seas. Imagine: no GPS tracking, sextant, compass, not even a wristwatch. An hour passes and the shores of Tahiti appear. With it, Thompson becomes the first Hawaiian in more than 600 years to navigate a voyaging canoe using traditional wayfaring. With the 7,000-mile voyage complete, Piailug offers Thompson one last piece of advice. “Everything you need to see is in the ocean, but it will take you 20 more years to see it,” he says. “If you can read the ocean you will never be lost.”

Since that voyage in 1976, the Polynesian Voyaging Society has achieved more than 10 long-distant voyages, and an immeasurable impact on the lives and spirit of Polynesians. Hokule’a touched off a Pacific-wide movement to reawaken a lost art and a Hawaiian Renaissance to restore a lost sense of pride. The years, however, have not been without tough lessons, including the death of a beloved crew member, and the difficulty of repairing the ill effects of Western imperialism and attempting to break down the stereotype of the “Plastic Polynesian.” In 2014, the Polynesian Voyaging Society set sail for an ambitious multiyear worldwide voyage.

This blog was originally devoted to sharing this story. I sought support — through Kickstarter — for a reporting trip to Honolulu in 2011. Mahalo to my Kickstarter supporters:

Julia Christian

Carla Christian

David Christian

Cole Allen

Alia Cruz

Emily Cole

Dianne Heimer

Milo Delucchi

Suzzanna

Kitdy Rakthay

Jill Henrikson

Cathy Delucchi

Ted Cox

Mary Anne & Gene Allen

Hugh

Mario Amanzio

John Motsinger

Nicole N.

Josh Fernandez

Clay Nutting

Vanessa Schnaidt

Lindsay Schield

Kristin Bartus

My Kickstarter project No. 2

In summer 2012, I spent a week in Quito, Ecuador to research a story called “Quito Grown” for Earth Island Journal about the city’s urban farming initiative and how these farms address rising food prices and a jeopardized food supply. This experience made me even more committed to reporting on issues related to farming and grassroots efforts to put the power of food production back in the hands of people.Quito Grown11

In 2000, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency to restore political and economic stability. But the process unintentionally led to rising food prices and hunger among Ecuadorians, particularly indigenous populations, refugees and children.

Quito’s urban farming initiative allows families and students to grow produce for themselves, and connects growers to local farmer’s markets at which to sell their healthy fruits and vegetables. Also, because Ecuador ranks as one of the world’s highest users of pesticides, there is a growing demand for organic produce.

Thanks to my Kickstarter supporters:

Julia Christian

Cathy Delucchi

Yen Le

Nathan Papini

Tom McMahon

Danny Cross

Mike Tener

Hugh

Nicole

Carla Christian

Dave Constantin

Camille

Mario Amanzio

Milo Delucchi

Laura

Lorenzo Orselli

Jess

Jon Kiefer

Mary Anne Allen

Stephan M.

Kitdy Rakthay

Oona Mallet

Ron B.

Cole Allen

David Christian

Christopher Lebedzinski

Jen Rotter

Meeting Nainoa

Now, back to what I was saying (here and here).

I did eventually meet Nainoa Thompson — “the baddest bro in the whole wide world” — in his office at the administrative headquarters of the Kamehameha Schools. This private college-prep institution specializes in native Hawaiian language and cultural education. During my visit, Thompson served as a trustee for the schools.

Meeting Nainoa

I met him!!

The name Nainoa Thompson is known to the people of Hawaii. Five years ago, during my trip, I found a Honolulu Advertiser poll of Hawaiian households in which voters ranked Thompson as the most well-regarded Hawaiian public figure. U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka ranked second.

They also know Thompson for developing a system of wayfaring that combines traditional principles of ancient ways and modern scientific knowledge, which is taught in schools throughout the Pacific.

In 1974, Thompson started paddling outrigger canoes at the Hui Nalu Canoe Club, in Waikiki. As Thompson paddled, three other men planned. Hawaiian artist Herb Kane, Californian anthropologist Dr. Ben Finney and skilled waterman Tommy Holmes were designing a performance-replica, double-hulled canoe. They would call it “Hokule’a” meaning the “Star of Gladness,” after the star Arcturus. The group wanted to prove that ancient Polynesians were not aimless drifters who discovered the Hawaiian islands by accident.

When Thompson heard the plan, he felt the fractured elements of himself — his love of the ocean, his heritage, his culture — finally come together as one cohesive piece.

Thirty years later, in his office, photographs of his mentors covered the walls, but there was not enough room and he propped several more against furniture and file cabinets. At that time, he was training 12 young navigators in non-instrument navigation but still considered himself a student navigator, not a master, and continued to live by the advice given to him by master navigator Mau Piailug (who has since passed way).

“Mau told me, ‘Don’t look with your eyes because you cannot see. Look inside,’ and he points to his chest,” said Thompson, that day in his office. “I am only now just beginning to understand what he is saying.”

(He and I chatted, but that’s all I will tell you for now. You’ll have to read the updated published article. So anti-climactic of me! As for Wailing Peacock project details, I’m headed to O’ahu in August for 16 days to meet with the PVS peeps and watch as they prepare Hokule’a for the worldwide voyage. Yipee!)

The Baddest Bro Ever

Five years ago, I spent summer in Hawaii. Here’s a look back …

On a misty evening in July 2006, Lisa and I spread out a blanket on the lawn at Waikiki Shell in Honolulu, waiting for the Beach Boys to take the stage to perform a benefit concert for the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Everything about the night is beautiful. A light sprinkle cools the warm South Pacific air as the north wind blows.

The Beach Boys, circa 1960s

I’ve been here three weeks now, living in a small studio cottage overrun with centipedes and above a family of 10 or so that sits in a circle in silence outside, every night. I spend my days wandering around, writing in coffee shops and trying to figure out what interviews to snag during my stay.

Before the Beach Boys take the stage, a large screen lights up with an image. A film clip shows 17,000 Tahitians waiting on the shore in 1976 as the voyaging canoe Hokule’a arrives after a 33-day journey to the seaside town of Papeete in the village of Tautira, on the northwest coast. Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug is at the helm. Hundreds of Tahitians swim out to the canoe and ride the final distance to shore. Hokule’a continues sailing from village to village along the coast and at one stop, the canoe’s stern sinks under the weight of dozens of children piling in.

Hokule’a returns to Honolulu in 24 days without Piailug or the use of modern-day instruments. For the voyage back, navigator Nainoa Thompson leads the crew.

On this evening in 2006, Thompson, dressed in a purple Hawaiian shirt, his black hair laced with gray, takes the stage. He’s now a master navigator — and will forever be the first native Hawaiian in 600 years to use non-instrument navigation to sail the open seas. The crowd around me claps and whistles.

“Nainoa Thompson,” says a man lounging on the lawn.

I turn around to find the voice and see a scruffy, middle-aged white man leaning back on his elbows.

“The baddest brother I ever met! Yes, sir! The baddest bro in the whole wide world!”

Nainoa Thompson. Yes, I realized, I absolutely had to meet this man.