So far, this blog has chronicled my “Wailing Peacocks” project, which involved a Kickstarter campaign, traveling to Hawaii and writing about the revival of ancient Polynesian voyaging and its role in navigating climate change. Now, this blog will tell of my second Kickstarter venture, which involves a trip to Quito, Ecuador to write about an urban farming project. Click here to learn about “Quito Grown.” I hope you’ll follow along on my journey! But, first, here are some of my favorite photos from the Hawaii project.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
My Kickstarter funding campaign has come to an end, with 23 generous souls donating $1,236. That’s really unbelievable and I’m so thankful. I won’t let you down! That makes you people patrons of the arts! (or something like that).
My trip to Hawaii is tentatively planned for early August, but I’m still finalizing details with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. After that journey, I will send out all the goodies promised with the contributions.
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.
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.