Hail the Hokule’a, Twin Hulls of Heaven

Sam Law

By Sam Low  (Thursday, February 4, 2016 )

Four years ago today, Hokule’a, a faithful replica of an ancient sailing vessel used by the Polynesians to explore and settle the entire Pacific a thousand years before Europeans even knew that vast ocean existed, was sailing toward Martha’s Vineyard for a three-day visit. As I was involved with planning that visit, I will be celebrating this fourth year anniversary on this page with a variety of posts.

 

 


To a modern sailor’s eye, she appears strange. Her twin hulls are joined by laminated wooden crossbeams and fastened to them by six miles of rope lashings woven into complex patterns reminiscent of the art of M.C. Escher. A deck is lashed over the crossbeams. The hulls rise up sharply at bow and stern and terminate in a graceful arc, called a manu, where wooden figures with high foreheads and protruding eyes, the aumakua or guardian spirits, stare out over an empty sea. Viewed from above, the canoe’s strangeness is dispelled. She looks like a catamaran.

Hokule’a is a replica of the vessels used by Polynesians to settle one-third of our planet a thousand years before Europeans knew the Pacific Ocean existed. Launched in 1975, she has sailed 150,000 miles, following the routes taken by intrepid Polynesian explorers, navigated always as they would have done — without instruments or charts — by relying instead on signs in the stars, waves and flight of birds. In July, Hokule’a will visit Martha’s Vineyard on a voyage around the world to malama honua, care for Planet Earth.

Hokule’a’s shape is ancient but her construction is not. A thousand years ago, her sails would have been woven from Pandanus fronds, but no one knows how to do that today, so they are made of Dacron. Her hulls are fiberglassed marine plywood because the art of carving such canoes from live wood has vanished along with the ancient canoe makers, the kahuna kalai wa’a. She is a performance replica, designed to perform like an ancient vessel by using plans made by European explorers of the canoes they encountered in the 18th century.

“We wanted to test the theory that such canoes could have carried Polynesian navigators on long voyages of exploration throughout the Polynesian triangle,” said navigator Nainoa Thompson, “We wanted to see how she sailed into the wind, off the wind, how much cargo she could carry, how she stood up to storms. Could we navigate her without instruments? Could we endure the rigors of long voyages ourselves? Frankly, that was enough of a challenge. It didn’t matter if the canoe was made of modern materials as long as she performed like an ancient vessel.”

Hokule’a is 62 feet long, displaces about eight tons and carries a cargo, including her crew, of six tons. Sailing with a strong wind behind her, she rockets along at 15 knots. Sailing into the wind, on a voyage between Hawaii and Tahiti, she averages about five knots and a 2,400-mile journey usually takes about 25 days.

We sleep in the hulls, in small compartments about four feet wide and six long, covered by a tent stretched over the handrails. We cook on deck using a two-burner propane stove encased in a waterproof box. To go to the bathroom you walk aft, crawl under the handrails, stand on a narrow catwalk and hang on.

I first sailed aboard Hokule’a in 2000, on a voyage from Tahiti to Hawaii. Five years earlier, I had made the same voyage on a 40-foot sloop of impeccable modern design. The voyage turned out to be a severe test of endurance and patience. The sloop heeled over in the trade winds — about 30 degrees from vertical — and thrashed her way through heavy swells. We lived in a canted, pitching world for three weeks, emerging from that experience thrilled but exhausted.

My voyage aboard Hokule’a was quite different. A sailing vessel with a single hull like the sloop heels away from the wind, but Hokule’a distributes the wind’s torque across two hulls so she does not heel, providing a stable and comfortable living platform in even the most terrific of winds. And her hulls are lean and narrow, so she does not pound into the waves. She slices through them with what can only be described as grace. The contrast in oceangoing comfort between the modern sloop and the Hokule’a is like that on land between a truck and a Cadillac.

There are other advantages as well. Our navigators steer the canoe by the rising and setting stars and find their latitude by measuring a star’s altitude with their hands, or observing pairs of stars whirling together across the meridian over the north or south celestial poles. The open deck of the canoe, uncluttered by superstructure, permits clear sightlines all around — an open-air observatory. Her twin hulls also provide an opportunity for her crew to deploy other subtle human senses to determine direction at sea. Hokule’a invites her crew to dance and she dances one way if she’s encountering swells from forward and another way in swells from abeam. Her motion differs if she’s running with the wind or sailing into it. The possible combinations are infinite, so the choreography is complex. Hokule’a demands attention from her human partners. If they falter, she reminds them. If they turn off course and into the wind she slows and shakes her sails. “Listen to me,” she says, “Can you hear it?” An alert helmsman knows to push the canoe’s steering paddle down to help her fall off. If the helmsman turns downwind she speeds up and pulls at her tiller. “Pay attention,” she says. All these are clues to maintaining a steady course, an important task for any navigator but particularly so for one finding his way without instruments. Determining longitude depends on dead reckoning, and dead reckoning, in turn, depends on keeping track of your course.

Catamarans are considered a recent innovation inspired by racing sailors seeking speed. But in Polynesia, such craft were invented thousands of years ago. Limited by stone and shell tools and the lack of iron fastenings, Polynesians could not fashion large European style plank-on-frame ships. Small outrigger canoes would not be seaworthy for long voyages, nor could they carry the cargo and people necessary to settle new islands. Large outrigger canoes would be unwieldy. So someone, thousands of years ago, thought of bridging two canoes with a solid deck. An advanced sailing craft was born out of necessity confronting the limits of a primitive technology.

Part three of a series. To learn more about Hokule’a and her voyage around the world, visit hokulea.com. To learn more about her visit to Martha’s Vineyard you may contact Sam Low at samfilm2@gmail.com.

 

CHAD KĀLEPA BAYBAYAN TALKS ABOUT MEETING EDDIE AIKAU

Eddie Aikau is one of the most famous of all Hawaiian big wave surfers and watermen. During the ten years he served as head lifeguard at Oahu’s Waimea Bay, his supervisors credited him with over a thousand rescues. In 1971, because of his daring and disarmingly humble demeanor, he was voted “Life Guard of the Year” by his peers. In 1977, he won the prestigious Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship. A year later Kālepa Baybayan (now a pwo navigator) met Eddie for the first time at a Hōkūle’a crew training session – and was introduced to a man that he will never forget.

“In 1978, when the canoe was going to go back to Tahiti, I got to try out for the crew. That was a big experience in my life, and the whole richness of the experience was the guy I met in crew training. When I walked into the room for the first meeting I saw that they were looking for big-time lifeguards and I felt kind of intimidated. I was from the neighbor islands and I was real shy. I didn’t know anybody and I thought that my chances probably weren’t real good. I walked into the room and there was this big wave surfer that had just won a surf contest on Oahu and I kind of didn’t want to hang around in that crowd. I just wanted to leave right away, so as soon as the meeting got done I rushed up to the elevator and as I got into the elevator, that big wave surfer got in with me. It was just me and him and I remember standing in the corner and trying to blend into the walls and that guy looks me in the eyes and in this real Hawaiian way he walks over and looks at me and he says, ‘Hey brother, we’re going to be trying out for this crew together, hey, more better we start out by being friends.’ And I still remember those words, ‘more better we start out by being friends.’ And he stuck his hand out and he says, ‘Hi, my name is Eddie Aikau.’ And that’s how I met Eddie Aikau.
Eddie Aikau was probably the most different guy I ever knew. He was this big wave surfer but he was just so humble, just so pleasant to be around, so befriending, you know?
He gave me a ride back to school that night and he drove this old beat-up bug and I remember that his car was like bussup on all sides, but inside it was immaculate. And he said he had a rule that no one could smoke in his car. And then, he said, ‘hey, call me up if you ever need a ride or if you ever want to come over and hang out.” He took me over to where he lived and I met his family and I just found out how really different was this guy. He was really healthy. He told me ‘I have to be healthy because of my job as a lifeguard. It requires that I don’t do drugs or anything like that. I just can’t. If you are going to surf big waves,’ he said, ‘if you want to survive you got to be strong.’ Here was a guy that to me recognized the things he wanted to do in life – which was to surf big waves and be a lifeguard – and he also recognized that to do that and survive there were certain things that he couldn’t do, so he was really disciplined. He was in great shape. He lived next door to his parents. He had his own house. His house was the same way like his car – immaculate. You walk into his house and there are all these surfboards in the rafters of the ceiling but it was just so neat. And you know he used to go to church on Sundays. He would take his parents to church, which I found really unique. Most guys, if the surf was up, they would go surfing but Eddie had a commitment to his parents. He cared for them that way.
His middle name was Makua Hanai, which means “raised by parents” or “caring for parents” – both ways – your parents care for you and you care for your parents. Meeting Eddie just changed my whole attitude toward how you treat people. I still remember those words, ‘more better we start off by being friends.’
My esteem – my evaluation of myself – was not very high and here was a guy that really just wanted to be my friend. He was just a humble guy and he just – that was all he wanted to do, He was a famous big wave surfer but so what? What it changed was my attitude towards treating people when they step on the canoe. You know, we are going to start off by being friends. I am going to treat you like family because that is what you deserve. Anybody that steps on the canoe, or anybody that becomes involved in my life deserves that kind of respect.
I had never been recognized that way – that I had something valid, and some kind of potential to offer – anything. In the Voyaging Society I soon realized that I had a lot to offer but part of that was recognizing that when you get on the canoe you gotta treat each other like friends, like friends.”
The above is from an interview in February 1999 by Sam Low. He hopes that the insights captured in this interview will last through all time…
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Eddie Aikau perished at sea in March of 1978 after Hōkūle’a capsized while on a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. He heroically attempted to paddle to land to alert rescuers of the peril of his crew clinging to the overturned canoe drifting in high winds and seas.
His memory is carried aboard Hōkūle’a on all of her voyages in the hearts of her crewmembers. The “Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau” event was established in 1984 in his honor.
Inspired by Eddie’s treatment of him at that crew meeting, Chad Kālepa Baybayan has come a long way. In 2007, Mau Piailug initiated him and four other Hawaiian navigators into the order of Pwo, the two-thousand-year-old society of deep-sea navigators. He has sailed on all major Hōkūleʻa voyages and has served as captain on Hōkūleʻa as well as voyaging canoes Hawai‘iloa and Hōkūalaka‘i. Kālepa currently is the Navigator in Residence at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i developing wayfinding activities, curriculum materials, and conducting outreach.

Sam Low repostet this in The Navigators – Pathfinders of the Pacific 11.06.2020