Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reflections on the Hokule'a's Visit to Maui

This is a really different post than the one I had planned on writing. The original post was a show and tell of the traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe, the Hokule’a, with pictures and videos of Kala, one of the crew members, talking
about Hawaiian navigational practices. 

I can’t write that post now, because I don’t have the video for it, which was lost when I lost my video camera two weeks ago.

I haven’t even blogged very much in July, because it’s been a period of self-reflection and taking stock. What is important to me? Is it important to record and video and photograph everything? Is organizing what I already have a better priority? Can one add to a shelf that is overflowing?

Self-reflection aside, I still want to celebrate the Hokulea’s visit to Maui. As part of their two year worldwide voyage, they are spending some months stopping at each major Hawaiian Island, sharing and “talking story” with residents and visitors, before sailing onward to visit other countries.

The Hokule’a is one of the truly authentic cultural icons of Hawaii, which proved that ancient Hawaiian navigational practices did work and could be used to sail long distances.  It vindicated native wisdom and learning in the face of academic skeptics. For many school children in Hawaii, the mention of the Hokule’a sends shivers down the spine. There was also deep tragedy associated with the Hokule’a. On its maiden voyage, the canoe lost beloved water man Eddie Aikau, who swam to find help during rough waters.  It’s a story that children also grow up with here, and spawned the local phrase, “Eddie would go” which is not just about taking the risk, but also being willing to jump in and help at peril to oneself.  More info is available on the Hokule'a Wikipedia site

The story of Eddie and the Hokulea is also documented in the film Hawaiian: The Story of Eddie Aikau which premiered at this season’s Maui Film Festival to great acclaim.  

The Hokule'a was docked at the left side (southern end) of Ma’alaea Harbor toward the condos – away from Buzz’s Wharf. We drove all around Ma’alaea until I finally spotted it from a distance. It was a brown and rafty looking from a distance.

Ma'alaea Harbor (the southern side, closest to the condos). Hokule'a is in the distance, with some tents.

Up close, it still looks brown and rafty looking, but surprisingly modern too. Not all tied together with raffia and hau fiber ropes, with coconut fronds sticking out. It had clean lines and even some modern equipment, like a communications port and toggle switches. 
Crew member Kala pulls the Hokule'a to the dock.

Getting on board involved pulling the boat over to the dock, and stepping up, then rinsing my bare feet in a bucket of water. Crewmember Kala explained that they want to keep the floor very clean. There were several buckets of water strategically placed. I’m not sure if the ancient Hawaiians cleaned their feet when they boarded their ships, but they must have sailed barefoot.

Clean feet on board the ship!

At this point, I am recalling things from memory. Kala said the Hokule’a had been in dry dock and they had to renovate it and upgrade it to make it ready for voyage. The floor of the boat was obviously modern and not the same as in the 1970s. It looked like the plastic trex board used for outdoor decks.  There was a side table with some fruit on it, a small cooking area, some terminals, but a lot of open floor. Kala said this ship is the same original Hokule’a that Eddie Aikau had sailed on. Another shiver down my spine. She pointed out the paddles which were hand made and signed by each maker.

A paddle signed by the maker.

Since the original fatal voyage, she said the Polynesian Voyaging Society decided that they never wanted to lose another life, and to make safety paramount.  To that end, the Hokule’a does have modern communications equipment on board, and a companion boat with modern technology follows the Hokulea throughout the voyage. The companion boat does not go as quickly, so when the Hokule’a is moving fast – under the right wind and sailing conditions, the other boat is struggling to keep up. Kala said this with a smile.

Kala asked me what I knew about the Hokule’a, I think to figure out if she needed to give out basic history and background which she was used to doing. She was articulate and very comfortable talking to the camera, making her a great spokesperson for the voyage. We ended up talking about Hawaiian navigational practices, which I’ve been curious about ever since astronomer Harriet Witt’s excellent talk at the Maui Farmers Union two months ago.

A few things that Kala mentioned, if I remember correctly:

  • The traditional Polynesian navigation and sailing techniques had been disappearing. It was a Micronesian master sailor who taught those traditional techniques to Kala, her father and other members of the Hokule’a crew. 
  • There are hundreds if not thousands of stars to study, to learn where they rise and set in the sky. Different stars have different places in the world where they are directly overhead. I think they are called zenith stars. Hokule’a is the zenith star of Hawaii and means "Star of Gladness." (By the way, Hokule’a is also the star Arcturus). But to navigate, you can not only rely on zenith stars, because it may only be at a certain time of the year that the star is in a certain place in the sky, and you can’t wait 364 days for that to happen if you are sailing! 
  • One of the books Kala encouraged me to read was the “We, the Navigators” about traditional Pacific and Polynesian voyaging techniques. 
  • The Dalai Lama visited and blessed the Hokule’a a few months ago. While I was on board, one of the crew members carefully wrapped and put away the white scarf given to them by the Dalai Lama.
  • Everything needs to be carefully balanced on a boat like the Hokule’a. Everything brought on ship has to be weighed and carefully positioned, or too much weight could end up on one side of the boat. The items under the sleeping boards are also weighed and balanced, so they know how much is allotted to each crew member.
Modest sleeping quarters for the crew. Each "canvas" flap on the side has a wooden board, thin cushions,
and underneath are storage and coolers. 
  • The Hokulea’s voyage is not just about sharing Hawaiian culture. There are scientists aboard who are doing research during the voyage, like studying fish and collecting water samples.
The Hokule'a has modern equipment too, like solar panels and life jackets. 
  • The navigator for the ship is a woman. Not a man. DH and I were both intrigued by this because astronomer Harriet Witt had mentioned that one ancient navigational technique was for a man to sit on the floor of the boat, and feel the wave patterns with his testicles. You can imagine the audience reaction to this! I don’t know if there’s an equivalent for female navigators, and didn’t have the nerve to ask. Besides, the navigator looked really busy, so I didn’t even talk with her.

There were not a lot of people visiting when we were there. Just a few people and later, some Japanese tourists. I thought it might be mobbed. I called the Polynesian Voyaging Society ahead of time and they said there is no set time to begin or end, so tours of the boat can be as long as you want to visit, although the crew does take an hour off for lunch.  They also said sometimes there are many people especially when there are school groups. I had read in the paper that people were bringing leis and gifts to the crew of the ship, and asked the office if they thought the crew might enjoy some produce from my garden, and if they had a way to cook it. The office said yes, they do have a designated cook and cooking facilities on board, and would love to have local produce.

So we brought them a squash that I grew and the first ground falls of liliko’i this season.  
The squash, liliko'i and rosemary I gave the crew. They already had their coconuts for the day!

Kala also showed me the prayer flags that children had drawn and painted, which now decorate the boat.

Prayer flags by Hawaii's children for the Hokule'a. 

I am kind of reliving this experience through memory, though I did watch it once on my video camera. It makes me wonder about the nature of art and sharing, how our modern society values recording and mass distribution of information.

The ancient Hawaiian culture didn’t have that. They didn’t have written language. Things were taught and shared orally. They didn’t have radios and TVs and computers and internet to record information and then have people receive it later on. People had to practice their memory constantly. Modern people don’t have to remember information. All we have to do is remember where we stored the information.

When the Hawaiians shared information and culture and art, I think it was more direct. Each experience was singular. They didn’t record a hula dance and then show it later on, which is kind of what my video camera is about. Recording and sharing for the future for some unseen audience. Their sharing was immediate and direct and they could receive feedback from the other party. I speculate that their cultural sharing involved more eye contact, because it was a connection between the person who shared and the person who received. And that the information sharing included a guide to interpret it.* On the downside though, in an oral tradition, when the people are gone, the culture is also lost because there are no records. Just artifacts from their lives and speculation.

When I blog or video, I don’t know where that information is going or when it will be watched or viewed or how it will be received. There’s no guide helping to relay the information and make sure it’s being conveyed with the intent of the creator or to answer questions. It’s a one-way transaction, unless someone lets me know. Even then, feedback is often filtered through time and distance. Sometimes I have been so obsessed with recording the information or the experience to share later on, that I am not experiencing the experience in the present.  Or I am more concerned about how other people will receive my information or share it.

Yet I love technology too. Without it, how could I share this 15 second video clip by Erik Blair of the Hokule'a sailing from Ma'alaea Harbor towards Laha'ina accompanied by the sound of a conch shell blowing? I wasn't there, so I appreciate vicariously being there. 

NOTE: I just read Instagram's sharing policy, and am including this disclaimer: "This product uses the Instagram API but is not endorsed or certified by Instagram."

(If you are seeing a blank image on Internet Explorer, please try a different web browser. It shows up fine on Google Chrome or go to this link: http://instagram.com/p/bHSLiqmaf_/

Or this other instagram clip of the crew boarding the boat and blessing it? I think some of you will be fascinated to look at the native Hawaiian dress. (If it's not showing up on your web browser, try this link: http://instagram.com/p/bHP35cGacX/)

I know I’m rambling, but this notion of societies that share information through eye contact versus societies that share information through mass distribution or recording is intriguing. Information that is shared here and now vs. information that is stored for the future.  Yet I wonder about things like the Hawaiian petroglyphs, rock carvings. Were they meant to record information for the future, or to be shared in the present with a guide and storytelling or ceremony? Perhaps those places that have petroglyphs are not just rocks with ancient graffiti but also places where people gathered and shared?

I think part of my, and other people’s interest in indigenous wisdom and native cultures, is to find other ways of being that can help bring more awareness or richer ways of looking at the world.  Native cultures do not necessarily have better ways, because I don’t like everything the ancient Hawaiians did (fierce rules and taboos, savage warfare), but they had ways of exploring and understanding the world that are mind-blowing to people from this time period. 

Like looking at the color of the reflection of light under the clouds to see if land is nearby. Things that the crew of the Hokule’a is doing now. And they are out in the world, sharing in the here and now, not sharing videos of their trip with visitors but “talking story” with people one on one, each time a singular experience that is not being telecast to millions of viewers. If you have a chance to visit them in person, it’s different than watching it on a video.  Though, I wouldn’t object if you recorded it! There’s value in both approaches – sharing information directly with eye contact and also sharing it through technology.

At this point, it’s unlikely that I’ll get my camera back. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and navel-gazing. But I am still asking the universe for something wonderful to happen as a result of losing it, and for me to know clearly when it happens.
*If you are interested in storytelling traditions in modern and ancient cultures, you may enjoy this New Dimensions talk by Joe McHugh who wrote Slaying the Gorgon: The Rise of the Storytelling Industrial Complex. 


  1. A fascinating post, very interesting. The boat doesn't seem like it could hold up in the rough ocean but apparently it's more resilient than it looks. Good luck with your soul searching I'm sure you'll receive some kind of sign. Everything will work out.

  2. It's definitely been tested in rough seas. Ran into someone who speculated that these types of canoes could even go in northern waters.

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