Looking up at the night sky and trying to find patterns and meaning in the stars can be dizzying. But for the Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson, a practitioner in the ancient art of “wayfinding,” the stars have been a map across the vast archipelagos of Polynesia and through the rough seas of cultural rebirth.
Now Thompson has embarked on the longest and most challenging journey of his life: raising awareness about threats to the oceans and the environment by circumnavigating the globe in a traditional 60-foot transoceanic Hawaiian canoe.
“The canoe is a metaphor for the earth,” he says, “which is an island in an immense ocean of space.” Noting that oceans connect all the peoples of the earth with each other and with the environment, he says the core message of the four-year voyage is “to mālama honua, care for the Earth—our natural environment, our children, and all humankind.”
A symbol of indigenous wisdom and sustainability, the double-hulled Hōkūle‘a has been recognized by some of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders. Both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu blessed the newly rebuilt canoe and its ecological mission during their visits to Hawaii in 2012. Now Thompson hopes the worldwide voyage, which is scheduled to begin with stops around Hawaii this summer, will raise awareness of the serious environmental threats to our oceans, including climate change, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and other problems caused by humankind’s addiction to oil and other fossil fuels.
As president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Thompson will oversee hundreds of crew members as they take turns sailing more than 45,000 nautical miles to visit 26 countries. They will connect with communities, classrooms, and indigenous groups around the globe. Just as Thompson and his modern argonauts will use the stars, wind, and sun as guides in their daring voyage, so will others, he hopes, will be inspired to chart a more sustainable course for the future.
Born with both Native Hawaiian and Caucasian heritage, Thompson grew up in the 1960s, when it seemed as though his native culture was fading away, and he felt torn between his ancestral roots and modern progress. But that changed when he joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society, where he helped build, and eventually sail, a traditional transoceanic canoe and learned how ancient wayfinders navigated the Pacific using only the stars and natural elements.
“My vision of my ancestry became timeless and alive in those same stars,” he says.
The young Hawaiian voyagers learned the ancient techniques of celestial navigation from one of the last remaining practitioners on earth, a Micronesian named Mau Piailug, who in 1976 successfully steered the new canoe, Hōkūle‘a, from Hawaii to Tahiti using only the stars, swells, and seabirds as guides—a feat many Western sailors said couldn’t be done.
Two years later, on Thompson’s first voyage as a navigator, disaster struck when the canoe capsized less than a day into the journey, and crew member Eddie Aikau vanished at sea trying to find help. It was a devastating loss, with some arguing that the canoe—and the program—should be suspended. But Thompson joined the voices arguing that it should continue to honor Aikau’s sacrifice.
After rebuilding Hōkūle‘a with his crew members and deepening his study of voyaging under his mentor Piailug, Thompson completed the voyage to Tahiti in 1980. That made him the first Hawaiian in centuries to revive the ancient techniques of navigation.
Since its launch in 1975, Hōkūle‘a has sailed more than 150,000 nautical miles, the equivalent of sailing six and a half times around the world, according to Thompson. She has also inspired a rebirth in voyaging in Hawaii and across Polynesia. “Now there are 25 deep-sea voyaging canoes and 21 voyaging organizations throughout the Pacific, including 15 countries,” he says. “That’s extraordinary.”
Today, Thompson is eager to sail around the globe, saying the canoe will be like a floating classroom he hopes will inspire others to see the interconnectedness of people and the importance of protecting the ocean and the environment. People can follow the progress of the voyage online at www.hokulea.org.
“It’s a voyage to collect other voyagers around the planet,” he says. “[People] who have a common mission and set of values, and want to do something about protecting the earth.”
High-Tech Help for an Ancient Journey
While the traditionally constructed Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a will cross oceans without the help of modern technology, a fully equipped escort canoe named Hikianalia will shadow the voyage for safety and communications. Donated by the organization Pacific Voyagers, the Hikianalia is a double-hulled canoe similar in design to Hokule‘a but equipped with computers, photovoltaic panels, and the most advanced solar-powered engines in the world. Powered by the sun and wind, says navigator Nainoa Thompson, Hikianalia is “the perfect child of Hokule‘a.”