Kahea: reflections on Hokulea's Worldwide Voyage
Conceived and constructed in the spirit of cultural resurgence, traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe Hōkūle‘a has become a vessel for a kāhea—a call—to mālama honua: to care for our singular Earth. On the eve of her return to Hawai‘i after four years spent traversing the globe, National Geographic photojournalist and sojourner Daniel Lin shares some of his stories of his time spent aboard on this worldwide mission.
Throughout Micronesia, the big issue of the day is climate change; many of the islands in this part of the world are literally in danger of disappearing as a result of rising sea levels. These island communities were the first in the world to feel the effects of climate change, the threat of which they’ve already been dealing with and taking seriously for years. Photojournalist Daniel Lin had been working on raising awareness about climate change and its effects on islands in Micronesia for two years prior to joining the expedition. Micronesia is also important to the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) and to the Worldwide Voyage on a personal level: the man who re-taught Hawaiians to sail and navigate traditionally was Mau Pialug, a Yapese navigator from Satawal who guided Hōkūle‘a on its 1976 inaugural voyage to Tahiti and back.
Lin visited Yap during his time on the voyage and reported on an innovative solution the Yapese have instituted to help mitigate the effects of human-caused climate change.
“The State of Yap, within the Federated States of Micronesia, has decided to ban plastic bags,” says Lin. “They decided to take a stand for their stake in the future. It was a really important moment, because a lot of these small island communities feel like their voices are whispers among the rest of the voices in the world, but here’s Yap showing that if those communities come together, their collective voice can become a roar.”
What’s happened since the ban on Yap is the materialization of several small businesses there dedicated to creating hand-woven, reusable bags on the island—a true example of environmentally sound policy leading to a new industry that can help people live sustainably. Lin says it’s stories like this one that the voyagers on Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia are trying to find and publicize.
Interestingly, a U.S.-based non-government organization (NGO) was interested in ordering upwards of 20,000 of these bags from Yap. Even with every citizen working every day on the bags, Lin says it would have taken months to complete that order. It simply wasn’t feasible.
“It was great that the community efforts got so much attention but, at a certain point, asking that much from a small community would, essentially, drive them back toward industrial processes and away from sustainable living, defeating the whole purpose of the ban in the first place,” says Lin.
Roughly 1,200 miles east of Yap, near the Republic of the Marshall Islands, sea-level rise is already endangering communities in the Federated State of Kosrae. Coastal erosion has led to flooding which has destroyed roads over and over again, and some communities are sometimes inaccessible on foot. Lin became interested in engaging young people on Kosrae, through the experiences of the older generations there, after noticing that many young people were unaware of how much their island has already lost to sea-level rise. Working with elders to talk to youth about climate change became a major project for Lin during his time there.
“Trying to explain sea-level rise through the lens of these elders’ life experiences was really fascinating,” says Lin. “The elders would talk about what the island used to look like when they were growing up, or things that they used to be able to do that are no longer possible because the beach or the island they used to play on is completely gone now.”
Lin would record the stories the elders told for later use as teaching tools in classrooms. “A big part of what makes Mālama Honua successful is our ability to engage with young people through their education, so schools become an important entry point for us to spread our message,” says Lin.
“What does it mean for a family that owns the deed to an island that’s underwater now? What does it mean that an elder has to tell us to park our car outside his village and walk in on foot because, after a certain point in the day, the water is too high to drive through?” wonders Lin.
How can we empower these communities to feel like they have a stake in the future of the world? What kind of adaptive measures can be implemented on these islands, and how can we learn from them and spread the lessons they’ve learned to other parts of the world?
“Nainoa says that the Worldwide Voyage is like a lei,” relates Lin, about the longtime PVS leader. “Each of these environmental stories of hope is like a flower, and Hōkūle‘a is the thread that connects them all together. So by the time we make it around the world, we’ll have this big lei of stories. And hopefully the size of that lei will mean that we’ve reached enough people to have made some kind of a difference in the outcome of our future.”
“Grab a bucket, pour it on yourself, quickly lather up, then pour another bucket on yourself, and then quickly wipe down. It’s all salt-water, so if you don’t wipe off right away, the salt cakes onto your skin. That’s how you shower on the canoe,” Lin explains. “And then, occasionally, when you get a rainstorm, everyone gets in their board shorts and waits for the rain to hit,”
As a photojournalist, Lin relishes the moments of everyday life that he is able to capture with his camera. Even in a situation that is, by no means ordinary, the ordinary still transpires.
“That kind of grounds it,” reflects Lin. “We often focus on telling the stories of the extreme, or the memorable moments, but the bulk of it are these familiar moments. They’re certainly not dull, but they do make you feel like this is part of your life. You remember that you’re here to sail, that you’re here to change the world, but the everyday aspects of the voyage—this common human thread—it’s what links us to the other people we’re visiting around the world.”
To do laundry, crew members mix detergent into a bucket of salt water, and scrub the clothes out, hanging them on the canoe’s riggings to dry, secured only by knots tied in the clothing itself.
“Every so often, and this is without fail, someone will lose an article of clothing,” Lin chuckles. “Like you go down, take a nap, get up and your shirt is just gone. We’ve had crew members lose multiple pieces of clothing, to the point that when they get back home, they have practically no clothes left.”
Some crew members want to voyage as traditionally as possible, attempting to really feel the way their ancestors did, and will voyage in traditional malo, for example
“They’ll really try to embrace it, even when it’s rainy or cold,” says Lin. “Not to be tough or anything, but to connect to the experience of their ancestors in a visceral way. I really respect that level of courage and dedication to heritage.”
“When we were sailing around Aotearoa, we had some of the original crew members with us,” recalls Lin. “In their day, they were always playing music. Everyone would bring an instrument and they would jam. One of them, Billy Richards, told me that if you have the ability to give music, it’s always a gift that people will appreciate. I think he was talking in the context of the voyage, but it’s applicable to all aspects of life. If you have a gift to give, it’s almost your responsibility to do your best to give it. Something about music brings out this element of giving, and take us to places that you cannot see, but that you can feel.”
The crew doctor on the Samoa leg of the voyage, Mel Chang, would play his guitar whenever he got a free moment to do so.
“You’d be working and then, suddenly, you hear slack-key music floating over the deck,” Lin remembers. “All music brings you to a place. But something about Hawaiian music—when he played everyone was in a better mood. His passion became a contribution that helped everyone around him.”
While the crew was ashore in New Zealand, a couple came and met them at the canoes. In a mixed pidgin accent, the man, named Sidney, told the crew he was from Hawai‘i and invited them to come spend some of their precious free time up at his house overlooking the bay.
“He really went out of his way to make it feel like home for us,” recalls Lin. “He had an imu going, there was great conversation and talk-story; and again, it came back to music. First it was some of the uncles who started to play, then some of the younger guys started to jam with them, some of our ladies started to do hula—and it all felt so natural and familiar.”
At one point toward the end of the evening, the kanikapila organically transitioned into a rendition of Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s “White Sandy Beach” and, Lin says, by the time it was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
“I’ll never forget that, because I suddenly realized the power music has to connect people on the voyage to one another and to home and memory, and to strengthen our resolve for the journey too,” says Lin.
“When you're asked to go on a voyage with Hōkūle‘a, you’re asked to commit every second of your life for that period of time to the mission,” says Lin. “You become completely immersed in this other universe where you’re traveling on a canoe to places you’ve never been before with a group of people you may or may not have spent a lot of time with. And the whole time, you’re giving 100 percent to make sure that you do whatever it is that needs to be done—on or off the canoe—to make the mission succeed. It completely overtakes your life. It has to. But, in that space there are, occasionally, times when we get a day—or maybe just a few hours—of pure time off.”
What that means is that the canoes are tied up and safe, and all the necessary tasks have been taken care of. It’s a rare thing to have a full day to unwind while on the Worldwide Voyage.
“When you’ve been working as hard as we do, there’s no amount of money you’d accept to trade for that free time,” laughs Lin. “It’s that rare and that precious.”
In Samoa, the crew made the most of a full day off, taking boat rides to different areas of the island to try and really explore its beauty.
“That day came at a time when we really needed it too,” remembers Lin. “We were under a lot of stress, and having that day to recharge was critical. It completely changed the course of the back half of the Samoa leg because it gave us enough energy to deal with the latter part of the journey.”
Lin had always wanted to visit the To Sua Trench on Samoa, a large hole in the ground that opens up to a clear, blue pool of water leading out to the ocean. He convinced the other crew members that the trench was something they absolutely had to see.
“Having everyone there together was such an amazing feeling,” remembers Lin. “The place itself is beautiful, but it was really special because it was our whole crew together, relaxing and having just pure fun, without having to worry about any responsibilities.”
Lin equates this experience with the night they spent in New Zealand singing and dancing in Sidney’s house. “They’re both instances where we could just laugh along with one another,” he says. “You take that for granted when you’re not on the voyage.”
“In order to be here on the voyage right now, somebody, somewhere had to make a sacrifice. So you owe it to them, and to their sacrifice, to be completely here and to give everything that you have. Similarly, when you go home and you’re around those people who sacrificed for you, you owe it to them to be completely there.” – Chad “Onohi” Paishon
For crew members returning from such an epic journey, something so radically different from everyday life at home, it can be very easy to dwell on the voyage, to leave one’s mind back on board the canoe, long after the body is once again in Hawai‘i.
“This was on our last day,” recalls Lin, about the lesson master navigator Onohi Paishon taught the young crew members. “He told us to take all the time we needed to close the book on this chapter of our lives; to let it go. That way, when we make it back home to our family and friends, we can be completely with them.”
“Have you ever asked someone whom you view as incredibly successful in life what their metrics are for making life decisions?” posits Lin. “I asked Uncle Billy (Richards) one time how he makes life decisions. And Uncle Billy sat me down and he told me to look at the night sky and find Ka Makau Nui o Maui. It’s one of the constellations that we all learn about at PVS—in Greece they called it Scorpio, but in Hawai‘i it’s Maui’s Fishhook.”
“‘The gods put that fishhook in the sky,’ Uncle Billy told me, ‘but every once in awhile the gods lower that fishhook out of the sky for you,’” Lin relates. “‘You have two choices,’ Uncle Billy told me. ‘You can swim by and continue with your life, or you can bite on the fishhook and let it carry you. This is how I make my decisions: every time that fishhook drops out of the sky, I bite on it, and I bite hard. And I don’t let go. It’s as simple as that.’”
“Nainoa carries his life out as a model to live by in the sense that he is completely committed to making a better future for his kids,” says Lin about PVS President Nainoa Thompson. “For us crew members, we look at that as exemplary. He says, without using any words, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to commit to spreading this message of conservation and malama honua. What are you going to commit to?’”
“I think that’s the best kind of leadership,” says Lin. “The kind where you don’t have to say anything—because you’re living it every day.”
“There's an acknowledgement that, in order for the next chapter in the history of PVS to begin, there needs to be a passing of the torch to a new generation of leaders from the current leaders, who have been with PVS since the beginning in some cases,” says Lin. “And it needs to happen soon. This voyage serves as a means of getting the future leaders of PVS, and of Hawai‘i, to a point where they’re comfortable taking the reins.”
Many of the current leaders within PVS were no older than the new generation when they first took Hōkūle‘a out for her maiden voyage in 1976. And they didn’t have the luxury of an older generation of teachers to guide them through their mistakes. For Lin, one of the most important parts of the voyage is this transfer of knowledge from old to new.
“They learned just by doing—they figured it out as they went,” comments Lin. “We’re lucky to have them but, at the same time, we don’t have the same sense of urgency in figuring things out—that sink or swim mentality—that they had.”
At first, Lin says, the younger navigators were hesitant to take the lead, not wanting to overstep or offend. But the more they sail, the more the younger generation is stepping forward and leading.
“There was a recent voyage to Nihoa, a northern Hawaiian island, that was crewed entirely by young navigators,” says Lin. “That’s a major accomplishment and I know seeing that made the older guys really happy.”
Of course, there are growing pains. There’s a substantial amount of trust that needs to be developed in a captain or a navigator before he or she can lead effectively. They must develop other skills as well, that are not necessarily related to voyaging—like the ability to calmly assess a situation.
“Growth among the crew still looks very organic, even though there is a clear heading and direction being provided,” says Lin. “We view the older generation as legends, you know? ‘Cause that’s what they are. They did something that nobody thought they could, in a time when nobody supported indigenous resurgence, and they came out of it with this amazing legacy. And, from their end, they’re really excited to see where the younger generation will take that legacy into the future.”
And the growth has already been noticeable to Lin.
“I have to be able to communicate what I see to the broader audience,” he says. “I’ve witnessed people growing and changing very clearly at times. And a lot of it is confidence. Knowing you can do it is that last piece they need to take up the reins of leadership. And once they have that, there’s no doubt at all that they’ll succeed. It just becomes an issue of what is the next hurdle in your mind you need to get over? The early hurdles are ‘can I do it,’ while the later ones are ‘can I do it better?’”
“One thing that I've really come to appreciate and respect about the cultures we’ve come into contact with so far on the Worldwide Voyage, and during my time living in the Pacific, is this element of sacredness to life,” says Lin. “I don’t think the word ‘sacred’ was one that I ever really used in my vocabulary until I moved from the Northeast to the Pacific. There are things that you can’t fully understand or describe about this part of the world, and there’s a level of respect people here put on things like knowledge or natural occurrences, that people where I grew up tend to take for granted or brush off as unimportant.
“There’s things that we see on the voyage—things that we feel—that we can’t explain,” says Lin. “Maybe it’s something as simple as a pattern of sun rays that are displayed in the sky in a way that defies logic. I remember moments like that where the entire crew would just stop and stare at the sky, because it was so amazing to see. It was great to be the photographer in moments like that.”
There were other moments that Lin says were impossible to capture. “We’d be sailing through a squall, and it would be loud and wet, the rain would sting your face, and every part of you is trying to stay focused,” says Lin. “And I remember one time this was happening while we were sailing back to Samoa, and the squall just ended so suddenly: no wind, no waves, no noise at all—this deafening silence, like we’d pressed pause on a movie. And I don’t know why, to this day, but nobody spoke a single word. And I like to think that we all just recognized how special that moment of silence was; that was a sacred moment that you can’t replicate or fully explain. That will stick with me forever.”