Lessons Learned From Hōkūle’a

Having sailed aboard the legendary Hokule’a several times, it was an odd moment for Dennis Chun to watch the double-hulled sailing canoe leave Kaua’i without him aboard. He shares his memories of his sailing days, and lessons learned, with MidWeek

“You folks are sailing, but there’s at least five other guys who want to sail,” says Dennis Chun, professor of Hawaiian studies and culture at Kaua’i Community College. “So what is your responsibility as a representative of those who are not sailing? You’re not representing yourselves, you’re representing this island and you have to be mindful of that.”

The cluster of listeners on the dock at the Small Boat Harbor in Nawiliwili nods solemnly. When Chun finishes, they form a ring and hold hands. A young woman sings in Hawaiian, and as her clear voice cuts through the cool afternoon air, I get chickenskin.

It’s Sept. 16 and Hokule’a, along with her sister voyaging canoe Hikianalia, depart Nawiliwili for Oahu. It’s the final leg of Malama Hawaii, an effort to connect diverse communities around the state, to engage leadership and shape sustainable food, energy and environmental practices. After sailing 1,000 miles and stopping at 30 ports, crewmembers will prepare the two wa’a kaulua (double-hulled canoes) and weave a symbolic lei around the world.

In May 2014, Hokule’a will begin a 45,000-nautical mile journey to Malama Honua (Care for Island Earth). Preparation for the worldwide voyage began in 2008, and the last leg will conclude in 2017 with a sail around the Hawaiian Islands. Crewmembers intend to bring back global knowledge and wisdom about how to work together and malama honua.

Hokule’a is a performance-accurate, full-scale replica of double-hulled voyaging canoes that Polynesians used when they discovered Hawaii. Launched March 8, 1975, by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the canoe is welcomed as an ambassador of peace and known for long-distance voyages navigated by ancient wayfinding systems, which are based on observation, knowledge and trust.

Oral tradition from navigator to apprentice passed generations of techniques in observing the ocean, clouds, sky and wildlife, memorizing locations and movements of stars, and knowing the seasons to travel. Sailors bring this knowledge with them, and while on the ocean, learn to trust themselves, crewmembers and ancestors.

“A canoe has ohana, or family, and those spirits also guide the canoe,” Chun tells me. “But you have to be aware of the signs and trust the process.”

Beginning in 1975 with the inaugural trip, Chun has served on Hokule’a crews six times: From Hawaii to Tahiti twice; from Hawaii to the Marquesas Islands; in Japan from Fukuoka to Oshima and Uwajima, and from Rapa Nui to Tahiti. Chun watches as Hokule’a leaves and he realizes it’s the first time she’s left a Kaua’i port without him.

“The canoe is an island on the ocean,” he says reflectively, “and this island is a canoe on the face of the Earth.”

Chun tries to apply lessons learned on the canoe into real life, and likens life on a voyaging canoe to sociology or the study of human social behavior. With limited resources and stressful conditions, the crew is exposed and vulnerable.

“How do you get a small group of people to get along for 30 days on long voyages?” he asks. “When you come back, you have to transfer the things you learned to life on land.”

There are many lessons Chun has learned. Among them are to not be afraid of making mistakes, taking time to listen to the experience of elders, and to be humble. Later tonight, the all-Kaua’i crew will cross Ka’ie’ie Waho, a 72-mile channel that separates Kaua’i from Oahu.

“It takes about 15 hours to cross,” explains Chun, “and it’s pretty rough. It’s short, steep swells, and we’ve been in 10-foot waves. We’ve crossed it in four to six hours, but you get pounded, and if you have a know-it-all on board, you can get into trouble.”

Chun’s eyes water and the tips of his tan ears turn red. Quietly, he recalls a lesson in forgiveness. In February 2011, nine crewmembers, including four high school students, were killed when the Japanese fishery high school training ship Ehime Maru collided with USS Greeneville off Oahu. Chun was on the Hokule’a crew that took family members to the spot where the ship sank so they could pay respects. “There was one guy whose only son died in that shipwreck, and his was the only body that was never found,” Chun says. “But of all the families, he was the one who was most open and most forgiving. He said, ‘This is a lesson for us.’ He believed the reason for the deaths was to bring the people and cultures of Hawaii and Japan closer. And it did.”

Dennis Chun and Keala Kai will talk story about their adventures aboard Hokule’a Saturday, Oct. 5, from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Kaua’i Museum courtyard. Admission is free to Kaua’i residents; half price for visitors. For more information, call 651-3533.

Photos by Daniel Lane

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