The Story of Hōkūle‘a

Embedded in the story of Hōkūle‘a and the culture that created her is the story of a 2000-year-old relationship with special islands and the sea. It is a story that was almost lost and was close to extinction. But ultimately it is a story of survival, rediscovery, and the restoration of pride and dignity. It is a story of a society revaluing its relationship to its island home. It is a story that is crucially important as the world’s populations struggle with the ability to live in balance with our island that we call Earth. It is a story that is still being written for our children and all future generations.

Hōkūle‘a, our Star of Gladness, began as a dream of reviving the legacy of exploration, courage, and ingenuity that brought the first Polynesians to the archipelago of Hawai‘i. The canoes that brought the first Hawaiians to their island home had disappeared from earth. Cultural extinction felt dangerously close to many Hawaiians when artist Herb Kane dreamed of rebuilding a double-hulled sailing canoe similar to the ones that his ancestors sailed. Though more than 600 years had passed since the last of these canoes had been seen, this dream brought together people of diverse backgrounds and professions. Since she was first built and launched in the 1970s, Hōkūle‘a continues to bring people together from all walks of life. She is more than a voyaging canoe—she represents the common desire shared by the people of Hawai‘i, the Pacific, and the World to protect our most cherished values and places from disappearing.

Voyages of Rediscovery

Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976 was a tremendous success. The Tahitians have great traditions and genealogies of ancestral canoes and navigators. What they didn’t have at the time was a voyaging canoe. When Hōkūle‘a arrived at the beach in Pape‘ete Harbor, over half the island’s people were there, more than 17,000 strong, and there was a spontaneous affirmation of what a great heritage we shared and also a renewal of the spirit of who we are today.

“When Hōkūle‘a arrived at the beach in Pape‘ete Harbor, over half the island’s people were there, more than 17,000 strong, and there was a spontaneous affirmation of what a great heritage we shared.”

On that first voyage, we were facing cultural extinction. There was no navigator from our culture left. The Voyaging Society looked beyond Polynesia to find a traditional navigator to guide Hōkūle‘a: Mau Piailug, a navigator from a small island called Satawal, in Micronesia. He agreed to come to Hawai‘i and guide Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti. Without him, our voyaging would never have taken place. Mau was the only traditional navigator who was willing and able to reach beyond his culture to ours.

Tragedy: The Loss of a Legend

In 1978 Hōkūle‘a set out for Tahiti again. The heavily loaded canoe capsized in stormy seas off of Moloka‘i. The next day, crew member Eddie Aikau left on a surfboard to get help. Crew member Kiki Hugho remembers, “We were hours away from losing people. Hypothermia, exposure, exhaustion. When he paddled away, I really thought he was going to make it and we weren’t.” But the crew was rescued; Eddie was lost at sea. After the tragedy, Nainoa Thompson recalls, “we could have quit. But Eddie had this dream about finding islands the way our ancestors did and if we quit, he wouldn’t have his dream fulfilled. He was saying to me, ‘Raise Hawaiki from the sea.’”

Pictured: Eddie Aikau

A Generation of Renewal 1975–2000

In 1979, Mau returned to Hawai’i to train Nainoa Thompson to navigate Hōkūle‘a and to guide us in recovering our voyaging heritage. In 1980, Nainoa replicated Mau’s 1976 voyage; he also navigated Hōkūle‘a from Tahiti back to Hawai’i, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 600 years. Mau sailed both to and from Tahiti to support Nainoa.

After the first two voyages to Tahiti, Hōkūle‘a continued to sail in the wake of our ancestors, including a two-year voyage to Aotearoa (1985-1987) and a voyage to Rapa Nui (1999), one of the most isolated islands on earth, at the far southeastern corner of the Polynesian Triangle.

With each of her voyages in her first twenty-five years, Hōkūle‘a brought revelations of how our ancestors navigated across open ocean, found islands, and settled Polynesia.

past voyages

2013–2019: Worldwide Voyage, Mālama Honua

Mālama Honua, means “to care for our Earth.” Living on an island chain teaches us that our natural world is a gift with limits and that we must carefully steward this gift if we are to survive together and protect our cultural and environmental resources for our children’s future.

2018: Hikianalia California Voyage, Alahula Kai O Maleka

While sailing the California coastline on a vessel powered
by wind and sun, the crew demonstrated the important relationship between humanity
and nature using navigational cues from the stars, wind and ocean as issues of climate change policies were at the forefront.

2015: Voyaging to Papahānaumokuākea, Marine National Monument

The Polynesian voyaging canoe Hikianalia journeyed to Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with its first joint expedition combining traditional navigators and cultural practitioners with government and university researchers.

Founders and Teachers

Herb Kawainui Kāne

Ben Finney

Tommy Holmes

Myron ‘Pinky’ Thompson

Pius ‘Mau’ Piailug

Eddie Aikau

Lacy Veach

Will Kyselka

Hawaiian Pwo Navigators, Satawal 2007
Left to right: Chad Kālepa Baybayan, Milton “Shorty” Bertelmann, Charles Nainoa Thompson, Chadd ‘Ōnohi Paishon and Bruce Blankenfeld

Master Navigators (Pwo)

On March 18, 2007, Mau Piailug inducted five Hawaiians and eleven Micronesians into Pwo, the ninth of fifteen degrees in the Weriyeng School of Navigation of Micronesia. The five Hawaiians were given the honor and responsibility of carrying on Mau’s teachings. Pwo, as explained to Nainoa Thompson is light, love, kindness and compassion. If there are conflicts, the navigator must resolve them; if there is sickness, the navigator’s responsibility is to heal; if there is damage, the navigator must repair it. His kuleana is to sail and bring back gifts to his home island.