Native Hawaiian master navigator talks reviving a 600-year-old sailing tradition

Feb. 6, 2019, 1:08 a.m.

In 2017, Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, successfully led a canoe, Hokule’a, on a worldwide voyage — making him the first navigator to do so in over 600 years.

Thompson, who received the Unsung Hero of Compassion award from the Dalai Lama, spoke to a full audience Tuesday night at CEMEX, showing photographs to tell a story of a revitalization of Hawaiian culture.

More than six centuries ago, Polynesians were navigators, sailing through the largest body of water on Earth before the use of modern day sailing technology.

They mapped their open ocean voyages using clues from the environment including the wind, stars and ocean currents.

Over time, however, this navigating craft faded from mainstream awareness, that is until Thompson, aided by his teachers, relearned techniques of sailing double hulled voyaging canoes.

“My college is the canoe,” Thompson told The Daily. “I am in my 44th year and I’m still a freshman.”

Thompson said he learned from the “greatest navigator of the world.” A master navigator from Micronesia, Mau Piailug, lived with Thompson’s family for 28 months so that Thompson could learn the craft.

In 2017, members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, an organization aimed towards increasing education around voyaging and community partnerships, decided to attempt their first worldwide voyage using these ancient techniques.

Hokule’a, a Hawaiian word that means “star of gladness,” sailed under Thompson’s leadership for more than 37 months through 18 countries and 327 ports.

When the canoe docked, it served as a symbol for many Native Hawaiian people of revitalization for a culture that has suffered through historical hardships, Thompson said.

He estimates that during the 14th century, nearly 75 percent of Native Hawaiians died. In 1926, public schools in Hawaii outlawed the speaking of the Hawaiian language.

Since Hokule’a’s latest voyage, Thompson has transitioned from navigating to wanting to learn from young people, which he calls his new “kuleana,” or responsibility.

“A better earth is what we’re looking for, which is inclusive of all people — and that starts with young people,” Thompson said.

Meanwhile, Hokule’a is slated to eventually sail another Pacific Ocean voyage.

“Hokule’a is not a canoe,” Thompson said. “It is a school. The crew is not just a crew, it is a family.”


Contact Aliyah Chavez at achavez8 ‘at’

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