Living legend celebrates Hokulea’s return decades after sailing her maiden voyage

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Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana is one of Hawaii’s living legends.

Affectionately known as “Uncle Buffalo,” Keaulana was a world-class surfer and Makaha’s first lifeguard.

He was also a part of Hokulea’s first crew in 1976, steering the Polynesian voyaging canoe to Tahiti and back.

“I really feel proud of Hokulea,” he said.

Keaulana knows what they did 41 years ago was part of a movement, even though, he jokes, Hokulea did not move as swiftly as she can today.

“We were only going eight knots. Like I said, Duke Kahanamoku swam faster than eight knots,” he said. “I had the greatest time. You know, like Shorty (Bertelmann) said, the bigger the wave, the more fun Buffalo get.”

The original 17 crew members received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Magic Island on May 1, 1976.

“It’s all of us. It’s not just one flag,” Keaulana said. “It’s all of us who is involved in sailing the canoe.”

On June 17, four of the original 17 were asked to relive the magic. Bertelmann, John Kruse, and Billy Richard knew they’d be there.

Uncle Buffalo was praying he would. The 82-year-old has been in the fight of his life battling cancer.

“I wish I can be there. I’m trying hard trying to get myself together,” he said. “I miss all of them, too.”

Dreams do come true. When Hokulea docked at Magic Island Saturday after a three-year journey around the world, Keaulana was there to be a part of the moment.

His cancer is in remission, and he’s getting stronger every day.

“I don’t just want to talk about them. I want to be with them, and talk about us, and feel the mana, and all the love,” he said.

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