40 years ago from Sunday, Hawai’i’s voyaging canoe Hokule’a left on her maiden voyage.
It was the early 70s when three men, an anthropologist, historian and artist and a waterman banded together, formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1973, built Hawai’i’s first voyaging canoe in 600 years then launched Hokule’a in 1975.
One year later, she set sail for Tahiti, a first in modern times for Hawai’i, for Polynesia, for her Micronesian navigator and her crew.
May 1, 1976, at Honolua Bay, Maui, prior to departure, the lone experienced voyager, master navigator Mau Piailug from Micronesia spoke to his fellow crew members. One crew member recalled the conversation.
“He was telling us how to live on the ocean, he also said we should leave our problems on land,” said Billy Richards, who was aboard Hokule’a in the Tahiti voyage.
Richards was the youngest crew member and long dreamed of this moment and so he documented Hokule’a’s epic voyage.
On board, Mau, a National Geographic film crew and 14 other crew members who never voyaged long distance, nor together…some vietnam vets, most watermen like Buffalo Keaulana, were up for the challenge.
“Our crew was made up of adventurers, cowboys and beachboys really a type personalities all the kind of people who jump out of airplanes it was a good group,” said Richards.
“I think most of it really was the ‘wow factor,’ which I’ll call the ‘Mau factor’…There’s always the big joke everybody heard about it where we saw this rain squall coming, and poured salt water on us, soap down and waiting for the rain to come and it went the other way and mau’s just back there laughing and we never did that again until we watched him put his raincoat on then we knew,” he added.
Hokule’a was Hawai’i’s contribution to the bicentennial celebration, she was also, suddenly, a tangible symbol of a barely talked about part of Hawaiian heritage, a tangible connection to something deep within.
There was also a scientific objective to prove Polynesians could purposefully sail using nature’s clues to settle Hawai’i, it’s those varying objectives that caused some friction.
“It was the inability for us to blend the scientific necessities of the voyage and the cultural risings of the voyage,” said Richards.
But they made it, a month later, arriving to 17,000 people waiting in Pape’ete for their arrival.
“It was beautiful it was unexpected, really unexpected, we were sure there would be people on the shoreline but we didn’t know there would be as many as there were,” Richards explained.
Mau was not on board for Hokule’a’s return voyage to Hawai’i, which benefited from no agenda, but getting home and favorable weather all the way.
“We pulled into Kalaupapa and they were waving there shirts and towels welcoming us home after 22 days at sea, we were informed to slow down because they wanted us to land at Magic Island at a certain day because all the thousands of people were going to welcome us home there,” Richards recalled.
And there were hundreds of boats and canoes to greet them and thousands on shore. Ben Young was the doctor on board and has a room filled with memories.
“One of the individuals who was a big wave surfer was Mel Kinney, he passed away…another individual who passed away is Keani Reiner Keani was one of two women, the other being Penny Rawlins…here’s a young kid he was 21 years old at the time, he knew little about non-instrument navigation and so did the rest of us,” Young reminisced.
Because of so many, the 1976 voyage was a success, children now know Hawai’i’s proud voyaging heritage, and Hokule’a sails on, now around the world.
“Never did we ever imagine that Hokule’a would have the kind of impact that she would have,” Richards said. “Hokule’a needs to sail because it needs to continue to do what it did back in the 70s and that was it inspired.”