It takes a voyage to unite education and culture

October 31st, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Features, Nov. 2011  |  4 Comments

Kaiulani Murphy and Nainoa Thompson in front of the Hokulea voyaging canoe

Honolulu Community College’s Kaʻiulani Murphy and mentor Nainoa Thompson with a Hōkūleʻa hull at the college’s Marine Education and Training Center

Lying under a tarp canopy at Honolulu Community College’s Marine Education and Training Center are two long hulls, the dismantled remains of a large canoe. Sanders whirl, dust wafting above. The smell of wood permeates the air. At first glance, it looks like a typical boatyard project.

In fact, this unassuming but significant scene is the rebirth of one of Hawaiʻi’s, and the Pacific’s, most recognizable and treasured cultural icons—the Hōkūleʻa.

The voyaging canoe is being refurbished and rebuilt in preparation for a worldwide journey that is intended to chart a new course toward sustainability. When completed, Hōkūleʻa will be lighter, stronger, more stable and more watertight than she was when originally built in 1975.

A partnership for education

Saki Uchida working on the Hokulea

The Hōkūleʻa brought 22-year-old Saki Uchida across the Pacific. Some might call it destiny. Her grandfather was in the Japan Coast Guard; her father writes about the ocean and teaches environmental ocean studies. She was just 8 when first introduced to Polynesian voyaging master navigator Nainoa Thompson through a mutual friend of her father’s. A teenager when the canoe visited Japan in 2007, she met the sailors—including one of the first Japanese crew members, ocean photographer Kanako Uchino—and sailed with them from Yokosuka to Kamakura.

With her parents’ blessing, she moved to Hawaiʻi after graduating from high school in Kamagata, Japan, three years ago. She joined Kapu Na Keiki, a Polynesian Voyaging Society youth group, and rode her moped across the city to Sand Island to learn the basics of navigating and sailing. At the Marine Education and Training Center, she also learned about Honolulu Community College’s Small Vessel Fabrication and Repair Program and started classes there this fall.

Uchida says sailing aboard Hōkūleʻa is indescribable, both tough and exhilarating. She has yet to chart her future, equally drawn to continuing her work with Hōkūleʻa in Hawaiʻi and educating the Japanese people about the ocean, preservation and navigation.

More than 5,000 volunteer hours have been donated toward restoration of Hōkūleʻa since she was put into drydock in September 2010. “We didn’t know what the damage was or how extensive the rebuild was going to be until we hauled her out of the water,” says Bob Perkins, director of the Marine Education and Training Center.

Perkins is providing technical guidance for this massive undertaking, and students of the college’s small vessel fabrication and repair program are gaining hands-on experience while also learning about traditional voyaging and navigation.

It’s an example of what organizers were hoping to achieve when the University of Hawaiʻi and the Polynesian Voyaging Society formalized an educational partnership eight years ago.

Hōkūleʻa, we believe, can help navigate where Hawaiʻi should go through the tool of education,” says master navigator and Polynesian Voyaging Society Executive Director Nainoa Thompson (BA ’86 Mānoa).

“The Marine Education and Training Center is not just a place to tie Hōkūleʻa up. This partnership allows Hōkūleʻa and the voyaging community to be a part of the most important and powerful educational tool we have, which is the University of Hawaiʻi System.”

The Marine Education and Training Center on Sand Island has become the Polynesian Voyaging Society headquarters for education, voyage preparation and canoe maintenance. The society has office space and access to operational and maintenance areas at the facility. Beyond the sharing of facilities, the partnership was formed to broaden the education curriculum for both the society and the college in the environment, marine technology, ocean voyaging and sailing and Hawaiian culture.

“To be linked into the community colleges makes the most sense because what Hōkūleʻa does is bring community to the college,” says Thompson, a viewpoint shared enthusiastically by Perkins. “Our relationship has grown and continually evolved over the years, which is fantastic,” Perkins says. “With Hōkūleʻa and the Polynesian Voyaging Society here, there is someone here seven days a week and the community is utilizing the facility, and that makes me really happy.”

Thousands have visited the training center on Sand Island since it became the new home for Hōkūleʻa. The canoe’s presence has not only helped raise local awareness of the center, which ranks as one of the premier training facilities of its kind in the United States, but it has also helped the society expand its educational outreach to the community.

Thompson estimates the society has been able to provide more than 16,000 educational opportunities, both on the canoe and in the classroom, since moving to the center. This includes community lectures and seminars, school field trips and free public events that feature tours of the Hōkūleʻa.

Star compass guides direction

star compass in concrete sidewalk

Star compass installed at Kapiʻolani Community College

The formal partnership implemented in 2003 with Honolulu Community College has since expanded to other UH campuses across the state. Voyaging classes are offered at UH Mānoa and Hawaiʻi, Honolulu, Kauaʻi and Windward Community Colleges. Thompson looks forward to linking the society with Leeward Community College as well; the campus serves as an important link to the Native Hawaiian community it serves in West Oʻahu and the Waiʻanae coast.

At Honolulu Community College, students from the Native Hawaiian Center participate in extension activities at the training center, such as paddle making, as a part of the First Year Learning Experience program. Students are taught that they are the captains of their own canoe during their journey through college.

Kapiʻolani Community College is instilling a similar philosophy in its students through a symbolic partnership with the society that began as a solution to a simple challenge on campus. A faculty and staff committee was looking for a way to renovate the sidewalk in front of the ʻOhiʻa Building on campus. Numerous ideas were floated. Inspired by Thompson’s star compass, they decided to have it installed on the sidewalk.

The star compass represents the synthesis of the navigational system devised by Thompson to sail, without instruments, the more than 2,500 miles of open ocean from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti and back in 1980. Since then, it has been used to navigate Hōkūleʻa to the far corners of Polynesia and beyond. It is based on the Micronesian star compass of Mau Piailug, the Micronesian master navigator who trained Thompson. It’s also an original creation and represents a remarkable achievement in modern Native Hawaiian thought, integrating traditional knowledge with modern science.

“Metaphorically, the compass represents both what our students should acquire while they are at Kapiʻolani Community College and an inner compass to provide them with a sense of direction in college and in life,” says Dennis Kawaharada, an assistant professor at Kapiʻolani and a volunteer with the Polynesian Voyaging Society for nearly 20 years.

“The bird in the compass is flying due north toward Hokupaʻa, the North Star, which on clear nights appears above the entrance to the college’s Lama Library. The bird is telling students, ‘when you are lost or confused, seek knowledge to help you find your way,’ just as Nainoa did when he needed to find a way to navigate without instruments to Tahiti,” explains Kawaharada.

Thompson calls the compass “the foundation of everything that you learn in navigation.” He’s proud to have it physically represented at a place where “our young people have an opportunity to chart their way and start their journey.”

The next generation

Preparing the next generation for the future is as much a mission for the Polynesian Voyaging Society as it is for the University of Hawaiʻi. Succession planning and leadership training is top of mind for Thompson, not only to prepare for the upcoming worldwide voyage but to ensure the society has the leadership to carry it into the future and perpetuate the culture and tradition of navigation and voyaging.

UH and the Polynesian Voyaging Society were working together toward this end long before the 2003 formalized agreement. For years, the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge hoʻokele (navigator) course has provided hundreds of Mānoa students with an introduction to Hawaiian astronomy, weather, canoe design, navigation and sail planning. The course series culminates in a sailing laboratory on the Hōkūleʻa.

Kaʻiulani Murphy (BA ’01, Mānoa) was first introduced to the voyaging canoe as a student in the course in 1997. Now an instructor at Honolulu Community College, the Big Island native shares her knowledge with new students through a similar course at the Dillingham campus. Though very modest in talking about herself, she uses her experiences sailing on the Hōkūleʻa to inspire students on their journey and nurture future captains and sailors.

Ask her role with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and she responds somewhat sheepishly: “I’m a student of navigation and training to be captain.” Mention her name to anyone else associated with the college or the society, and they’ll tell you she’s much more than that.

Thompson sums it up quite simply: “There is one who will be the face and voice of the future and carry on our traditions, and that person is Kaiʻulani.” He looks to Murphy and future students to take voyaging farther than his generation ever could. Education, he says, is the key.

“The connection between institutional and community-based education is vital. We are redesigning a way to achieve quality education in Hawaiʻi and creating a bridge between Hawaiian knowledge and history and science and technology.

“It’s very powerful when it all comes together.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. John Datmagurun says:

    November 2nd, 2011at 10:19 pm(#)

    In regards to the Micronesian Star Navigation imprinted at Kapiolani CC, and what Thompson used to navigate. I’m glad micronesian was able to contribute little if not alot to the rebirth and interest in traditional navigation here on Hawaii. Glad to see little improvements towards bring us closer to understanding.

  2. Vid Raatior says:

    December 2nd, 2011at 4:13 am(#)

    I hope that someday we Micronesians will follow our ancestors beckoning us to perpetuate this dying traditional artform. For now we applaud the efforts of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and this partnership with UH as models worth replicating. – Vid

  3. Frazer Goodman says:

    December 3rd, 2011at 12:52 pm(#)

    What a wonderful project congrats to the Polynesian Voyaging Society

  4. greg litfin says:

    January 3rd, 2012at 2:56 am(#)

    iwashoping to get an answer about celestial navigation from the aboriginal poeple but there was no infomation given. so went onto your site trehe was no conclusive answer given but ihadforthetime ihave been learning about the new craft eing builtand iwas pleasently surprised on the new vessel being restructed by all and a vollunteershowinghow it all beganusing firbre glass being used to make the fishing vesselhigher and safer touse inopen ocean waters. all thepoeplechooseto come and helpin so many ways iam so glad thatidid itwas verychallenging to watch and itrust that inthefinished work done itwill beput togood use greg.