No greater love than laying your life down for friends
LAHAINA – Pioneering Native Hawaiian Navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society gave a mesmerizing talk a couple months ago at Whalers Village on the Hokule’a and its coming worldwide adventure. The Hokule’a recently docked in Maalaea and will be in Lahaina before beginning its grand tour.
While much has been written about the voyaging canoe, few are as well-equipped to tell the story as Thompson, a young apprentice on the first voyage in 1976 who, over four decades, has become an accomplished navigator and leader in an effort culminating 46 years later in in a voyage to six continents.
The Hokule’a (meaning “Star of Gladness”) originally was built to prove that the arrival of Polynesians, “the true discoverers of Hawaii,” was no accident when they arrived on these shores. It was the product of planned voyages guided by the stars.
In a series of columns, we will look back at the meaningful journey, the tragedy of the second training voyage, and why Thompson believes the new voyage is the hope of the world.
The tale is told that when the crew of the first voyage made it all the way to Tahiti, the voyagers were welcomed by 17,000 spectators. The first greeting to the voyagers – in what Mauians call a “chicken skin” moment – was: “Welcome home!”
Two-hundred years ago, Thompson began, “there was an extraordinary voyager by the name of Captain Cook, an amazing man. He brought scientists with him. He wrote about the people’s ordinary ability to sustain themselves. There were 800,000 people here, and they were fully sustainable; they did not have a choice.”
Lessons learned will be part of the Hokule’a’s mission.
About 1966, Thompson recalled, a phone call came from most unlikely place: Chicago. “Nobody knew how our ancestors got here. But artist Herb Kane, living in the Midwest, knew. He told his listeners he wanted to prove it,” Thompson said.
Learning about ancient canoes, Kane produced a series of drawings based on research. His paintings appeared in National Geographic. The magazine decided to back his dream of building a canoe with the idea of sparking interest in Hawaiian culture. The voyage would play a role in spawning what now is called the Hawaiian Renaissance.
After the first trip to Tahiti, the returning voyagers encountered a problem. One of the few celestial navigators from an island deep in the South Seas left the canoe, because he said crew members were not prepared, and they failed to live up to the standard that food and drink would be confined to what the ancients had carried with them.
Clearly, Hawaiians themselves would need to relearn how to navigate like the ancients, and there would be a need for a lot more training.
One such training voyage – the subject of a film and now a book – ended in tragedy. Thompson was there, and he told Whalers Village listeners his eyewitness story. Excerpts from the presentation were tape recorded for this column.
There was to be second voyage (from Hawaii) on March 16, 1978.
“Thousands were there to watch us leave,” Thompson noted. “It was stormy, rough weather and sunset in the Molokai Channel. The seas were
12 feet and then 18 feet. The Hokule’a swamped, and the whole thing turned over. There were 14 people on board. The wind was so strong you couldn’t even hear the person next to you. We didn’t know how many waves we could survive.”
An extraordinary Hawaiian was on board with his surfboard: Eddie Aikau.
“He was the most respected lifeguard in Hawaii on the North Shore of Oahu. He had made 500 rescue attempts (of surfers, and never lost a one).” Aikau wanted to leave the floundering canoe on his surfboard to reach land and help.
“You see Eddie in front of the captain. You know what he is asking. The captain told him, ‘No.’ “
“You see someone tying a bag around his waist, poi going in, and you see a life jacket go on him… I am just a crew member, a nobody. I grab his arm. ‘Eddie, do you think you should go?’
“A stupid question. You see the giant waves. ‘I will tell you something you don’t know (Thompson quotes himself). The wind is so strong, there is salt in the air and you will not see.’
“He went out there in the gale with so much fog. Eddie had bad eyesight. He tried to paddle to an island he couldn’t see.”
On the Whalers Village lawn, it grew so quiet, you could have heard a leaf drop.
Thompson digressed. “This story is so fundamental. Eddie had wanted to go to the land of his ancestors, to educate new generations, to bring dignity back to our kupuna.
“I will finish the story about Eddie. We go because it is about believing in something,” he continued.
“I was the first to be taken off the Coast Guard helicopter (that found and rescued the crew). How did they know we were there? There was one person I didn’t know (Eddie’s mother). I will never forget the sound of a mother whose son was lost at sea.”
The search for Eddie went on for 12 days. And then Eddie’s father spoke: “Stop looking for my son. He wants to be with the sea.”
And so began the legend, “Eddie would go.”
Today, the rebuilt Hokule’a rides the waves for a few days in our harbors. A small plaque greets visitors as they board: “Eddie Aikau – “No greater love has a man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.” May 4, 1946 – March 18, 1978.
Columnist’s Notebook: This has been quite a week for a columnist who likes to take a lot of provocative photos. Go to my blog at voicesofmaui.wordpress.com to see photo galleries that take a fresh look at Kamehameha Schools kids visiting the canoe, a Father’s Day Brunch, faces of the King Kamehameha Parade and restoration of the Hanakao’o Cemetery near the Hyatt.