Exploring as the ancient Polynesians did

Courageous Kauai residents have sailed thousands of miles on the canoe Hokulea using only the stars, planets, sun, moon, wind and ocean swells to navigate as their Polynesian ancestors did 1,500 years ago. Hawaii crews have voyaged on Hokulea as far as Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Rapa Nui, Japan and Palmyra Atoll.

One of Kauai’s Hokulea sailors is Keala Kai, born and raised on Kauai and a former County of Kauai lifeguard. He was invited to join the Hokulea crew in 2005 when he was 47 years old, a dream come true for him.

Kai, a gentle Hawaiian man who shyly tells people he isn’t an adept public speaker, weaves profound stories of the meaning to him of sailing on Hokulea.

 “Whenever you go aboard the Hokulea, it’s magic,” Kai says. “Someone told me, ‘When you’re out there, the stars come down so low, it’s like Hokulea is lifting you up into the heavens, and you’re sailing among the stars.’”

The farther Kai sails into the middle of the ocean on Hokulea, the more in tune he becomes with his ancestors who voyaged from Polynesia more than a thousand years ago.

 “Now you appreciate how brave these people were to come that far,” Kai says. “You understand the theory of malama, take care of one another, because that’s the only way your canoe is going to be safe out there.

“You realize how hard it must have been for them. Their canoes sat much lower in the water. They didn’t have Cup of Noodle soup,” he says with a chuckle.

Dennis Chun is one of Kauai’s earliest Hokulea crew members. A professor of Hawaiian Studies and voyaging at Kauai Community College, Chun is an icon among younger sailors like Kai and students who learn about him in school.

Chun first sailed the 62-foot long, double-hulled, twin-masted canoe in 1976 when he was attending college on Oahu. Extremely humble, he rapidly deflects honor, instead pointing out the humor in his voyaging learning curve.

“When we sailed in the South Pacific, I thought it was going to be warm, like in the movies. The first night, I froze my butt off,” he says. “I thought back to the ancient Polynesian voyagers and said, ‘Damn, how did those guys do it?’ No foul weather gear! We tried wearing malos (loincloths) all the time. In the daytime, it was fine. When nighttime came, I put on my Patagonia sweatpants!”

But humankind has always had its trailblazers who proceed undaunted by discomfort, Chun says.

“When Polynesians first sailed to Hawaii, a lot of it was the sense of adventure, that sense of wanting to go out there and find something,” he says, seamlessly transitioning into the wonderful teacher he is. “It was a way to build your own mana (power), to strike out and find your fortune. It was like being the first man on the moon.”

For Chun, the close personal connections that are made with fellow crew members is his favorite part of sailing on Hokulea.

“When you’re on the ocean, you learn everybody’s strengths and weaknesses. What you see is what you get, and you support each other however you can,” Chun says.

“As a friend says, ‘When you’re on the canoe, think island. When you’re on the island, think canoe,’ in how you manage, how you live, the values that you create. We’re all working together.”

In their spare time, both Chun and Kai have been helping construct the Na Mahoe, a voyaging canoe of Kauai’s own. Na Mahoe translated means “the twins,” for her two hulls. It’s also the Hawaiian name for the constellation Gemini, also the twins, the principal guiding stars between Oahu and Kauai during certain times of the year.

“Na Mahoe will provide more opportunities for Kauai people to experience the magic of sailing the way our ancestors did,” Kai says. “Pick a star and go!”

Keali Kai and Dennis Chun will talk story about their adventures on Hokulea on Saturday Oct. 5 from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Kauai Museum courtyard, facilitated by Pamela Brown. Admission is free for Kauai residents; half price for visitors.

Call (808) 651-3533 or pam@kauaistories.net for more information. Chun’s, Kai’s and Kauai resident Nalani Kaneakua’s adventures aboard Hokulea are included in Brown’s book “Kauai Stories.”


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