LIHUE — Prepared to give a presentation at the Kauai Museum Tuesday night, legendary navigator Nainoa Thompson couldn’t get his computer to work.
But preparing for the unexpected is nothing new to Thompson, who has dealt with unpredictably for most of his life on the open sea.
Thompson spoke about his life, teachings and heroes who have inspired him over the past few decades, pointing out many famous navigators and seafarers.
But none more so than his father.
“My father was the best navigator I’ve ever known,” Thompson said of Myron Thompson.
Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, was a navigator on Hokulea’s three-year, worldwide voyage that ended back in Hawaii in June. It traveled 40,000 nautical miles and visited more than 150 ports in 23 countries and territories worldwide.
While chatting to about 150 people at the invitation-only affair, no stone was left unturned.
“I’m not afraid of the ocean, I’m afraid to fail,” he said during his 20-minute talk that was followed by questions and answers.
Thompson received a Malama Award from the museum for the work he has done for the environment, seafarers and Kauai, although he wasn’t one to toot his own horn.
“Don’t thank me for coming to Kauai. This is a very special island with a very special community,” he said. “I’m very grateful and honored to be here.”
When Thompson spoke about how grateful he was to be on Kauai, the room fell silent. After all, he has witnessed the power of nature and the dangers of the open ocean on multiple occasions, particularly in Africa.
“The reason why South Africa is so dangerous is because of the cold fronts. They came every three days and came from every different direction,” he said. “There were currents coming from the north, cold fronts coming from the south with gale-force winds, stacking those waves up. It was a combination of these elements that have taken 800-foot steel tankers and broke them in half.”
Aboard the Hokulea, Thompson recalled how the crew overcame difficult conditions. He admitted that some of his crew didn’t want their legacies to be defined by putting the legendary vessel in harm’s way.
Instead, he used adversity to become a teaching moment.
“My mother said, ‘Nainoa, just put the canoe in a cargo ship and pick it up in Brazil!’ It was so dangerous. I told my mom ‘no. Why?’ Because Hawaii was good enough,” he said. “If you don’t believe in that, don’t go. And I say this with all humility, this is not me boasting. I believed in my land, I believed in my team, I believed in the power of faith. I believed in the power of training and research. If we’re good enough, we can do this.”
Thompson was also asked about Eddie Aikau, Hawaii’s legendary lifeguard and surfer who went missing in 1978 when he set out on his surfboard and paddled toward Lanai in search of help for the crew of Hokulea as the vessel began to leak and later capsized. Aikau was never seen again.
Thompson spoke fondly of Aikau, recalling one of the first occasions they had met.
“Eddie was trying out for the crew in 1977. I don’t know anyone who was more loved by people. Race didn’t matter to him, age didn’t matter,” Thompson said.
Thompson, Aikau and the rest of the crew had to go through the Honolulu Medical Bureau to pass their medical tests in order to set sail on a 30-day, 2,500-mile journey following the ancient route of the Polynesian migration between the Hawaiian and Tahitian island chains.
“Just by chance, and I didn’t even talk to (Aikau). I couldn’t even talk to him. He was just so amazing,” Thompson said. “But by chance, we finished our exams at the same time and by chance we walked into the same elevator on the fourth floor. We were in the elevator together and he felt very far away. When we got to the lobby, I was so intimidated that I stayed in the elevator. And Eddie walked out and halfway down the lobby he turned around and goes, ‘Nainoa, I need to sail on the Hokulea. I need to go down this road. We need to pull Tahiti out of the sea.’”
From that moment, Thompson knew Aikau was the right man to take on the voyage.
“If anybody understood why we were sailing, he did,” Thompson added.
Even though Thompson and the Hokulea crew are renown for their abilities to navigate the open ocean using ancient navigation methods, Thompson still considers himself a novice in the field.
“(Ancient Polynesians) were great explorers,” he said. “Us guys who sail around the world right now, we’re still in kindergarten. We only can imagine how good they were.”
When asked if he had any inclination of retiring, Thompson shook off the question.
“I talked about retiring 25 years ago,” he said. “How do you retire from being yourself?”