Lehua Kamalu only had a few minutes to speak. She was perched on top of a double-hulled canoe called Hōkūle’a in the Pacific Ocean, not far from the Big Island of Hawaii where her crew had just set sail. The wind whipped the phone as she spoke. An expert sailor and navigator, Kamalu was approaching a crucial moment: at the start of the voyage, she would need all her concentration to determine the course of the long journey ahead. “We will estimate the distance that separates us from the island,” she said. “And we’ll set up on our track to head southeast.” Soon, she would hang up and there would be no more calls: Hōkūle’a and her crew of 10 was bound for Tahiti, some 3,000 miles and 20 days away.
the Polynesian Travel Company (PVS) navigates the high seas without the aid of modern navigation technologies. Their alternative double-hulled canoes, designed to replicate the traditional vessels that historically plied the Pacific, have in recent years crossed oceans and circumnavigated the globe. The sun and the stars are their compass; the waves and the wind, their cards. “Everything is done mentally,” said Kamalu, the organization’s traveling director. “You follow the wind, you follow your cruising speed, you adjust the sails.”
East Kamalu Hōkūle’ait is first female captain and navigator– one of the few women to lead what has always been a patriarchal tradition, passed down from grandfather to grandson. She finds meaning in the story of Pelé, the Hawaiian goddess of fire who, according to legend, was exiled from Tahiti and crossed the ocean to Hawaii, opening an ancient “sea route” between the two islands – the same route Kamalu was sailing when we spoke.
“She’s a goddess,” Kamalu said of Pelé, “but she’s also a woman who’s the first to really sail and lead the way from Tahiti to Hawaii. So even though we don’t hear the stories of the female characters that followed it, it’s a very, very powerful story to consider and think about.
An emerging National Geographic explorer, Kamalu became the first known woman to command and navigate a long-distance ocean voyage without the aid of modern navigation technology when she sailed 2,800 miles from Hawaii to California in 2018. That she found her way on the journey in the first place sometimes felt like chance, she said, “But people keep telling me nothing is by chance here.”
“One of the great stories in human history”
Researchers now agree that sailors settled the Pacific thousands of years ago thanks to navigational skills based on close attention to the natural world and passed down from generation to generation. But during the centuries of European colonial rule, tales of “accidental drift” prevailed, suggesting the native islanders got there by chance. Ignoring widespread oral traditions, proponents of the theory dismissed “communities where it’s part of the culture and genealogy,” Kamalu said. Over time, and with the influx of Western navigation technologies, the age-old skill of traditional wayfinding has gradually disappeared from many parts of the Pacific, including Hawaii.
In 1973, a group consisting of anthropologist Ben Finney, artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kāne, and sailor Charles “Tommy” Holmes sought to revive it. They founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in an effort to salvage what little knowledge remained of wayfinding and to test the counter-hypothesis of deliberate navigation.
Seeking experts living in Micronesia, the founders of PVS met master navigator Mau Piailug on the remote Satawal Atoll. One of the last surviving traditional navigators, Piailug had learned the skill from his grandfather, receiving the sacred initiation ritual from pwo, respecting the Micronesian tradition. He was willing to share his knowledge with the wider Hawaiian and Polynesian community.
With a National Geographic film crew on board, PVS launched its maiden voyage in 1976 in the new Hōkūle’a (the same Lehua Kamalu canoe now captains). Sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti with only the traditional knowledge of Piailug and his apprentices to guide them, the crew made it in 34 days and were greeted by some 17,000 exultant revelers. A traditional ship hadn’t made this trip for at least 200 years, probably much longer.
Hōkūle’aThe success of his first trip launched a renaissance of traditional Polynesian travel and a movement of historical and cultural reconquest that is still ongoing. Nearly five decades later, PVS has trained thousands of young sailors and travelers. Their work, which is based on ancestral knowledge, archival research and more recent learnings and innovations, has since reached members of Pacific island communities eager to learn the closest possible to ancient navigational techniques. the past.
“Polynesian migrations are one of the great stories in human history,” said Christina Thompson, author of the book. People of the sea: the puzzle of Polynesia. “For people to be aware of this charged and powerful history on a global scale is so important.”
The beginnings of Hōkūle‘a arose amid a broader movement of decolonization and recovery in the Pacific during the 1970s, and was particularly born out of a movement to revive the study of other aspects of language and history Hawaiians, the author continued. “It’s a story of power, it’s a story of success, it’s a story of success and incredible accomplishments. This is what travel symbolizes.
Respect for the sea
“I can see the point now,” Kamalu said over the wind. “It’s looming on the horizon. Our time on the phone was limited. Soon Hōkūle’a would reach the beginning of the ancestral route, the ancient sea route between Hawaii and Tahiti which is marked by a combination of trade winds and currents, “on-ramps” and “off-ramps”. They make the journey quite enjoyable, travelers say, if you can keep a good sense of where you are.
Each island community has its own unique history, Kamalu explained. The recovery process almost always involves “a revival of culture, a recollection of language, a desire to look back and remember old ways”. But there are also new ways, especially since 2008, when Piailug gave PVS President Nainoa Thompson permission to break through patriarchal boundaries and ultimately give pwo Women’scalling them “master navigators”.
Many women have been trained, and although none have yet received pwo, Kamalu leads the charge. “Lehua is going to change everything in travel,” said the PVS president. “She has the whole world, all of this incredible world, to show her the way.”
PVS has set itself another goal: to inspire greater reverence and respect for the sea and the wider natural world, the rhythms of which so dictate these journeys. By its 50th anniversary in 2026, the organization hopes to reach 10 million people through in-person events, online courses and storytelling from a five-year, 41,000-mile circumnavigation of the ocean. Pacific which is expected to start in 2023.
May 8, Hōkūle’a arrived safe and sound in Tahiti. Lehua Kamalu had completed her historic voyage – a voyage she accomplished with very limited sleep for nearly three weeks, with no relief navigator of any kind. “You’re the only one who knows where we’ve gone, you’ve put it all together in your head, and it’s pretty hard to convey that to anyone else,” she said. “You constantly keep track of your progress along this ancient path.”
Knowing where you came from is the first step to knowing where you are going. For Kamalu, the answers are written in the stars.