Hōkūleʻa- “Star of Gladness”


This summer has brought a lot of excitement to the Hawaiian Islands with the recent return of Hokuea. The Hōkūleʻa is a replica of the traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes. She was first launched in March 1975. In 1976 she made her maiden voyage to Tahiti departing from Honolua Bay in Hawaii and returned. This voyage was completed exclusively using Polynesian voyaging techniques, such as star mapping, wind and weather, cloud formations, movement of currents, wave patterns, and the flight of birds. The main goal of this voyage was to prove the origin of native Oceanic people was from purposeful trips in the Pacific instead of aimlessly drifting with currents. The second goal of this voyage was to revitalize and spread the culture of Hawaiians and other Polynesians.  


Over the years, Hōkūleʻa has also sailed to Micronesia, Japan, Canada and mainland United States. The most recent voyage of Hōkūleʻa started in May 2014 when she left Oahu and embarked on the “Malama Honua” voyage to circumnavigate the world over a span of three years. The focus of the worldwide voyage was to care for Island Earth. Sailing the Earth’s oceans, the crew visited and learned from those who are working to solve some of the greatest challenges the world faces today. We are all responsible for the future health of our Island Earth, and the health of our people, lands, and oceans. Hōkūleʻa returned to Hawaii June 2017 after traveling a total of 47,000 nautical miles, visiting 26 countries, and 85 ports. Hōkūleʻa is 61 ft. long and 15 ft. 6 in. a beam, and holds a crew of up to 16 people. Hōkūleʻa is powered solely by the wind, with no motor on board and no electrical navigation equipment. The sailors on Hōkūleʻa used the technique of wayfinding to navigate between destinations.  

Wayfinding - “encompasses all of the ways in which people orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place”.  

The knowledge of wayfinding has been passed down orally through the generations.  Each star has a specific declination and gives a bearing for navigation as the star rises and sets on the horizon. The navigational bearings come from the star compass which is the foundational framework for wayfinding. The horizon is divided into 32 houses and each house is separated by 11.25 degrees. Each star rises and sets in a house and each house has a Hawaiian name. If you have the houses and stars memorized then you can find your direction. The star compass is not a physical compass like Westerners are used to. Instead, it is a mental construct used to divide the sky.  

star compass learning with Maui. https   alchetron.com Mau-Piailug-1020507-W.jpg

Island chains have predictable effects on waves and currents and sailors can use this knowledge help find their way. Getting close to land, sailors would start to see birds and knowing the species and behaviors of the birds can further help them navigate. You can not just look at the stars and know your location. To know your location requires an immense amount of prior knowledge and memorization of where you sailed from, the houses each star rises and sets in, wave patterns, and bird flight behaviors. Here is a quote from Nainoa Thompson about wayfinding on the Hōkūleʻa,


Nainoa Thompson

“Sunrise is the most important part of the day. At sunrise you start to look at the shape of the ocean-the character of the sea. You memorize where the wind is coming from. The wind generates the waves. You analyze the character of the waves. When the sun gets too high, you steer by the waves. And then at sunset you repeat the process. The sun goes down-you look at the shape of the waves. Did the wind direction change? Did the swell pattern change? At night we use the stars. We use about 220, memorizing where they come up, where they go down. When it gets cloudy and you can’t use the sun or the stars all you can do is rely on the ocean waves. That’s why Mau told me once, 'If you can read the ocean you will never be lost.' One of the problems is that when the sky gets black at night under heavy clouds you cannot see the waves. You cannot even see the bow of the canoe. This is where traditional navigators like Mau are so skilled. Lying inside the hull of the canoe, he can feel the different wave patterns as they come to the canoe, and from them tell the canoe’s direction. I can’t do that. I think that’s what he started learning when he was a child with his grandfather, when he was placed in tide pools to feel the ocean.



"In 1979, when Mau was confident that I could guide the canoe by myself, he said, 'Now I am going to go to sleep; you follow this star path.' And like an overly eager student, I wanted to try sailing in a different direction to experience what the wave patterns felt like when I changed directions. I thought he wouldn’t notice because he was sleeping inside the hull. When morning dawned, he came up and said, 'Okay, what course did you sail last night? What star bearing did you hold?' He knew I had changed course. Lying in the hull, he actually knew the course I had steered; he challenged me to tell him in order to make sure that I knew where we had gone."

Mau Piailug


The knowledge of Polynesian wayfinding was lost after contact and colonization by Europeans. Prior to the late 19th/early 20th century it was commonly thought the South Pacific Islands had been inhabited by sailors blown off course by storms and who were lost at sea. The settlement of new islands was a result of luck, drifting, and random island sightings. During the mid to late 1960’s an anthropologist and Polynesian scholar, David Lewis, proved that Polynesians sailed and populated new islands with knowledge and purpose.

Hōkūleʻa, being a traditional Polynesian sailing canoe, needed expert way-finders to help sail her around the world. However, there was no living navigator left in the Hawaiian islands. In order for the first voyage of Hōkūleʻa to happen, the Voyaging Society had to rely on navigator Mau Piailug from Satawal island in Micronesia to teach them celestial navigation techniques. Mau joined the Hōkūleʻa as lead navigator on the voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976. He was the only traditional navigator who was willing to teach the Hawaiian people navigational techniques.  

In 1978 Hōkūleʻa set out to travel to Tahiti a second time. This time however, the voyage was met with tragedy on a legendary scale. Off of the island of Moloka’i the canoe capsized in a storm. Crew member Eddie Aikau left on a surfboard to go and get help and was never seen again. The remainder of the crew was saved. Eddie was a legendary surfer and lifeguard at Waimea Bay, Oahu. He was known for saving over 500 people and paddling into some of the largest waves. You may have heard of the saying or seen the phrase “Eddie Would Go”. This originated because Eddie would paddle into any surf conditions to save someone. Eddie would go, when no one else could or would.  

In 1977 Mau returned to Hawaii and trained Nainoa Thompson to be a master navigator. Nainoa successfully sailed Hōkūleʻa from Tahiti to Hawaii in 1980. Nainoa now continues to navigate Hōkūleʻa around the world.  


Upon the return of Hōkūleʻa to Maui this summer, its first stop was at Olowalu Reef to give blessings and support for the announcement of the new Hope Spot. Olowalu Reef is Maui’s largest reef and is such nicknamed “the mother reef”. This summer it was announced as Hawaii’s first Hope Spot by Mission Blue Sylvia Earl Alliance. The reef is one thousand acres in size and is home to the oldest coral in the main Hawaiian Islands. Olowalu reef is a nursery for coral that populates Maui, Lanaʻi, and Molokaʻi. Olowalu was known as Puʻuhonua, or sanctuary, in Hawaiian history and was a spot where people could take time to reflect. Like most reefs along the coast, Olowalu faces impacts from coastal development, runoff, and sedimentation. Olowalu also faces natural threats; nearly 50% of Hawaii’s reef suffered bleaching in 2015 due to higher than average sea surface temperatures.  

Places that are deemed “critical to the health of the ocean” are being turned into Hope Spots around the world. This brings the areas to the forefront of the communities attention with the hope it will increase their chances of being preserved. Dr. Sylvie Earl introduced the concept of Hope Spots in 2009 and started the non-profit Mission Blue. She describes Hope Spots as, “about recognizing, empowering and supporting individuals and communities around the world in their efforts to protect the ocean”.  


The Mission Blue website gives the three main goals for the Olowalu Reef Hope Spot:  

  1. Develop a strong Community Marine Manage Area at Olowalu, supported by the Malama Olowalu, The Maui Nui Marine Resources Council and the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, so the local community can develop their reef management plan and build a vision for Olowalu where people and nature live in harmony and thrive.

  2. Continued research: a) examine the threats undermining our reefs by looking at stressors over time using reef forensics, b) identifying the sources of sediment and eliminating those sources with automated water quality monitoring, c) measuring the resilience (recovery) of this reef to the 2015 bleaching event, d) Continue monitoring manta ray populations using photo-id, photogrammetry, tagging and genetics to understand distinct stocks and parentage.

  3. Implement a Coral Reef Mitigation Banking system to preserve Olowalu and neighboring Ukumehame lands in perpetuity to protect the reef and offset impacts to other reefs.

The cultural importance of Olowalu, strong support from the local and international community, and support from scientists and conservationists combined make the prospects of keeping this majestic mother reef alive and healthy are bright. Hōkūleʻa is currently sailing between the Hawaiian islands spreading their story and raising awareness for the conservation of our Island Earth.  

By Conservation and Education Director, Magen Schifilitti


Polynesian Voyaging Society: hokulea.com