Hōkūle‘a was launched in 1975, and after a year of testing, training, and making modifications we sailed her to Tahiti and returned as promised. That demonstration blew a big hole in [Andrew] Sharp’s claim that Polynesians could not have intentionally made long, navigated voyages. Furthermore, Hōkūle‘a emerged as a cultural icon credited with helping to spark a general cultural renaissance among the Hawaiians, as well as with stiffening the resolve of the Tahitians to secure more autonomy from the French. These triumphal aspects of the story have often been told. Less well known are the politics of the voyaging revival.
During fund-raising and construction and those first heady days when we sailed Hōkūle‘a around the Hawaiian chain, all went well except for a few mishaps and disagreements. However, by early 1976, just a few months before the voyage, serious troubles began while the canoe was being refitted. A number of Hawaiians, many of whom had not played any role in the project, began to claim Hōkūle‘a as their own and to use her locally for various purposes other than the stated mission. These ranged from the political to the personal—from invading the island of Kaho‘olawe to protest its use as a naval bombing range to cruising around the Hawaiian chain for the romantic benefit of male crewmembers. More chilling were the demands of a spiritual leader who claimed that Hōkūle‘a was ritually “dirty” and would sink with all hands unless he was paid an enormous sum of money to purify her.
All this might have been shrugged off as so much craziness but for the very real incongruity of having a haole professor run a project that had been so hyped as a Polynesian venture. That made me consider resigning as president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and handing the job over to our vice president, Herb Kane, in hopes that he might be more effective in dealing with these demands. But then Herb himself abruptly left the project, saying that he was thoroughly burned out and financially impoverished from supervising the construction of the canoe and making the first test sails around the islands. As Tommy Holmes preferred to stay in the background, that left me, the haole who wasn’t even from Hawai‘i, to fend off all those who in the name of Hawaiian nationalism were attempting to take over the canoe.
Had those clamoring for control of the canoe been skilled seamen dedicated to carrying out the voyage as planned, I could have gone ahead and resigned the presidency and then concentrated on the research side of the voyage. But they were not real sailors, nor did they have any intention of conducting the experimental voyage. In fact, they had come to believe that using a canoe for research would desecrate the spiritual nature of Hōkūle‘a.
Given this situation I realized that if I did resign I would betray the hundreds of contributors and supporters, many of them Hawaiians whom I had promised to sail the canoe to Tahiti and back. Furthermore I would also have let down those expert sailors whom I had personally recruited for the voyage: Kawika Kapahulehua, the veteran catamaran sailor from the remote island of Ni‘ihau who was our captain; Mau Piailug, the master navigator from the Micronesian atoll of Satawal who would guide the canoe to Tahiti and back; and my longtime Tahitian friend Rodo Williams, a professional fisherman and copra boat skipper whose job was to pilot us safely past the atolls that lay just to the north-northeast of Tahiti.
So I stuck it out, and thanks to the help of Kawika, Mau, Rodo and several other sailors who were also determined to make the voyage a reality, plus the moral support of Edward Kealanahele and many others on shore, we finally set sail for Tahiti. After a little over a month at sea we entered Pape‘ete Harbor to be greeted by the largest crowd ever assembled on the island. Nonetheless, although the actual sailing of the canoe had proceeded as planned, leftover resentments had festered at sea among a number of crewmembers who had been caught up in the troubles back in Hawai‘i. Halfway to Tahiti they staged a confrontation to accuse the leaders of mismanagement and to demand special treatment for themselves. After that, they quit standing watch and spent the rest of the voyage eating, sleeping, and smoking pakalōlō (crazy tobacco, i.e., marijuana) that they had smuggled on board. Bizarre as that situation was, it did allow the rest of us to sail the canoe on to Tahiti in relative peace—until the night before landing, when the mutineers staged another protest that left blood on the deck. That so incensed Mau Piailug that upon landing he quit the canoe in disgust and flew back to Micronesia vowing never to sail with Hawaiians again.
Even after Captain Kawika Kapahulehua and some fine young crewmembers who had not been directly involved in the troubles sailed Hōkūle‘a swiftly back to Hawai’i, the travail was not over. I had made so many enemies by my efforts to keep the voyage on track that I became the scapegoat blamed for causing all the troubles. Enough was enough, and I resigned and started work on a scientific report about the voyage and a book—Hōkūle‘a, the Way to Tahiti—that I owed a New York publisher whose sizable contribution had enabled us to start building the canoe.
After taking stock of the situation the new leaders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society resolved to remove the stain left from the troubles by repeating the voyage to Tahiti with a specially selected crew. Unfortunately, in their zeal to distance themselves from those who had led the 1976 voyage they totally ignored Captain Kapahulehua, the man who had just taken Hōkūle‘a so surely and safely to Tahiti and back and could have showed them how to do it again.
Overconfidence, a casual attitude toward safety, and basic errors in seamanship doomed this second attempt to reach Tahiti. Just before midnight, after less than six hours at sea, the canoe capsized while being foolishly driven hard under full sail in gale-force winds and immense seas. Not until dusk of the following day was the overturned canoe spotted by a passing aircraft just as she was drifting south of the interisland sea and air lanes. All crewmembers but one were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter, and the following day Hōkūle‘a was towed in, severely damaged, though the hulls were still structurally sound. Missing was Eddie Aikau, a world-champion surfer who some hours before the canoe had been spotted had valiantly tried to paddle his surfboard through the breaking seas to the nearest island to get help. He was never seen again.