In March, 2020, Lehua Kamalu was very busy. She was preparing to embark on an epic 42-month, 41,000-mile journey around the Pacific Ocean in the Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe known as Hōkūleʻa, powered only by traditional wayfinding methods that rely on the natural elements, with no modern instruments.
This Pacific voyage — named the Moananuiākea Voyage, which in Hawaiian translates to “the vast ocean that connects us all” — was designed to promote unity among the Pacific community and inspire the next generation of voyagers to care for our planet. The voyage’s launch was planned to coincide with the Festival of the Pacific Arts, the world’s largest celebration of Indigenous Pacific Islanders, which lined up with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“There was all kinds of stuff happening,” Kamalu remembers, “and then it all just came to a screeching halt.”
After the first documented case of COVID-19 hit Hawaii in March, 2020, Kamalu and her team at the Polynesian Voyaging Society realized quickly that they would need to postpone the Pacific voyage to at least the summer of 2021. This winter, as the pandemic still raged, they had to postpone the voyage again, to the following spring.
“Anyone who spends time voyaging and sailing is pretty adaptive and resilient to schedule changes, especially because so much of what we do depends on weather,” Kamalu says. “But this was the storm that I don’t think any of us expected.”
As the Voyaging Director at PVS, Kamalu hasn’t had to stay this still for a while. From 2013 to 2017, she was sailing around the world, and has been living and breathing the art of Polynesian voyaging for a decade. In fact, when she was just seven years old, attending a Hawaiian immersion school in Kāneʻohe, Kamalu remembers meeting Hōkūleʻa on the beach, and holding the canoe’s line from the shore. “It was a very, very cool experience, and it sticks with you,” she says. “It was definitely like visiting NASA for us.”
At just twenty feet by sixty-two feet — about the length of two school buses — Hōkūleʻa has been an important cultural icon in Hawaii since the 1970s, when it was built by a group of visionary artists and scientists using the ancient Hawaiian design, and in turn, revived the nearly extinct practice of voyaging. Today, PVS promotes the art and science of Polyneisan voyaging and traditional wayfinding methods, which teach careful stewardship of our shared planet.
After Kamalu graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in mechanical engineering, Kamalu imagined she might end up somewhere like Boeing, designing airplanes. But in 2009, she wandered into a community meeting hosted by PVS to learn more about an upcoming voyage, and never looked back. “I went, and I went back every day since,” she says.
This is why one year on dry land at home in metropolitan Honolulu — filled with countless Zoom meetings, binge-listening to the podcast 99% Invisible, and 4 a.m. walks to the beach to get a glimpse of the clear night sky — has been an almost existential trial for Kamalu.
“How do you voyage virtually?” she was left wondering. “I really don’t know how you do it.”
Kamalu, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, brought her instincts as a navigator to the trial of the pandemic. She says that when approaching a storm in the water, navigators are taught to continue steering their canoe in one direction, any direction, even if they end up going in circles, in order to remain in control of the vessel. “You might be totally blacked out or in complete downpour, but you don’t have any control if you just stand still,” she says. “Forward motion is what allows you to turn onboard a vessel. You just have to keep going.”
For the PVS crew, this meant a complete reimagining of their voyaging schedule. They decided to move up their plan for drydocking, the major refurbishment of their canoe that happens once every decade, at the outset of an important voyage. “We can really do this thoroughly when we have nowhere to go,” Kamalu jokes.
In July, under the guidance of master navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, Kamalu and the PVS crew hauled Hōkūleʻa out of the water onto a dock on Sand Island in Honolulu Harbor, and meticulously analyzed all sixty-two feet of her, replacing any wood that showed signs of rot. Then, working in groups of three to eight, they re-lashed the entire canoe — the process of carefully tying all of the boat’s crossbeams back together by hand.
This practice of drydocking doesn’t just strengthen the canoe. It also teaches new crew members the mechanics of the canoe, and reminds seasoned voyagers, like Kamalu, of the nuances of how to sail. “You all understand the vessel’s strong points and the areas that we might not want to put too much weight on,” she says. “You learn to respond to the vessel better, because you know the anatomy so well.”
Forward motion is what allows you to turn onboard a vessel. You just have to keep going.
In March, 2021, as new COVID-19 cases in Hawaii plateaued, Hōkūleʻa was hauled from her dock on Sand Island and released back into the water after eight months on dry land. Working together for over 4,000 hours, the PVS team has given the canoe a full overhaul, and close to five miles of new lashing. “At this point, Hōkūleʻa is probably overlashed and overbuilt,” Kamalu jokes. “She’s so strong.”
As Kamalu looks back on the last year in lockdown, she believes the time has given her the space to think deeply about her own role in the centuries-long legacy of voyaging — consider it a period of drydocking for the mind.
“The last drydocking I was a part of was ten years ago, when I was still very much a student, no idea what I was doing, listening and learning from my teachers and navigators,” she says. “Now, we’re training that next generation. Now, we have the responsibility of sharing it and carrying it forward.”
Today, Kamalu and the rest of her voyaging team are once again on the move. Last month, Kamalu got back on the water, when Hōkūleʻa made the short sail from Oʻahu to Honolua Bay, Maui. That sail marked 45 years since Hōkūleʻa first departed Honolua Bay for her maiden voyage to Tahiti in 1976.
“It was great to be back in the water,” Kamalu says. “You reflect on where the movement has come in 45 years, and all the people that were part of that journey.” She adds that the ocean seemed to be especially alive for the sail. “We saw whales and dolphins and turtles and rays. I like to think it’s because no one was out there in the ocean for a whole year — that all wildlife were like, ‘Whoa, they’re not coming back out here, we’re going to go back and play where we used to.’”
This short voyage also marked one year until May 1, 2022 — when Hōkūleʻa will finally set sail around the Pacific Ocean for the Moananuiākea Voyage. PVS has ambitious goals: to train 120 new crew members for the voyage, and to inspire millions of future navigators around the world, who will have the responsibility to care for our oceans for the decades to come.
Kamalu believes the pandemic has given this long-postponed voyage a new sense of purpose, and after one year on dry land — a year which has served as a stark reminder of the link between the health of our people and the planet — she feels the weight of responsibility to train the next generation.
“There’s always been an urgency to voyaging,” she says. “It’s always been a very small group of us. But with the losses of so many family and friends the past year, and not seeing that next generation actually out and sailing for over a year, it will be so meaningful to get back out there, to make sure we all see one another again, and know one another, and connect again.”