The Canoe with a Mission to Save the Planet: Meet the Hokulea

Hokulea banner Leaving the world a better place; it’s a value shared among people of every culture. Each person’s definition of that is as varied as their personalities. But that simple guiding principle has been enough to start movements, liberate societies and even, make another person smile. In Polynesia, a landmass of roughly 1000 islands dispersed across the Pacific Ocean, these efforts are often made by interacting with the ocean that surrounds them. But over the past hundred years the rich ocean heritage was threatened by explorers, missionaries, and other outsiders who nearly wiped out Polynesian history and culture. And now they face an even bigger threat. A changing climate threatens the low lying islands of Polynesia and will force thousands of people to relocate from the islands they have lived on for thousands of years. For the Polynesian people, leaving the world a better place isn't just a motto, it's key to their culture's survival. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded to help revive the rich ancient culture of ocean navigation that enabled the Polynesian people to populate the remote islands of the Pacific thousands of years ago. Their flagship vessel is Hokulea, a double-hulled sailing canoe that replicates the boats used throughout Polynesia for millennia. Using ancient methods of navigation, the boat helped unite a people that had been separated by water, vast distances, and politics over the past 40 years. The Hokulea is now amidst her most ambitious voyage yet. For the next four years both she and her sister vessel Hikianalia will circumnavigate the planet spreading the message of Malama Honua—which means “To care for and respect the Earth”. The crew aim to share wisdom from their ancient culture as their voyage takes them around the world using 3,000 year old methods and no modern instruments. Legendary waterman and OluKai’s Konohiki Archie Kalepa was invited to take part on this historic voyage.For 54 days Archie traveled aboard Hokulea from Tahiti to the Cook Islands and onward to Samoa. As the boat’s second medical officer, he had the responsibility of rescuing any crew overboard as well as assisting the onboard doctor in emergencies. In a broader sense, Archie and everyone on the crew shared the task of spreading the message of Malama Honua with both the communities they visited and with worldwide media. We had a chance to speak to Archie at his home on Maui, two days after his leg aboard the Hokulea had completed. OluKai: Welcome Home Archie. Could you please tell us about the day-to-day life aboard Hokulea and how it was? Archie Kalepa: I started in Tahiti which was a very emotional homecoming for me, seeing the family that welcomed me during my first voyage in 1992. We prepared the canoe for the next leg, which would be the longest leg of this first year. It was awesome preparing the canoe—meeting new crew, seeing the old crew members, talking to them, and when we left Tautira we made many stops throughout Tahiti. Not only was it a right of passage for Hokulea and Hikianalia, but more importantly what we began to find out was this: When you live on an island, everyone kinda already lives Malama Honua, which means “to take care of the earth”. It was really nice to see how clean and beautiful everything was, and how people took care of what little they have, which in turn is very rich. They are very rich culturally, very rich environmentally. It’s just second nature how you live your life. Part of Hokulea and Hikianalia’s message to go around the world is to educate the people about how fragile the earth is, and how fragile we are as a people. How we need to turn things around so that our kids, our grandkids, and generations to follow can and will enjoy the earth the way we’ve come to enjoy it. You know, to say that is “yeah right”, but when you go and see how fragile places are, especially atolls that are literally sinking, it’s shows you that we’ve gotta do something. And if we can just get one individual doing their part day after day—and you times that by 10 million—you’re going to have a dramatic effect. But getting back to going to these places; it was really incredible the amount of Mana and spirit that these people had. Their willingness to share the history and the culture of these places and what the canoe means to them today. What I learned on this trip is that there are no more Hawaiians, Samoans, Tahitians, Maori: We’re all one. One Polynesian people. And as we sail around the world we are going to learn more that we are ALL one people and we all have to strive to make this earth a better place. People ask me when I’m home, “Hey how was your trip?” Really it’s hard to explain. Because it’s such a powerful journey and a powerful message. The only thing I can think or talk about is the day-to-day stuff that happened. We would sail from island to island, and get caught up in storms out at sea, and wait for the next storm to come. But there were many moments where we would reflect, and spiritual moments that you could feel, but is hard to explain. OK: When you say that you shared the message of Malama Honua—what exactly was that message you shared? And at the same time what message did you learn from the communities you visited? AK: Well what we learned from them is just a reassurance that we are heading down the right path and that’s just by living the way that I live my life and the way I see the people there live their life. And the message that they reconfirmed that we shared with them is to take this message around the world. And that is we gotta start taking care of this planet. We need to start taking care of our people. Because if we don’t start taking care of our planet there’s gonna be a lot of things that’s gonna happen. The last week when we got to Samoa, I finally got a chance to watch the news and watch what’s going on. And when you’re away from those kind of things that are going on around the world and you come back and see it on TV—you actually realize how fragile this Earth is. (starts getting emotional) You really realize how fragile this earth is. At this moment Archie became overwhelmed with emotion and had to take a moment to pause. For someone who has seen it all and looked death squarely in the eye so many times—for him to break down meant that he wasn’t just saying this because it sounds good. Just this week in Samoa, they are heading to an island where they have to evacuate the people because in a year that island will not be there. Now can we imagine that? Having to move a whole culture, a whole community, a whole legacy of people that that’s all they knew. That’s their home. And having to be removed from that place—but you know, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s everything that’s compiled on top of that, from war to these big factories, which leads to environmental impacts—it goes right down the line. And it’s the beginning of the book. And it’s these little atolls that are going to be the first to suffer these massive consequences. OK: Could you take us through a situation where something didn’t go right? And what did you do about it? AK: There was a time that we got caught in a storm, and you could see this thing coming. About 6 hours before it came we had declared a medical emergency—one of our crew members had dengue fever. He was already 5 days without eating and had gone through two IV’s. Our plan was to get to one of these little islands in the Cook Islands and get him to land. While we were doing that, we sailed into a storm. As we sailed around the Northeastern tip I could see the waves breaking in the other direction of the swell, meaning the waves were breaking around the whole island. This meant they were big. My job on the canoe was second medical officer and rescue swimmer. There was a doctor on board and we had a discussion between him, the captain and myself, and the decision was to get our crew member to help. We got in touch with the Coast Guard, and officials from this little island came and met us on their boat. As we put the crew member on the boat, another crew member was holding the canoe to the boat and the two smashed together with his hand between them, and he went unconscious. So we had to load him on the rescue boat as well and get them off with the doctor. Literally minutes after that happened, the storm hit us. For the next 18 hours we were caught in a storm of 50 mile an hour winds and 6 meter seas. You know, it got pretty intense to where you could see the younger guys was worried. And you know us older guys who had been in those kind of situations…not necessarily on the canoe but just in life.... We just let everybody know, ya know no worries. This canoe will take good care of us. Just pay attention, do what you’re supposed to do, we all work together, and we’re gonna make it. And when the storm finally did broke we could see the other canoe come into vision. We actually had 3 canoes, we had a canoe from Tahiti that was also with us. Nobody saw each other in the storm, but when the storm broke, just seeing each other was really good. OK: If you had a chance to explain “Malama Honua” in only 30 seconds to someone on a street corner, what would you say to them? AK: Number one is treat each other with respect. Then reach out and help one another, and do your own little part. Whether it’s putting something in a rubbish can, turning off a light switch, saving water, to finding ways to least impact our environment, then you are doing something. If each and every one of us can do that, it will allow this planetary system to live a little longer. Today’s society is so fast paced, and it’s so easy to get a hold of whatever you want, that we really take the green and beautiful tree for granted. And the ocean—The ocean makes up 77% of the oxygen on the earth, every breath we take comes from the ocean. So we gotta take care of not only the land but also the ocean. The Malama Honua voyage will continue on for the next three and a half years as it circumnavigates the globe. Crew members will continue to share what they can in order to help spread the message that the time to act on our planet is now. For more information on the voyage, crew, and canoes, please visit