Aboard Hokule‘a With Pwo Thompson

Pwo (master) navigator Nainoa Thompson took great care when he and other leaders of Polynesian Voyaging Society assembled the crew that would sail Hokule’a to Tahiti.

It was filled with youth and inexperience.


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Apprentice navigators (from left) Haunani Kane and Jason Patterson with pwo (master) navigator Nainoa Thompson leaving Hilo. Next stop: Tahiti | Photos courtesy Na'alehu Anthony

“Let me put it into perspective: Seventy-five percent of the crew is under the age of 40, 50 percent of the crew is under the age of 30,” says Thompson. “We have seven new, young navigators who are stepping forward, and they’re in their 20s. Out of a crew of 13, only four have sailed deep-sea, nine have not.”

It was a strategic decision, and in some ways, a calculated risk.

“We took a chance on taking so much inexperience, but that’s over,” Thompson tells me. “I don’t treat them as experienced sailors yet, but I know they can handle anything right now. We made the bet, and they proved us correct.”

Thompson spoke via satellite telephone from the middle of the Pacific Ocean as Hokule’a raced toward the Tuamotu Islands. He stayed focused on his message of why the first leg of their three-year journey around the world was a crucial one.

“If we brought only experienced people on this voyage who were older, who are not going to be here in the future, then in many ways, in my opinion, we would have accomplished very little by going to Tahiti and not have young people be a part of the journey,” he reflects. “The young people needed experience — experience you can’t get unless you go deep-sea.

And the adjustment to deep-sea sailing wasn’t an easy one. More than half of the crew was seasick the first few days after leaving Hilo.

“If you look at them today, they’re 100 percent seaworthy — they’re totally functioning, they are pairing, they are supporting,” he says with pride. “Their service to the canoe and their aloha to each other is how I measure the success of this crew. I’m very lucky and very privileged and proud to sail with them. They’re doing amazing.”

Thompson says this is the fastest voyage he’s ever been on, thanks to technological improvements, constant wind, hard work by the youthful crew — and something that can’t be measured.

“Sometimes this canoe is magic and it needs to go where it’s got to go, and we just kind of hang on,” he chuckles.

And while the growth of the crew has been as swift as Hokule’a’s progress across the Pacific Ocean, Thompson has grown as well — as a mentor.

“I’m lucky enough to be at my age and still be strong enough to do this, but it’s not going to be forever,” says the 61-year-old Thompson. “It’s crystal clear to me that my job is to do what great

teachers did for me. This is not my voyage, not my vision, not my idea. It’s instructions set by a lifeguard and a painter, and an astronaut, a social worker. You know, Eddie Aikau, Herb Kane, Myron Pinky Thompson and Lacy Veach and, of course, the great navigator Mau Piailug. I’m doing what I believe they would want to happen, and I think they’d be very proud of the young people.”

The risk has been worth the reward.

“Departures are always hard for me — I don’t like leaving home and certainly don’t like leaving my family and my two children, but it’s something that I needed to do for my children, so you go with the promise that you’ll come home,” says Thompson. “It’s those gifts of knowing that you’re not sailing out here by yourself, that Hawaii and the communities, families, schools and children are with you. When things get hard out here, when we get challenged or we get put on our knees, it’s the strength of knowing that we have that support.

“I’m humbled and I’m grateful to all those who made this departure special, so I say aloha to Hawaii.”