Remembering the Upside-down Canoe

Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo

Marion Lyman-Mersereau, who helped build the legendary voyaging vessel Hōkūle‘a, has spent decades honoring the man who lost his life trying to save her and their fellow crew members.


Anyone who’s driven on Hawai‘i’s roads has likely seen stickers with the three-word phrase on vehicles’ backsides, or heard the expression — which encourages perseverance and courage in the face of danger — from time to time.

The turn of phrase remains a popular saying, but for Marion Lyman-Mersereau, it’s also a reminder of that fateful day nearly five decades ago when Hawai‘i lost a legend.

Locals likely have heard an abbreviated version of the story before. In 1978, the double-hulled canoe Hōkūle‘a capsized between O‘ahu and Moloka‘i during a voyage to Tahiti. In an effort to save his crewmates — Lyman-Mersereau included — from hypothermia and exhaustion, Eddie Aikau, the North Shore’s first-ever lifeguard, paddled away in search of help. Aid eventually came to the remaining 15 members aboard Hōkūle‘a, but tragically, Aikau was never seen again.

“I do believe in my heart of hearts that it was Eddie’s very determined intention to save us,” Lyman-Mersereau says.

To perpetuate his legacy, she penned the children’s book Eddie Wen’ Go: The Story of the Upside-Down Canoe back in 2008.

“When I just tell the story factually, it ends with ‘he paddled away and we never saw him again,’” she notes. “But my book tells it from the points of view of the animals — whale, dolphin, turtle, shark, ‘iwa bird — witnessing the whole thing, so it would have an uplifting ending.

“It’s a story that came through me rather than from me.” Her book has since been adapted into a play, and Lyman-Mersereau continues to share Aikau’s story, just as she’s been doing for the last 40-plus years.

“I’ll go anywhere and speak to anyone who wants to hear me honor Eddie in any way I can,” she says. “That’s why I wrote the book and adapted it into a play.”

Lyman-Mersereau’s involvement with Hōkūle‘a started long before the 1978 voyage. In fact, she was one of the volunteers who helped build the famed vessel four years earlier in 1974. Her interest started during a conversation with historian and artist Herb Kāne, who would regale her with tales about everything from a 15-hour yacht race from Lahaina to Honolulu to the inspiration behind his culturally inspired paintings.

One story stuck out to her, though. It involved a group of people building a canoe meant to sail in traditional navigation fashion.

“I was all ears, and asked how I could get involved,” Lyman-Mersereau recalls.

At the time, she was substitute teaching and coaching track and gymnastics at Punahou School and Kamehameha Schools. She wanted a full-time PE job with the state Department of Education, but nothing was available.

“Herb told me I could go help build (Hōkūle‘a),” says Lyman-Mersereau, whose only experience with anything craftsman-related was fashioning a cutting board in shop class.

“I didn’t think I had any real skills to help out, but they put me to work,” she says. “I found that building something and actually seeing something take shape — as opposed to teaching or coaching, which is all I had ever done up to that point — was fascinating.”

Of course, it was all volunteer work. Lyman-Mersereau was turning down paid substitute teaching gigs (much to her mother’s chagrin) and pouring everything she had into Hōkūle‘a. She was there whenever she could, early in the morning and throughout the day until she had to coach at Kamehameha, in the hopes of securing a spot on the maiden voyage.

“One of the builders handed me a chunk of wood and he had penciled out the shape of a cleat, and he said, ‘Go cut this out on the jigsaw machine.’”

Lyman-Mersereau informed him that she wasn’t allowed to use those machines in her shop class, and the builder simply replied, “Yeah, watch your fingers.”

“I think he was testing me,” Lyman-Mersereau says. “Is this girl really interested in helping out?”

In the end, she kept an eye on her fingers and cut the cleat. Mission accomplished. Still, her larger mission of breaking down gender stereotypes remained elusive.

“I took (Hōkūle‘a) all the way up to her launch (in 1976), but I couldn’t touch the ropes, only men could. I couldn’t be part of the ceremony, only men could,” Lyman-Mersereau explains. “All along they had said, ‘Oh, for sure, Marion, you’ll be crew.’ But after a while they started saying, ‘If we take women’ …

“In the end, that ‘if’ got really loud.”

Disappointed, she joined the Peace Corps, requesting a location with warm weather, coconut trees and the ocean. She was thinking of Samoa or Micronesia and was thrilled to end up with a job helping adults teach PE in Palau.

However, to her surprise, Hōkūle‘a sailed back into her life in 1978 when her brother, Dave “Kawika” Lyman, was named captain of the vessel.

“I worry about nepotism because my brother was the captain, but the way they did the selection was very careful,” notes Lyman-Mersereau, who adds that Polynesian Voyaging Society has come a long way, now boasting women captains and navigators and sometimes all-women crews.

According to Lyman-Mersereau, there had been some trouble on the 1976 journey, so there were three criteria for crew members two years later: each had to take a Myers Briggs personality test to ensure compatibility with others (Lyman-Mersereau is an ENFP); each required proper canoe training; and each needed to be in good physical condition. Lyman-Mersereau’s hardworking and team-oriented personality, combined with her time building the vessel and her prowess as a multi-sport athlete made her a winning candidate. She journeyed with Hōkūle‘a once more in 1980 and turned her attention back to education, focusing her area of study on middle school ethics. Rather than a philosophical approach to the topic, for 34 years, Lyman-Mersereau helped eighth graders at Punahou discover their personal values by practicing mindfulness.

“I got into the mindfulness movement early on,” she says.

In 1999, she penned Character Education books with Punahou chaplain John Heidel. In the series, the two honed in on a specific value for each month of the school year, and taught each through discussions, stories, cultural education, community service projects and other activities.

“The big buzzword in education today is SEL, social emotional learning, which essentially was the buzz word ‘character education’ back then,” explains Lyman-Mersereau.

This emphasis on mindfulness continues as Lyman-Mersereau enjoys retirement with her husband, Arthur “Art” Mersereau, a retired Mid-Pacific Institute physics teacher, as well as cheering on her sons, Kaiwi and Kaniela.

Kaiwi, the eldest — named so because Lyman-Mersereau was hāpai when she paddled the Moloka‘i Channel during the Nā Wāhine O Ke Kai race in 1982, and won — is currently promoting his new movie, Brazil Disney’s Star+ period drama series Americana. He’s also set to debut as Ghost in Netflix’s action thriller Trigger Warning starring Jessica Alba on June 21.

Kaniela, meanwhile, is an educator at Punahou School and has sailed on various legs for Hōkūle‘a.

Lyman-Mersereau is also keeping busy with personal projects, including working on another play and continuing to teach mindfulness qi gong and yoga classes at Nā Kūpuna Makamae Center. And in all she does, Lyman-Mersereau continues to keep mindfulness at the forefront and encourages everyone to do the same.

“The brain is wired to think, and when we think, we’re either in the past or the future; we’re never in the present,” she explains. “When we feel and experience, we are present, but not when we’re thinking. The practice is simple but not easy.”