The Aloha Festivals And Hokule‘a

It was 40 years ago when a group of visionaries recognized the need for a cultural renaissance. It was an opportunity to bring back the importance of Hawaiian seafaring – something, many felt, that long had been dormant and perhaps even forgotten.

But that was far from the case.


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The color and pageantry of the Aloha Festivals parade is an annual highlight. Photo from Aloha Festivals

In 1973, those same dreamers formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society and, together with a village of supporters, helped build Hokule’a, a replica of ancient long-distance sailing canoes. Three years later, a crew of Native Hawaiians and anthropologists sailed the vessel to Tahiti. It was the launching of a powerful symbol of Hawaiian pride, dignity and history.

“Forty years, who would have thought?” says Aloha Festivals co-chair Debbie Nakanelua-Richards. “Hokule’a was built for one sail. Yet she continues to teach us about our larger kuleana, and that message is universal: Take care of the environment around you, whether it’s the aina or the ocean. We all have to be mindful of our responsibilities.”

Being mindful of that kuleana or responsibility is one reason the Aloha Festivals’ board of directors chose to honor Hokule’a’s legacy and the good work of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The theme of the 67th annual Aloha Festivals is Moana Nui Akea, or “The Great Vast Ocean.” It is a chance to celebrate the brave and inspiring canoe builders, voyagers and navigators who aim to keep the art of ocean voyaging alive and strong for future generations.

“We sit around a table and talk about what’s going on in our community that we need to highlight and take the time to acknowledge on a public scale, which includes our visitors,” says Nakanelua-Richards of the volunteer board. “The people who come to visit us don’t want to be isolated, they want to know us. We strongly believe they would want to know about this important part of our history.”

Nakanelua-Richards, who serves as Hawaiian Airlines’ manager of community and government affairs, says the board looks to longtime entertainer Manu Boyd, cultural director at Royal Hawaiian Center at Helumoa, for guidance.

“Manu is really good about helping us tie it all together,” she says. “The ocean is vast and it deserves our attention. The wonder and the magic that voyaging has brought to us as a people is really exciting. Not all of us are meant to be on the canoe, but when they go, they kind of take all of us with them.”

The highlight of the annual Aloha Festivals is the floral parade. Nakanelua-Richards says they plan to honor the surviving members of the first crew that took Hokule’a on the round trip voyage to Tahiti in 1976 by naming them grand marshals of the parade.

“Oftentimes one person is featured in a decorated vehicle, but we didn’t want to put 13 members in 13 decorated vehicles, it would-n’t fit their personalities,” she says with a smile.

Instead, the crew will ride on the Hawaiian Airlines float. It will feature some of the daily things the crew does while on a voyage, including cooking, cleaning and keeping watch as well as marine animals including turtles, squid, dolphins and hammerhead sharks. One of those members is her husband, Billy Richards, a member of seven of Hokule’a’s nine voyages.

“We want it to be a place of honor,” she explains. “The canoe is an island, and when you’re voyaging you’re actually on an island unto yourself; it’s like its own community. We want the float to serve as a metaphor for the canoe and the ocean around it.”

And now 40 years after its inception, Hokule’a is set to embark on her most far-reaching voyage yet, around planet Earth. The world voyage will take her on a 46,000-mile, three-year journey to 21 countries with 65 planned landfalls.

The 2013 Aloha Festivals is a reminder of how far we ve come on this journey and how much further we still must travel.

Aloha Festivals starts Thursday (Sept. 12) and culminates Sept. 28 with the floral parade. For more information on events and times, go to