Docked in San Diego, the Hōkūle’a is bringing back ancient Polynesian voyaging
Hidden behind massive ships at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, a Hawaiian flag flutters above a 61-foot double canoe lashed together with six miles of cords — the Hōkūle’a.
Three large oars and two sails sprout from the ship. Piled below the front sail are rocks from the Hawaiian islands and bundles of sage — gifts to offer spiritual protection.
Wooden guardians lashed to the back watch over the crew. When they are in Hawaii, Captain Bruce Blakenfeld said, they remove them — they don’t need the added protection when their home waters surround them.
Hōkūle’a models after ancient Polynesian vessels.
“When we were young, there were no canoes like this. They were just stories,” Blakenfeld said.
He’s sailed the boat for over 45 years.
“All of this was created at a time in Hawaii when the culture, the Hawaiian culture, was still at a low point,” Blankenfeld said. “The Hawaiian culture had just been relegated to past tense.”
The builders brought the voyaging canoe out of history books and back onto the waves in 1975, during what was known as the Hawaiian Renaissance.
Alongside the resurgence of hula dance and slack key music, voyaging once again became a way of recapturing a tradition erased by colonizers.
“When all of us who had been educated in a Western model thought about learning 200 stars and guiding a canoe across a vast expanse of 2,500 miles — guided by the stars, the ocean swells, seabirds and everything like that — we basically looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, I don't think so,” Blankfeld remembered. “It was like something, in our minds, so impossible.”
But 200,000 miles later, they’re still going. The Hōkūle’a even completed a four-year voyage around the world in 2017, skirting around pirates in the Indian Ocean and weathering storms off the Cape of Good Hope.
Their mission is bigger than just logging miles. They share to keep the ancient knowledge alive.
Names of crew members who have died cover the sides of the boat. Among them is Eddie Aikau, a famous surfer who died trying to swim for help after the boat flipped over in 1978. Many others were elders.
“It's just a matter of hanging out long enough to help teach for the next generation,” Blankenfeld said.
The ten-person crew navigates using the same methods as their ancestors, who crossed the ocean centuries before Columbus.
The boat’s sides are marked with lines to determine the angle of the stars. Everything from the shapes of the clouds and waves to the seaweed below help them navigate.
San Diego is their last stop on their most recent trip — down the west coast from Alaska — before returning to Hawaii.
They plan to ship the boat back to Honolulu before sailing it to Maui, where they hope to show aloha to crew members who are still recovering from the wildfires.