Wahine at the Helm

When the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s two flagship canoes, Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia, set sail from Hilo on a “Kealaikahiki” voyage to Tahiti April 18, something was different from past trips. For the first time, Hōkūle‘a was both captained and navigated by a woman. Lehua Kamalu, 35,…...
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When the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s two flagship canoes, Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia, set sail from Hilo on a “Kealaikahiki” voyage to Tahiti April 18, something was different from past trips. For the first time, Hōkūle‘a was both captained and navigated by a woman. Lehua Kamalu, 35, is using her extensive knowledge of the stars, wind, and waves—gained over 13 years of sailing with the society—to guide her crew on their three-week journey. 

Hōkūle’a’s captain and navigator, Lehua Kamalu, makes her first navigation report of the canoe’s journey to Tahiti at sunrise on April 19, some 105 miles southeast of Hilo. Courtesy Lehua Kamalu.

The voyage got underway beneath fair skies the day after Easter following heavy rains in Hilo and a weeks-long delay due to a crew member testing positive for Covid-19.  “It’s very exposed out there,” notes Kamalu. “You definitely don’t want to be sick out there.” 

The deck of a canoe in the middle of the ocean is a far cry from where Kamalu was born in New York, where her father was stationed in the military. Both of her parents are of Hawaiʻian ancestry and wanted their three girls to grow up in their own culture. So, the family moved to Oahu in the early 1990s where she joined the first class at Pūʻōhala Hawaiʻian Language Immersion School. She remembers greeting Hōkūle‘a with her classmates following its 1992 and 1996 voyages, calling the experience “spectacular.” But it wasn’t until she was a college student that she began hands-on involvement with the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), first as a volunteer, sanding and maintaining the canoes.

She and a half dozen other people in their 20s kept showing up to volunteer day after day, until eventually, Thompson asked them to take on a bigger role. “He saw the work and dedication that we put in and asked us to start learning about navigation and voyaging and to consider doing it,” she says. Kamalu, who volunteered for five years before hoisting a sail, took the invitation to heart. “This isn’t just one voyage one year,” she explained. “This is a lifetime of learning and when you get to learn from the world’s best, I think it’s a commitment you have to take very seriously.” 

Navigation without instruments entails more than just looking up at the stars. It requires observation, memory, and spatial relations. Kamalu explains, “It involves a lot of looking out, seeing what’s going on, orienting to the sky, understanding spatially where you are, the channels, the directions of islands. And then she quotes one of her mentors, Nainoa Thompson, who led the society’s second journey to Tahiti in 1980, “You don’t know where you are unless you know where you came from.”

The purpose of this voyage is to conduct navigational training, test the canoes, and follow the ancient cultural protocol of sailing to the sacred Taputapuatea navigational heiau on Ra’iatea to seek permission to launch the Moananuiakea Voyage circling the Pacific, which is slated for next year. 

While in French Polynesia, PVS crew leaders will participate in the Blue Climate Summit—a UN-endorsed meeting co-hosted by the government of French Polynesia. More than 250 scientists, engineers, community and youth leaders, policymakers, and conservationists will gather to focus on climate change and ocean protection.

Upon their return from Tahiti, expected by the end of June, the canoes will begin a year of visits to 25 ports in the Hawaiʻian Islands where they will connect with schools and community groups, planting the seeds of passion for sailing in the minds of a new generation. Follow the voyage at waahonua.com and learn how Lehua navigates on the open ocean at asknature.org/collection/navigating-deeper-into-nature. 

Dan Collins

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