New Sail Plan an Opportunity to Focus on Ocean Protection

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Hōkūleʻa returned to Hawai‘i on Dec. 6, 2023, following the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s (PVS) September announcement that she would detour from the Moananuiākea Voyage due to the devastating wildfires on Maui last August.

The change in sail plans will extend the voyage for an additional year and allow Hōkūleʻa to be part of the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (FestPAC) which will be held in Honolulu in June.

PVS CEO Nainoa Thompson said the decision to come home was made relatively quickly in conversation with members of the voyaging family in Lahaina. “When the request came in [to come home] there was really no choice. We were honored to be able to try to find a way in which we could support the healing of Lahaina.”

After the announcement in September, Thompson said PVS planned to sail Hōkūleʻa home. But the uncertainty of ocean conditions spurred by a historic El Niño cycle – a phenomenon characterized by warming water temperatures and weakening trade winds – prompted them to change course.

“The challenge with El Niño is, number one, weakening trade winds, so the sail would be longer than normal,” Thompson said. “The other big issue for me is we’re starting to see more sub-tropical cyclones. Those are the ones that make the big northwest swells in Hawaiʻi. Those storms are getting bigger and stronger.”

The risk of sailing 50-year-old Hōkūleʻa home in these conditions prompted Thompson to make the difficult decision to send her home on a Matson container ship.

PVS crew and leadership will use the extended time at home to train, connect with Hawaiʻi’s youth, and support the 11 canoes from the South Pacific that are scheduled to participate in FestPAC. The festival is expected to bring in some 2,500 delegates from across the Pacific.

“We’re gonna stay home and connect with communities and primary school children and just be present, so when we take off next year to continue the deep-sea voyage, we can have a much better idea of how we can serve,” said Thompson.

Changing Hōkūleʻa’s sail plans into the summer poses its own challenges. If the crew leaves after FestPac to head to Aotearoa (New Zealand), they face the middle of hurricane season, Thompson said, adding that 2024 will give the crew an opportunity to deepen its understanding of the “new oceans” and the changing physical and temporal boundaries for safe sailing.

Either way, Thompson said PVS will honor all of its port commitments, even though the timeline looks different.

Thompson expressed both concern and optimism for the future of the planet. He views the time at home through a lens of opportunity.

“We have got to protect the oceans if we want to protect life as we know it,” he said. “I’m actually scared looking at the science. This convening of leadership in the Pacific is hopefully an amazing opportunity to sit down and talk collectively about the protection of the oceans; and having young people be involved where they can, make their connections and create their relationship with the South Pacific. Succession leadership is important.”