Papahānaumokuākea: A School for Voyaging


By Haunani Kane, Ph.D.

As a young voyager and navigator, you are introduced to different schools by your kumu – places you go to study and build your skills. Often, we start from land.

For those of us from Oʻahu we may hike up Makapuʻu to study the swells, and head to Lānaʻi lookout to become familiar with Newe (also known as Hānaiakamālama or the Southern Cross). We each have our favorite spots to watch the stars as they first puka above the horizon in the east and return in the west.

These places are special. After countless hours of quietly staring, learning, and memorizing patterns you begin to build pilina (relationships) with these places and generations of teachers and students.

One of these special schools is Papahānaumokuākea. As you prepare for a deep-sea voyage you need to learn how to “see” a faraway island from the middle of the ocean. Sailing to Papahānaumokuākea teaches us the clues of an approaching island – how to feel changes in the open ocean swells, distinguish the patterns of seabirds from those that live on land, and begin to recognize the subtle characteristics of low-lying islands as they grow above the horizon.

Nīhoa, the closest of our ancestral islands, is located approximately 120 miles northwest of Niʻihau. With steady winds you can make this trip in about 24 hours.

Nainoa [Thompson] compares finding Nīhoa to trying to see Mānana island (Rabbit Island off Waimānalo, Oʻahu), from the Kona coast of Hawaiʻi island. It is close enough to paddle and far enough away to experience all the feelings of being on an open ocean voyage.

Our voyage to Nīhoa begins off the coast of Niʻihau. We align the back of the waʻa (canoe) with Pānīʻau, the highest mountain (approximately 1,200 ft) on Niʻihau and sail slightly north of the setting sun.

On a clear night, Kūmau (also known as Hōkūpaʻa or the north star) will sit on the right side of the canoe, slightly forward of the back beam. Kūmau is your best friend on this voyage. The young navigator and crew will learn to feel the swells and wind, how to keep track of speed and distance, and how to communicate and guide their crew.

Most importantly, this voyage will teach generations of voyagers how to lead and work together as an ʻohana. After 24 hours of being awake, slightly groggy eyes will witness for the first time a jagged, hazy island emerge from the sea. They will greet her like they would their most cherished kupuna with mele, oli, and possibly lei, pōhaku, paʻakai or wai from their homes.

For those of us who have made the voyage to Papahānaumokuākea we all agree that this experience has had an everlasting impact on our lives. We have a collective dream to normalize voyages on waʻa to Nīhoa and beyond. Imagine offshore of Nīhoa or within the lagoon of Lalo – Hōkūleʻa, Hikianalia, Makaliʻi, Namahoe, and Moʻokiha o Piʻilani – a fleet of voyaging canoes, their students and the generations before and after.

Guest author Haunani Kane, Ph.D., is a scientist, surfer, and voyager from Kailua, Oʻahu. Currently an assistant professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Haunani’s life is guided by the values and storied history of her kūpuna (ancestors).