Spirit of Aloha | Features | November/Decmber 2006

Stars in His Head: The Last of the Wayfinders
By Stuart H. Coleman

Nainoa Thompson, Mau Piailug and the Voyages of the Hokule‘a


PHOTO: Monte Costa

PHOTO: Monte Costa

PHOTO: Monte Costa

No use allowed of copyrighted photos

This year, the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976. Since that epic journey, the 62-foot double-hulled canoe has sailed more than 100,000 nautical miles on numerous voyages across the Poly­nesian Triangle, from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to New Zealand and Easter Island. This is the equivalent of sailing more than four times around the world, and the distance was traveled using only the ancient art of celestial navigation called wayfinding, which looks to the stars, the swells and natural elements as guides. No compass, no quadrant, no modern instruments—just a navigator with a map of the stars in his head.

Nainoa Thompson, president of the PVS and navigator of the Hōkūle‘a, should be happy with all of these ac­com­plish­ments. Instead, he worries about how to honor Mau Piailug, the master navigator who helped make it all happen. Born and raised on the Mi­cro­nesian island of Satawal, Mau is one of the last traditional deep-sea wayfinders in the world. His guidance of Hōkūle‘a helped revive canoe-building and deep-sea voyaging throughout Polynesia, yet this re­vival never reached Mau’s own people.

“We paid so much attention to our growth in voyaging, but we did not pay enough attention to the decline of voyaging in Micronesia,” Thompson says. “We find we’re at this really critical point. In Micronesia, there are almost no more canoes.” There are no more master deep-sea navigators like Mau. Unfortunately, this small man with the dark eyes is struggling with diabetes, but he is determined to make sure his legacy lives on.

Despite his failing health and fading eyesight, Mau still has a strong vision of what he wants for his people and the future of navigation. He depends on students like Nainoa and Shorty Bertelmann to teach the people of Micro­nesia and train them in the art of wayfinding. Although Mau should be satisfied with his accomplishments as a master navigator, he is restlessly driven to teach others and make sure they keep the seafaring knowledge and cultural traditions alive.

“I called Mau a ‘master navigator’ once,” Nainoa says, “and he actually got mad at me. ‘Don’t call me a master. You only become a master navigator when you die, knowing that you’ve taught someone else to become you.’ The final duty of a master navigator is to teach.”

Burdened by this heavy responsibility, Nainoa and other PVS sailors, including Shorty, have embarked on a threefold plan to spread Mau’s knowledge and pay tribute to their mentor. Shorty is the leader of Na Kalai Wa‘a Moku o Hawai‘i (the canoe builders of the Island of Hawai‘i) and he and his crew are building a voyaging canoe for Mau on the Big Island; and, in January 2007, they will sail the new canoe, called Maisu, and the Hōkūle‘a to his home on the Mi­cro­nesian island of Satawal. Finally, they are in the process of creating a traditional school of navigation that will unite all the voyaging societies across the Pacific to perpetuate Mau’s legacy. But the voyaging community is racing against time to realize Mau’s dream before he departs this world on his final voyage.

To navigate the future of the Poly­nesian Voyaging Society, Thomp­son knows he must look to the past to see where they have been and where they must go. As part of the 30th anniversary, he reflects on Hōkūle‘a’s history and honors those leaders who have guided her destiny. Visionary figures like Herb Kane and Ben Finney, who designed and created the 62-foot canoe; legendary watermen like Eddie Aikau, who gave his life to save his fellow crew­members: even his own father, Pinky Thompson, who helped resurrect the canoe’s mission after Eddie’s tragic loss. Even though Eddie and Pinky are gone, their spirits still speak to Thompson and help guide the mission of the Poly­nesian Voyaging Society on its next journey to Micronesia and Japan.

In 1975, Thompson joined a group of pioneers from Hawai‘i who planned to sail on one of the most momentous voyages in modern history. Going against Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesia was settled by Indians who had “accidentally drifted” on rafts from South Amer­ica, they planned to sail 2,500 miles down to Tahiti. This small band of sailors set out to prove that the Poly­nesians had sailed all over the Pacific and were among the world’s greatest voyagers.

Thompson joined hundreds of others to help build the Hō­kū­le‘a, which was modeled on the traditional voyaging canoes that had brought the first Polynesian sailors to Hawai‘i more than eight centuries before. Like their ancestors, they would depend on celestial na­vigators who would find their way to Tahiti by using the stars and natural elements as their guides. After searching across Polynesia to find a traditional wayfinder, Ben Finney finally found Mau, a small, quiet man from Satawal, who barely spoke English.

Nainoa Thompson was a young man in his early 20s when he met Mau, and he was in awe of his abilities. “He was such a powerful man and he was of such deep magic to me,” Thomp­son recalls. One night, after working on the canoe at Snug Harbor, he remembers someone asking Mau where the South­ern Cross was. They were sitting in a circle under the lights, which made it impossible to see the stars. Mau just point­ed behind him and said, “Over there.” Thompson couldn’t believe it, so he ran out of the light toward the drawbridge where Mau had pointed. “Sure enough, right where he pointed was the Southern Cross,” Thompson says, still in disbelief after all these years. “Here’s a man who had an accounting of all the stars, even behind his head! That was a real defining moment for me.”

During the first voyage to Tahiti in 1976, Thompson had been se­lected as a crewmember on the sail back to Hawai‘i. He was excited about studying navigation with Mau and learning about the art of wayfinding. He flew to Papeete and saw Hōkūle‘a sail into history as 18,000 Tahitians gathered to welcome the canoe and their long-lost cultural cousins. But Thomp­son also sensed there was an underlying tension among the crewmembers and Mau was nowhere to be found.

Although the voyage had been a success, Mau and the crew had been scarred by conflicts on the canoe between some of the Caucasian leaders and Ha­wai­ian crewmembers; so the small Micronesian man left and vowed never to return. Thomp­son remembers that he only left a tape with a short, disturbing message: “I’m going to go home. Send my clothes. Don’t look for me, ’cause you’ll never find me.”

Thompson was crestfallen, because he had looked forward to working with Mau and knew he needed him as a teacher. On the return sail, they used a compass and quadrant to plot their course, and Thompson could only stare at the stars in wonder. After their arrival, he decided to learn celestial navigation by studying modern astronomy with a University of Hawai‘i professor named Will Kyselka in preparation for a second voyage to Ta­hi­ti. He and the crew didn’t have long to train, and their departure date was somewhat rushed. They would sail without an escort boat this time, and Thompson tried to navigate the canoe in the old style, while others tracked his course using a quadrant and timepiece.

Of all the potential crewmembers, Thomp­son recalls being most impressed with a young Hawaiian named Eddie Aikau. The two men had become friends after talking at one of the crew meetings. “That’s where we built our short but very deep relationship,” Thomp­son says. “How could it not be deep with a man of such intensity? He could step through both windows of time: He could participate in the modern world as well as anyone, but his soul was deep and old.” During their brief training period, Thompson could see how dedicated Aikau was to the mission of the Hōkūle‘a: “He was so full of life. The way he talked, you could see it in his eyes. He said, ‘I just want to see Tahiti come out of the ocean.’ That whole image that we can bring the is­land out of the sea is powerful stuff,” Thompson says. He is referring to a mys­tical belief of wayfinding that suggests that if you visualize your destination and stay true to your course, the island will come to you. These are words of wisdom that transcend sailing.

On March 16, 1978, Thompson and 15 other crewmembers set sail for Tahi­ti. Thousands of people had come to Magic Island to witness their departure and bid them farewell. But during the ceremonies throughout the day, the wind grew stronger and the waves grew bigger. Despite their hesitations, the crew was pressured to leave. Sailing just before sunset, the crew encountered gale-force winds in the channel. Five hours later, the canoe capsized in stormy seas. The next morning, Eddie Aikau tried to save his fellow sailors by paddling his surfboard to the island of Läna‘i for help. The last person to speak to him, Thompson remembers him saying, “Everything will be okay.” The overturned canoe was later spotted, and the exhausted crew was rescued. But Eddie was never seen again.

Aikau’s loss was devastating to Thomp­son, the crew and the voyaging community. After the tragic event, some argued that Hōkūle‘a should be retired and put in a museum. But Thompson and his father knew that the only way to honor the Hawaiian waterman was to continue voyaging. “When we lost Eddie, there was no turning back,” he says. “Eddie, in his sacrifice, taught us the importance of being disciplined and making very difficult choices.” Pinky Thompson became the leader of the PVS and started raising money to repair the canoe and prepare her for another voyage to Tahiti. “Both Eddie and my father changed the whole culture of voyaging at that point. Like my dad would say, 95 percent of the success of the voyage is in the training.”

After the tragic voyage in 1978, Pinky told his son, “If you really want to learn navigation, you have to go back to the source.” Thompson sought the only man who could help him resurrect the canoe and the art of wayfinding: Mau Piailug. After trying to contact him for several months, he finally received a cryptic message: “Come down.” Thomp­son flew to Saipan and met his mentor at the beach. “We sat down on a drift log on the beach, and we talked,” Thomp­son says. “He was real quiet, had his head down and was very sad, because he knew of Eddie’s death. I talked to him about coming back to teach us. He just said, ‘We’ll see.’”

About two months later, Thompson received word that Piailug would be arriving the next day. Thus began his in­tense training. “When he came to Hawai‘i, he sat me down and taught me the star compass,” Thompson says, describing the ancient celestial map at the heart of wayfinding. “He used stones from the yard. Coconut fronds represented the canoe, and each stone represented a star.”

Rigorous training and planning went into Hōkūle‘a’s next voyage to Tahiti in 1980. Thompson and Piailug worked well together, and the old wayfinder and his young apprentice spent many nights under the immense night sky, just staring at the stars and identifying the ones that would help guide them to Tahiti. Thompson also continued studying with Will Kyselka, who trained him in as­tronomy. Blending the ancient Poly­nesian art of wayfinding with a modern Western understanding of astronomy, Thompson created his own navigational system and star compass. This hybrid system was in sync with his mixed heritage as a hapa-haole, part-Hawaiian and part-Caucasian.

Thompson still hoped to sail to Tahiti in the traditional way, the way Eddie Aikau had wanted, following the same sea roads that their ancestors had sailed centuries ago. But this time, he would also use modern safety methods and leave no room for mistakes. After the pain­ful lesson of the previous trip, Thomp­son made sure the Hōkūle‘a and her crew were fully prepared. He insisted that an escort boat, a two-masted sailboat equipped with modern technology and equipment, always follow the ca­noe in event of an emergency.

After two years of extensive repairs to the canoe and many months of training for the 1980 voyage, the Hōkūle‘a and her crew were finally ready to sail. When all the preparations had been made for the voyage, the crew came together at the oldest church on O‘ahu for the re­dedi­cation ceremony of the canoe. The service was held at KawaiaHa‘o Church, where much of Hawai‘i’s history had un­folded. Following the service, Kahu Kealanahele reminded the sailors and all their families, “Whenever you are sailing on Hōkūle‘a, another is always present—the spirit of Eddie Aikau.”

Almost two years later to the day, on March 15, 1980, the Hōkūle‘a sailed from Hilo on the Big Island for Tahiti, with an escort boat not far behind. As if replaying the events of the previous voy­age, they encountered somewhat stormy conditions after leaving, but this time the canoe and crew were prepared. The Hōkūle‘a safely weathered the storm and made good progress toward Tahiti.

Surrounded by a vast ocean and sky, Thompson had to be vigilant in his course or else they would miss their destination entirely. Studying the path of the stars at night and watching the direction of the swells during the day, he stayed on deck for most of the voyage and hardly slept. But he was being watched over by his two mentors, Mau Piailug on the Hōkūle‘a, and Will Kysel­ka on the escort boat, the wayfinder and the professor.

In his book Ocean in Mind, Kyselka talks about how he monitored Thompson’s progress from the sailboat Ishka. Following a mile or two behind, he measured the canoe’s course and kept in radio contact with the young navigator. “It was impressive,” Kyselka wrote. “When he would give us his position, he was usually no more than five miles from the position we had established through instruments. Sometimes he would describe five or six ways of determining his latitude. He’s breaking new ground in non-instrument navigation.”

Meanwhile, on the canoe, Mau Piai­lug watched silently over his apprentice as Thompson made his calculations. As crewmember Henry Ho said, “We knew Mau had confidence in Nainoa when he started to sleep 12 hours a day,” es­pecially after staying awake for almost the entire journey in 1976. “When Mau went to sleep, we’d say, ‘The computer is down again.’”

Thompson, Pialiug and the crew sail­ed for 33 days, enduring severe storms and windless doldrums, chilly nights and scorching days. But the crew re­mained in good spirits, and when they spotted the first fairy terns circling above, they began eagerly looking for land. A crewmember shimmied up the mast, scouring the horizon for the slightest outline of an island. When he finally saw the turtlelike back of an island slowly emerge on the horizon, he alerted the excited crew. Together, they watched as the small turtle slowly transformed into a distant mountain peak, a sight the sailors would never forget.

Toward the end of the voyage, after so many sleepless nights, Thompson be­gan to recall Eddie Aikau’s dream. “There was this very powerful drive in me ‘to make Tahiti come out of the sea.’ Those were his words. For me, that was a quiet drive, a very powerful force. But when the coconut trees came up, it was just so overwhelming, and I went into the canvas-covered hull and just cried.” Want­ing to be alone after such an in­tense voyage, Thompson crawled into his small sleeping compartment in the hull and felt Eddie’s presence with him. “It was just this whole feeling of being very close to him in that one single moment.”

When they sailed into Papeete Har­bor, hundreds of canoes surrounded the crew and thousands of people gathered on the beach to greet them. As part of the welcoming ceremony, the natives treated the crew like Polynesian royalty and gave them a warm homecoming, throwing them gifts, flower lei and cold beers. Hula dancers performed for the crew; local leaders feted them. The prime minister welcomed them back, as if they were long-lost relatives which, in a cultural sense, they were. Thompson was honored as the first Hawaiian in modern times to navigate a voyaging canoe across the Pacific, using only the sun, stars and seabirds as guides. But it was a bittersweet time for Thompson, and the celebrations were punctuated by poignant memories of Eddie Aikau.

In completing the voyage to Tahiti, the mission of Hōkūle‘a had been re­born. In the years that followed, Thomp­son and Piailug would eventually sail back and forth across the Pacific to Samoa, Tonga, the Marquesas, New Zealand and throughout most of the Polynesian Triangle. After the first voyage in 1976 inspired a cultural renaissance throughout Polynesia, many of these nations began designing their own sailing canoes, modeled after the Hōkūle‘a. Over the next two decades, Thomp­son and Piailug helped train many native people in the method of way­finding, so they could navigate and sail their own canoes, symbols of their proud heritage.

Thirty years after the first voyage to Tahiti, it is time to honor Piailug’s legacy and try to resurrect wayfinding in his own land. “The whole irony is that it’s almost reversed itself,” Thompson says, referring to the rise of deep-sea voyaging throughout Polynesia and its current decline in Micronesia. At Kawaihae Har­bor on Ha­wai‘i’s Big Island, Shorty Ber­tel­mann, Chad Paishon and his wife, Po­mai Ber­telmann Paishon, worked with some of Piailug’s students from Sata­wal to finish building the voyaging canoe that will sail with the Hōkūle‘a down to Micronesia.

“This voyage is to honor Mau, but it’s al­so to honor the seafaring tradition,” Nainoa says. “It’s almost like we’re closing one circle and opening another. Mau came to rescue our cultural dignity by guiding us to Tahiti in 1976. Equally important, he came back year after year to teach us and give back our knowledge and skills.” In January, Thompson and Ber­tel­mann will navigate the Hōkūle‘a and Piailug’s ca­noe Maisu on a 4,000-mile voyage back to Micronesia. This incredible journey is an homage to Paialug, a way to pay back that debt and share the wisdom of wayfinding with his people by creating a school of navigation.

“The school will be a place where we protect and preserve deep knowledge and the skill of voyaging. It will be a school that houses our stories, because Hōkūle‘a creates stories wherever she goes,” says Thompson. “The need to pre­serve our legacy in the school of navigation that we’re creating is key to all that Mau has stood for and kept alive. It’s about memory.” Mau can now rest easy, knowing that his legacy as one of the world’s last wayfinders will live on in Thompson, Bertelmann and generations of his students.

STUART H. COLEMAN is the author of the award-winning book Eddie Would Go, the story of Eddie Aikau. He is currently working on a new book, titled Mäkaha Means Fierce: The Story of Ha­wai‘i’s Wild Westside.

Features Archives


Special Offers

Friends of Aloha






Copyright© 1998 - 2006 Honolulu Publishing. All rights reserved.