Home. A place to clean up, rejuvenate, rest. Above all, rest. We all need one, and the new voyaging canoe Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani is no different. The canoe needs a home, their crew says. And it needs it now.
“Mostly, I’m looking for a safe berthing place for this canoe where kids can get out of the bus and walk over and step onto it,” Tim Gilliom, the canoe’s captain, told me recently. “They have to be able to step onto it. Kupuna too. The governor can’t even help me–nothing’s available. Oh, we don’t have access to fresh water, either.”
Kala Babayan, the Mo‘okiha’s navigator, agreed. “This canoe belongs to the community of Maui. It has to be accessible to children and kupuna,” she said. “A mooring is not accessible. There’s only one voyaging canoe in Maui County. It also enhances the visitor experience–the culture is why many people come here.”
The name means “Sacred Lizard of Maui.” When I visited the voyaging canoe Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani on May 28, it was perched up on blocks at the Mala Boat Ramp in Lahaina. Her paint was fresh and white rigging taught. The plan was that sometime in the next seven days, Gilliom told me, he and his crew would move the big rocks that currently sit in front of it, get the canoe onto a trailer and then carefully–CAREFULLY–maneuver it into the water bow-first.
“I have seven days to get it in the water or miss the tides,” Gilliom had said on May 28. “We’re trying to go to Kauai by June 21 for their canoe launching. They’ve been struggling like us. We’re always looking for water people, boat people, sailors. We’re starting intense crew training in the middle of summer.”
Once in the water, the crew could begin to put the Mo‘okiha through sea trials. But the goal wasn’t just to get to Kauai by the end of June and link up with the Namahoe (The Twins), that island’s voyaging canoe. Assuming all goes well, the Mo‘okiha would voyage to Tahiti in 2017 to escort the Hokulea–Hawaii’s most famous voyaging canoe–on its way home.
“Kauai has its own canoe, even bigger than this one,” Babayan told me. “They’re getting ready to launch her. We’re a voyaging family–an ohana of canoes. Each island supports each other. Our goal is to be there when she’s getting ready to be birthed. It was the same thing here in July when this canoe was birthed. And when we go out of Hawaii to Tahiti, New Zealand, we have ohana there, too. People who give us housing, a place to stay. They’re like cousins you didn’t see for a long time.”
For Babayan, the emphasis on ohana both resonates with her and exemplifies the best of voyaging, and Hawaii. “In a family you care for each other, practice kindness,” she said. “These are Hawaiian values, Polynesian values. It’s very easy to lose sight of these values as we progress at light years.”
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But that’s all in the future. On my visit, a few crew members that will eventually take the Mo‘okiha to Kauai and, eventually, across the Pacific were busy prepping the canoe–nearly 20 years in the making–ready for sea trials. Even just standing next to the massive, 62-foot, 11.5 ton canoe, I could smell fresh varnish aboard. The canoe’s red and white paint glistened in the sunlight, practically begging for a hand to touch it. The Mo‘okiha is the first voyaging canoe birthed on Maui in centuries, and getting it ready for the sea was a mammoth undertaking.
The people who became known as Polynesians took to the sea in large voyaging canoes three thousand years ago. Over the next millennia, they discovered Tahiti, the Marquesas and eventually Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand.
The Mo‘okiha’s design is very similar to the Hokulea, the voyaging canoe designed by Herb Kawainui Kane and Kenneth Emory in the 1970s. And that design wasn’t easy to come by.
“Ships are as mortal as their makers,” Kane wrote in his 1998 essay “In Search of the Ancient Polynesian Voyaging Canoe.” “Except for fragments of ancient canoes excavated on New Zealand and pieces of a large canoe recently unearthed from a bog on Huahine, there is no hard evidence. Except for a petroglyph on Easter Island, and passing references in the old legends, there is no descriptive record.”
Until the mid-1970s, when the Hokulea began traveling the world, showing everyone how Polynesians could venture across whole oceans with nothing more than sails and celestial navigation, Hawaiian voyaging canoes were quite literally the stuff of legends. And until last July, it had been six centuries since such a canoe came to life on Maui.
All that changed on July 11, 2014, when the Mo‘okiha hit the water at Mala Wharf for the first time. The canoe was a product of a great deal of love and labor from the nonprofit organization Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua, which formed in 1975 to perpetuate Hawaii canoe building arts and culture. In 1976, the Hui launched the canoe Mo‘olele–“Leaping Lizard.” Though smaller than the Mo‘okiha, that canoe has served as a “living classroom”–a way to teach everyone about Polynesian voyaging and wayfinding.
Like the Mo‘olele, the Mo‘okiha is also designed to serve as a “living classroom” for students.
“There’s everything on this canoe,” Kala Babayan, the Mo‘okiha’s navigator, told me. “Navigation is so much mathematics. There’s a system for calculating speed. The sails–they’re all physics. Distributing weight and how that affects your ability to steer. Finding direction based on the position of stars. We want to use the canoe as a way to bridge science and culture. It teaches kids science and math–they don’t even know they’re learning. We’re breaking down the walls of what you’d consider a traditional classroom.”
Of course, there’s still a great deal of work that needs to be done. Like getting the Mo‘okiha a proper berth.
“We’ve brought thousands of kids to the canoe,” Babayan said. “They touched her. This is the next step, to get them onboard.”
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For Babayan, serving on the Mo‘okiha is the culmination of a lifetime of immersion in the world of Polynesian navigation. “My dad is a pwo navigator–it’s an elite society of master navigators,” she said. “I grew up around voyaging. I sailed in my 20s with my dad. He taught me everything I know. In 2007, I was fortunate to go to Japan on the Hokulea. In 2013, I sailed from Kauai to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It took us 24 hours. And in 2014, I was chosen as an apprentice navigator to go from Hawaii to Tahiti. We set a record for non-instrumental navigation.”
But over the past two decades, few have been closer to the Mo‘okiha than Gilliom, who will serve as its captain. His dedication to the canoe borders on the obsessive; indeed, when I arrived at the boat ramp, one crew member pointed at Gilliom, who was then giving a brief tour of the canoe to some visitors, and joked that he was all but married to Mo‘okiha.
“I’ve been working 19 years, going on 20,” Gilliom later told me. “Never let up, except to sail on the Hokulea.”
Unlike his more famous musician siblings Amy Hanaiali‘i and Eric (the former of which is putting on a June 14 golf tournament to help raise money for the Mo‘okiha), Gilliom is a pure sailor. At one point during our brief tour of the canoe, Gilliom described in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone a recent voyaging canoe trip that could easily have ended in disaster. “One day we were stuck in a 50-knot gale, three days out of Papeete,” he said, then pointed to the Mo‘okiha’s rigging. “These donuts here snapped in half. We’re beefing up things here for when that happens. And it will happen.”
Gilliom walked me around the canoe, which despite her length and 22-foot beam, didn’t take too much time. He showed me the bunks, mounted above the canoe’s twin hulls, that will house the 13 or 14 crew members who voyage on the Mo‘okiha. He also showed me the navigator’s chair, which was already crusted with sea water because Gilliom and the crew didn’t have sufficient fresh water to wash the canoe after its July launching.
“She tracks real nice, sails real good,” Gilliom said. “She’s a Cadillac. Steers real easy. We’ve got everything we need except for a spot.”
About that need for a spot–about a dozen years ago, I sat down with then-Lahaina Restoration Foundation executive director Keoki Freeland about what would take the place of the old Carthaginian ship, once it was towed away from Lahaina Harbor and sunk off Puamana. Accounts at the time said the voyaging canoe then under construction in Lahaina Town might find a home at the Carthaginian’s old berth. “That’s a definite possibility,” Freeland told me. “We’ve done very little work with the Hawaiian side of Lahaina history.”
But according to Babayan and Gilliom, that won’t happen. “No, we can’t use that,” Babayan told me. “It’s a high-traffic area, and there’s too much danger of us getting bumped.”
At one point during my brief tour, Gilliom got down on the deck to assist a crew member with some varnish. As he did, he recited an old Hawaiian saying. “He va‘a he moku, he moku he va‘a,” Gilliom said. “‘The canoe is an island, the island a canoe.’ When you’re on a canoe and you run out of water and food, you perish. It’s the same for all canoes. The things you take for granted at home–there’s no ice on board. We only take exactly what we need: safety gear, food, water for drinking and cooking. Showering–we use salt water, and coconut oil keeps you from getting crusty.”
If it seems that finding a space for everything and everyone on such a cramped canoe on voyages across vast oceans would be next to impossible, Gilliom betrayed no hesitation. “When you’re a captain, you see how much gear people bring on,” he said. “You really gotta know how to balance it out.”
When he was done, Gilliom pointed me to the canoe’s steering blade, mounted near the stern. Carved into the handle was the name “Mau,” after Papa Mau Pialiug, the Micronesian sailor consider the father of modern non-instrument navigation. “He’s gonna steer us in the right direction,” Gilliom said (the canoe also mounts a small Honda outboard motor, for getting in and out of harbors).
I asked Gilliom to show me how the steering blade worked. “It’s up and down, not side to side,” he said. “Lift up, the canoe goes into the wind. Pushing down, you go downwind. If you’re lucky, you tie the blade down, trim the sails, put four to five people amidships and you can hold the line without steering. Mostly though, we use the side-sweeps when we’re going downwind.”
Mounted on the stern itself are solar panels. “Those are for our radio box and lights,” Gilliom said. “You have to have lights on in the shipping lanes. These canoes don’t really show up on radar. But the lights can hinder the navigator at night–makes it harder to see the stars.”
When I told Gilliom that the canoe’s navigation and propulsion systems were really quite elegant, his eyes lit up. “I’ll tell you, there’s nothing more efficient than these canoes,” he said. “You can manipulate the water jugs for weight. The rigging’s redundant. There really is no metal, other than the hardware. It gives a little bit, everything is tied. But it’s real simple, and it doesn’t wear out very fast, as long as you keep it clean and check the rigging. I wish you could get a car… well, they don’t make a car like that.”
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E MALAMA GOLF TOURNAMENT
Sunday, June 14, 7am
King Kamehameha Golf Club
4-person scramble, $125/person
Concert by Amy Hanaiali‘i and Eric Gilliom to follow the tournament
Proceeds benefit Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua
Call 808-249-0033 for more information and to make reservations
Photos: Sean M. Hower
Cover Design: Darris Hurst