2016 Islander of the Year in Culture: Mālama Honua

World-circling navigators.
Full Sail: The Hōkūle‘a off of Kualoa.
Photo: Courtesy of Kapua Roback, ‘ōiwi tv


Over the past three years, the familiar twin sails of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a caught the world’s eye as it sailed past many iconic landmarks in Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Washington, D.C. and New York City, yet even pwo (master) navigator Nainoa Thompson says it will take years to feel the ultimate impact of the global journey.


Mālama Honua translates to “care for the earth.” And, when the Worldwide Voyage concludes this year, Hōkūle‘a and newer sister vessel Hikianalia will have covered more than 60,000 nautical miles, visited 27 nations and been greeted by schoolchildren, curious citizens and global leaders that included the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


When the ship reached Africa, then-president Barack Obama tweeted his congratulations: “Midpoint of worldwide voyage to spread message of caring for the one planet we’ve got.”


British billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson sees the canoe as carrying out an “extremely important” mission. “Most of our world is the ocean and it has been destroyed and pillaged by mankind for many, many years now. Hōkūle‘a’s voyage is drawing much-needed attention to this,” Branson said.


Yet even Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society who has captained nine of the 27 crew changes, finds it hard to settle on the right words to describe the significance of the trek. “It’s not about us sailing the canoe, it’s about our community coming together around common values that they can believe in.”


“We’ve connected with thousands of people who essentially without the voyage would all be strangers.”—Nainoa Thompson


This year, the voyage continued from Panama to the Galapagos and then Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui. Thompson paused to talk with us via a satellite phone from somewhere near the equator not too far from the Galapagos Islands.


And the journey has been challenging. Finding their way, coping with wind and weather are just some of the concerns. “Protecting yourself from the sun. It is so hot down here. It just bakes my head. By the time the sun goes down, I have a hard time seeing. The sun is really brutal,” Thompson says. But any hardships fade when he considers the mission.


“Planting the seeds of ideas, getting partners around the world and building the network of individuals that are working together—one thing I do know is that it strengthens everyone,” Thompson says.


After five years of preparation, the Society set out in 2013 with the aim of growing a global movement toward a more sustainable world by sailing the traditional double-hulled Hōkūle‘a canoe combining ancient wayfinding using stars, wind and waves with modern techniques.


More than 250 volunteer crew members have helped sail the voyage for 30 days or more, yet Thompson says those aboard are just a fraction of those responsible for the global journey. He believes the true impact of the voyage will develop over time just as the Hawaiian renaissance of the ‘70s and ‘80s took years to make large cultural changes. 


“It’s been an extraordinary journey of exploration, of discovery, rediscovery and connecting us back to the ocean,” he says. “We’ve connected with thousands of people who essentially without the voyage would all be strangers.”


Students around the world have made an impact on the crew. Thompson recalls when kindergarteners in a Reef Guardian school subsidized by the Australian government grabbed his hand to show him how they’re taking care of native turtles and seabirds, while learning math and science. “They can’t hold your whole hand because their hands aren’t big enough so they grab a couple of fingers and just pull you around in excitement. And this little girl pulls you into a room that’s just filled with science,” he says. “It’s the child in South Africa, it’s also the child in Nānākuli,” he says. “That’s the real voyage. Caring for the only home we’ve got.”