Ka’iulani Murphy

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Hokule‘a’s maiden voyage to Tahiti. Although Ka‘iulani Murphy, chief of staff of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, is only 27 years old, she’s helping to perpetuate the legacy of the traditional Hawaiian canoe. In 1999, she became a student of master navigator Nainoa Thompson, part of a new generation of young Hawaiians keeping the art of ancient voyaging alive.

photo: Monte Costa

Q: How did you get involved with the Polynesian Voyaging Society?
A: The first time I saw Hokule‘a, I was in elementary school on the Big Island and we went on a field trip to see the canoe. I was in awe, because she was just something that was larger than life to me. When I was a student at [the University of Hawai‘i at] Manoa, I saw Nainoa give a talk in Hawaiian Studies. I was so inspired that I decided to enroll in a voyaging course, which got me involved with the canoe. I really haven’t let go of her since then.

Q: So how do you navigate a 10-ton, 62-foot canoe thousands of miles without any modern technology?
A: The stars would be the easiest part of the navigation, because they’re the most constant. Navigators memorize all of these stars—of course, the sun being one of them—and where they rise and set on the horizon. There are other celestial clues, like the moon and the planets. The harder part is recognizing other signs. When it’s cloudy at night, you don’t have the stars or moon, and you rely on your senses—the clouds, where the wind is coming from, how the canoe moves over the swells.

Q: You’ve been on two deep-sea voyages—to Rapa Nui in 1999 and to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2004. What was that first voyage like for you?
A: The Rapa Nui trip was divided into five legs, and I was on the leg from Tahiti to Hawai‘i. From the very beginning, it tested me. The first night we left, it was raining and cold and we were all wet. I just thought, Is it going to be like this for the next 22 days? It can be really humbling.

Q: What do you do all day out at sea?
A: You’re on watch for four hours, then off for eight. While you’re on shift, you can get really tired, because you’re constantly doing regular shift duties—steering, shaping the sails. When you’re not on duty, you’re either talking story with other crew members or sleeping. Some people play guitar or ‘ukulele, write in a journal, read a book or just enjoy being out there. In that close kind of space, you really have to get along with everyone. The crew becomes like a family.

Q: Currently, a traditional Hawaiian canoe, the Maisu, is being built for Micronesia’s Mau Piailug, the master navigator who mentored Nainoa Thompson and navigated Hokule‘a’s inaugural voyage to Tahiti. We hear that Hokule‘a will play a role in the Maisu’s maiden voyage.

Early next year, Hokule‘a will accompany Mau’s canoe back to his home in Micronesia. We’re planning to go to Japan right after that, since we’ll already be in that part of the Pacific. The Hokule‘a has never been to Micronesia or Japan, so this would be a first for us.

Q: When Hokule‘a first sailed to Tahiti 30 years ago, you hadn’t even been born yet. Why is it so important to you to be part of this?
A: I feel lucky to be part of something that’s definitely larger than me. It really is a privilege, but privilege is also kuleana, responsibility. Because I’ve had this privilege to go on these long voyages and be involved with this canoe, I’m responsible for sharing it. That’s been really rewarding for me, going into classrooms and talking to kids, showing them how special a canoe Hokule‘a is.

On July 8, the Beach Boys will perform at the Waikiki Shell, a benefit for the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Tickets are available at the Blaisdell Center box office (877-750-4400, www.ticketmaster.com).