This is What It’s Really Like to Sail on the Hōkūleʻa Voyaging Canoe

Even the bathroom break can be an adventure.
Hokulea along Panama Canal.
Photo: Polynesian Voyaging Society/ʻŌiwi TV


Polynesian Voyaging Society crew members take us behind the scenes to share memorable moments from the three-year journey around the globe.


SEE ALSO: Hōkūleʻa is Finally Home After Three Years of Voyaging Around the World


1. The Dangerous Bathroom Break

One of the most unexpectedly challenging parts of being a voyager can be the bathroom break. On the first leg to Tahiti, voyaging society apprentice navigator and ʻŌiwi TV videographer Jason Patterson described what it was like to cover for his crew mate while she took a bathroom break at midnight.


“It’s a compromising position when you’re on land, never mind being outside the rail doing 9 knots while the canoe is bouncing up and down at night,” he says. “Where you have to stand is very slick. Waves were coming up knee-high on the sets … I’m standing by the man overboard pole, ready to deploy that thing and just hoping that nothing bad happens. It was a very real moment. I thought, this is what all the training is for, this moment here, when your good friend’s life is kind of in the balance. So yeah, going to the bathroom on the Hōkūleʻa is one of the most dangerous things you can do. It can be a life-or-death situation, which is hilarious. Then I had to go, and I thought, well, this is going to be fun.”


2. Prepare for the Unexpected

Going to the Galapagos Islands proved “a super challenging and stressful leg,” says Shawn Kana‘iaupuni, executive strategy consultant for Kamehameha Schools’ Strategy Innovation Group, voyaging society volunteer crew member and education specialist. “Not all of the paperwork had been processed, so we didn’t want to be part of any kind of invasion to that fragile ecosystem. It’s a World Heritage Site. We had thought we had prepared and gone through protocols after we left Panama, but there were still some steps that we had to get cleared. We learned that while we were all out on the water, so we had to implement it in the middle of ocean. You get in the ocean and there’s probably all kinds of sharks in there. We worked for three days straight just scrubbing and cleaning, morning to night, and [it was] physically exhausting. It was hot as hell, so we were all sweating. We had to do a visual inspection of every single item on board. We had all of this garbage, separated into organic and nonorganic. We triple-bagged it and gave it to the port authorities.


“They had an exceptional process: They would come to us, 30 miles off port. They had dogs, they had police, they had immigration officers and the environmental protection agencies. I was the only Spanish speaker, so it was hard translating, especially because each one of them was from a different agency, so they didn’t necessarily get along with each other.”


3. Serious Chicken-Skin Moments

When the vessel reached Cape Town, South Africa, it was the journey’s halfway mark. “Every inch was an inch closer to home,” says Jenna Ishii, PVS education coordinator and apprentice navigator. “We visited the Mossel Bay caves where the first humans were. They said, ‘welcome home,’ and it was a chicken-skin moment. Our kids from Kamehameha Schools chanted in the cave.”


Then, they had an exchange with South African students.


“It was the most beautiful cultural exchange,” Ishii recalled. “Our kids were in full dress, dancing hula, young men and women in their malo and their outfits, and the local girls from the South African school were in their native dress. They taught our kids how to dance. They asked to drum on our pahu, because they just had buckets, so they were drumming with our kids. That’s what we did all day.”


4. A Culture Shock

Students from Hawai‘i also had a memorable learning moment in the Galapagos, says Kana‘iaupuni. “When we landed there, we said, ‘We’re from Hawai‘i!’ trying to overwhelm them with our aloha and smiles. What they said was, ‘Actually, Hawai‘i is the example of what we do not want to become.’ It was so embarrassing, but you take that in and think about what it means and what we should learn from it.


“They limit their population size, you can’t move there unless you were born there. You can’t bring a new car onto the island unless you remove a car from the island. Electricity and water are finite so once you use a certain amount, they turn it off. You learn to balance and use your resources well. These are the kinds of things we could put into practice in the most fragile places. All places are fragile and I don’t want to act like we should give up on them, but maybe we could prioritize some places.


“Some of our students were there and they used all the power that was available. They realized they had affected a whole bunch of people on San Cristobal. They were like, ‘Oh, my god. We just made the people that live here not have lights for the rest of the night!’”


5. The Future is in Good Hands

Voyaging society president and pwo (master) navigator Nainoa Thompson says he’s confident the voyage has prepared the next generation of navigators.


“Don’t check, but their tracks are better than mine,” he says, recalling one leg of the journey when he looked at the live tracking map. “They were 1 nautical mile off, out of 2,400. It irritated me, they were too good,” he added.