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Training for the Impossible: Polynesian Voyagers in the Atlantic

“When we first started training to do this, everyone thought it was impossible.”

With this simple statement made from the deck of the Polynesian voyaging canoe, Hōkūleʻa, as she prepares to enter the Atlantic Ocean for the very first time, captain and pwo navigator Bruce Blankenfeld reminds us of the boldness and audacity of our founders and first crew, those who channeled the knowledge gathered by generations of our ancestors, over thousands of years of sailing and teaching, learning from and guided by the natural world.

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Worldwide Voyage crewmembers face grueling weather conditions while crossing the tumultuous Indian Ocean.

The clues provided us by earth, ocean, and sky only become useful if you can read them—stars that are known through chant, winds that are predictable based on collective experience, sea swell whose direction you can read in your naʻau. In the 1970’s, in the darkness before Hōkūleʻa was born, much of this had been lost in Polynesia—lost to the people of the largest ocean civilization of the world.

What was also missing, I think, was that tenacity to reach out past the limits of what was thought to be possible and go beyond. Each time I return to this canoe, rocking between the same hulls that carried our first crew to Tahiti 40 years ago on a voyage to rediscover our forgotten past, I am warmed against the coldness of the night wind off the ocean by the knowledge that the tenacity is growing around us, building on the foundation that was set a generation ago.

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In the last 40 years, Hōkūleʻa has sailed more than 150,000 nautical miles through the Pacific Ocean. The Worldwide Voyage now takes her into the foreign waters of the Indian and Atlantic.

To be sure, what we do comes with great risk. Seas and skies are at times unforgiving and demanding, forcing us to face our greatest fears amid the most challenging conditions. Here in the Indian Ocean, the risk is readily apparent—incredible ocean and climate conditions combine to create an unpredictable and rough crossing—but to us, the risk of staying home is undeniably larger. The world around us is changing quickly, much of that change irreversible. We’ve entered into a period of rapid decline and uncertainty, where the unknown greets us in every direction. 

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Erosion of costal landscapes is already evident along low-lying atolls around the globe. Unfortunately, communities who have contributed the least to climate change are among the first to feel its impacts.

What we do know is that people in low-lying islands, like the ones we have seen off the hulls of this canoe for 40 years, are in trouble, and the scientific evidence is there. The view from the deck of the canoe provides a sadly intimate look at rows upon rows of coconut trees collapsing into the water as the land erodes, and over the lapping of the waves we hear the voices of island nations as they prepare to move their entire populations to higher ground, leaving their ‘āina hānau, their ancestral birth lands, behind. Stories like these can be heard the world over—seemingly impossible oceans for us to cross in search of a better future for our Island Earth.

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A Worldwide Voyage crewmember gazes out across the vast Indian Ocean after crossing thousands of miles on board Hōkūleʻa.

Lucky for us, our kupuna (elders) around the world were masters at accomplishing the impossible. That gift resides in our genetics, carried forward to today by some pretty determined people—people we are fortunate to meet every day as we voyage. That is why this voyage is so important—important to do with this canoe, at this point in the arc of the history of the world. Our ancestors conquered the impossible more than a thousand years ago: they got in a voyaging canoe and looked for new land guided by stars, swells, and other signs of nature, sailing into the unknown guided by the wisdom of Island Earth. For hundreds of years, this bravery lived as a whisper, a shadow of our ancient past. 

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Forty years ago, a brave few answered the call, and built Hōkūleʻa to do exactly the same thing: find islands. And now, as these immense global tasks pile up all along the way, maybe what people need to remember first is that their respective kupuna had the tenacity to figure it out, even when faced with the impossible. That mindset—that we can overcome—must come first. Then the actions can follow suit.

Hōkūleʻa is a reminder of that, and we sail this voyage to honor her and the wisdom of the past. As voyagers on the canoe and in our communities, we ask, “what will it take for the critical mass to come together to mālama honua (care for the Island Earth)?”

I’m not sure of the answer, but this voyage is the most impossible thing that I could find to be a part of, and I think the answer lies right there: we must all attempt the impossible and believe we can accomplish it. My humble hope is that the words I write might inspire others to join in the call to action as well—to help us mālama this precious and only honua.

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Sunrise on Hōkūleʻa is a scene that never grows old.