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Father And Daughter Circumnavigate The Globe Using A Mental Compass


In 1980, a dozen men sailed in a canoe from Tahiti to Hawaii. That's more than 2,000 miles. They didn't use a compass or a map or any modern instruments. They wanted to show that Hawaii could have been settled by Polynesian explorers who had intentionally made that same trip. And the canoe they took was named Hokule'a. That means star of gladness.

And it helped revive interest in native Hawaiian culture.


Now Hokule'a is attempting an even longer journey. It's two years into a voyage around the entire globe. This month, it reached the East Coast of the United States, and NPR's Adam Cole went to see it on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: As soon as I climbed aboard, apprentice navigator Kala Baybayan Tanaka took one look at my pink face and offered me sunscreen.

KALA BAYBAYAN TANAKA: Do you need sunscreen? We've got a whole big thing of sunscreen.

COLE: I should probably.

TANAKA: You should put sunscreen on.

COLE: I mean, oh, my gosh, look at this thing of sunscreen.

It was a full gallon jug, a volume of sunscreen you would only buy if you planned to sail around the world. There isn't much shade to be found on Hokule'a. Its structure is based on traditional Polynesian designs. Two 60-foot canoes are joined by a central deck, topped with red sales.

And the whole thing is lashed together with six miles of rope. Kala, who hails from Maui, sleeps under a strip of canvas along one edge.

TANAKA: The front of the canoe is the wettest part of the canoe. That would be where I am.

COLE: Kala's father is also on the voyage. Kalepa Baybayan is one of the primary navigators, and that comes with privileges.

TANAKA: He sleeps in the very back of the canoe (laughter).

COLE: It's dry there, a real luxury suite.

KALEPA BAYBAYAN: You sleep on that board - right? - with an Igloo cooler underneath. And then there's that hard, yellow pad. But me, I get special treatment. I have an extra pad.

COLE: Oh really?

BAYBAYAN: (Laughter) Yeah.

COLE: Kalepa earned his choice bunk through decades of study. He can navigate the open ocean using a Polynesian technique that's thousands of years old. He doesn't use any instruments. Instead, he builds a compass in his mind based on celestial landmarks.

BAYBAYAN: Anything you can see with your eyes is a reference point.

COLE: The rising and setting of certain stars, the sun, the moon, passing birds. And when none of those is available, he relies on waves.

BAYBAYAN: There's a motion that the canoe makes as it climbs up over the wave, and you have to internalize that as a rhythm. And you kind of just feel the pulse of the canoe.

COLE: To navigate like this without a GPS or instruments of any kind, you not only have to know your direction, you have to keep track of your speed and remember exactly where you came from. Forty years ago, when Hokule'a was preparing for its first voyage, no one on Hawaii had that skill. But a master navigator from Micronesia volunteered to share his knowledge.

And that was how Kalepa began to study the art of wayfinding. He's been sailing on Hokule'a ever since, even as he raised his children.

TANAKA: I actually started voyaging just to understand or get to know my dad better.

COLE: At first, Kala didn't get her dad's obsession.

TANAKA: I was a typical high-schooler thinking about what other people were thinking about me and boys and fashion. But until I started voyaging, it kind of felt unfulfilled, like, I just felt like there was something missing.

COLE: And then Kalepa started to teach her about wayfinding.

TANAKA: Which is so truly central to who we are and how we came to settle the islands that we did.

COLE: The current voyage is meant to celebrate that Polynesian heritage and the connections between humans and a fragile natural world. For Kala, it's about connections she makes with people who are also trying to move forward while rediscovering their past.

TANAKA: We want to know their struggles and also their successes and how we can carry on their story and share it with our kids back home.

COLE: On the first leg of this journey back in 2014, Kala learned she was pregnant with her second child. Kalepa chose the name, Tekauri, after a tree used by Polynesians to build canoes. Adam Cole, NPR News.


MAKAHA NI'IHAU: (Singing) Hokule'a, star of gladness. Oh, Hokule'a, star of gladness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.