No one spent more time abroad on the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage than Chad Kalepa Baybayan.

The veteran Hōkūle‘a captain and master navigator crewed 18 of the global sail’s 31 total legs over three years, more than anyone else by far. He was an unassuming yet vital task master who helped keep the global voyage moving. He solved logistical problems that inevitably sprung up, organized educational activities in port on the fly, and kept the canoe and its escort vessels in good shape.

No one on that voyage relished the chance to explore new cultures quite as much as Baybayan. During quiet, calm moments out at sea he would marvel at the vastness of the Milky Way Galaxy, reflected in the nighttime heavens above.

Still, he always missed Hawaii, and he often expressed a desire to get home to his family.

This week, voyagers around the Pacific are mourning Baybayan’s sudden death at age 64. He was a key figure in the region’s resurgence of wayfinding, the science of sailing vast ocean distances using stars, swells and other natural cues to navigate.

Kalepa Baybayan
Chad Kalepa Baybayan pulls on a line aboard Hōkūle‘a. He logged more time aboard the traditional canoe replica than any other crew member in the vessel’s 46-year history. 'Oiwi TV

He didn’t just outpace all others during Mālama Honua. Baybayan logged more miles aboard the Hōkūle‘a than any other crew member in the traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe replica’s 46-year history.

He was also one of five Hawaiians in 2007 to be given the title of pwo, a master navigator and teacher, after he was mentored by the famed Micronesian navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug. The Hawaiian group was the first to be granted that status and responsibility outside of Micronesia, where pwo has been a sacred rite for millennia. 

Baybayan would spend much of his life after that pwo ceremony, held on the small Yapese island of Satawal, rekindling the wayfinding practices for future generations. He trained apprentice navigators and educated numerous students both in the classroom and while in port.

Aboard Hōkūle‘a, he joined some of the vessel’s most difficult and grueling voyages, including sails to New Zealand and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the mid 1980s and late 1990s, and perhaps its most treacherous journey of all: a 2015 trek along the coast of southern Africa during Mālama Honua.

Chad Kalepa Baybayan
Baybayan aboard the deck of the Hōkūle‘a. The longtime captain logged more miles aboard the vessel, a replica of ancient Polynesian voyaging canoes, than any other crew member. 'Oiwi TV

In fact, Mālama Honua would not have been successfully completed if not for Baybayan and another Hawaiian pwo navigator, Bruce Blankenfeld, according to Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson.

“Those two guys, they provided the leadership,” Thompson said in an interview Friday.

In ports abroad, it often fell to Baybayan to greet the local communities with a pule, or prayer, in Hawaiian. He would teach local elementary school students the principles of the Hawaiian star compass, which navigators use to guide the Hōkūle‘a and other traditional waʻa kaulua, or voyaging canoes, around the planet.

In 2015, after Hōkūle‘a arrived safely in Cape Town, South Africa, Baybayan helped the crew greet the Nobel Prize-winning human rights advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a crowd gathered at the port. A voyaging canoe from one of the world’s youngest cultures had for the first time arrived in Africa, the cradle of humanity. 

“We have come full circle,” Baybayan told Tutu and other dignitaries there. “At the end of the journey, you always arrive back at the beginning.”

He was an integral leader of ʻOhana Waʻa, a coalition of traditional deep-sea canoe voyagers from around the Pacific, including members of Hawaii’s local voyaging societies. He also helped create the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and served as its navigator-in-residence. 

He also earned a master’s degree in education to help further his training efforts and was the only one of the five original Hawaiian pwo to do so, according to Thompson.

In recent years, Baybayan was outspoken in support of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope proposed for Mauna Kea, a stance that put him at odds with many fellow voyagers on a sensitive issue. Still, members of that community continued to regard him with a deep respect, and their kinship endured.

Baybayan died Thursday of natural causes in Seattle, where he was helping to care for a young grandson undergoing treatments for a rare cancer, according to a family spokesman. 

Chad Kalepa Baybayan
Baybayan led efforts to teach students the science and practice behind traditional wayfinding techniques. 'Oiwi TV

Hours before his death, he had joined other Ohana Waʻa members on Zoom to watch “Hawaiian Soul,” a film about the late Hawaiian activist George Helm, that was written and directed by Baybayan’s frequent fellow crew member during the Malama Honua voyage, filmmaker ‘Āina Paikai.

Family discovered Baybayan shortly after the event, according to a family spokeswoman.

“He was just talking to us. Like he literally just closed out our event. How could this be?” Paikai said in a Facebook post Saturday. “It’s felt unreal.”

Thompson, Baybayan’s fellow pwo navigator, said he tried to process the news Thursday by spending the night aboard Hōkūle‘a, which is docked at Sand Island on Oʻahu.

In an interview Friday, he reflected on the 2007 Satawal pwo ceremony with Piailug that would bind him and Baybayan.

“To be pwo is to be the light. To be light is to be love,” Thompson recalled Piailug telling him before granting the title. “You heal. You solve conflict, you take care of your island. It’s based on that issue of care.”

Piailug also believed, according to Thompson, that a person only becomes a true master after they die, and only if they pass their knowledge to someone else first.

“If that’s true — if that’s what it is to be a master navigator — well then by that criteria you have to rank Kalepa as one of the greatest navigators in humankind,” Thompson said based on Baybayan’s extensive educational outreach.

On Friday evening, Thompson and several others held a private memorial sail for Baybayan aboard the Hōkūle‘a.

“I believe that that voyage that he’s taken now is to pwo the beautiful black sky of night,” he said of Baybayan. “This is his journey. He has to do it on his own.”

His absence will be felt, Thompson added, on the Hōkūle‘a’s upcoming Moananuiākea voyage, a circumnavigation of the Pacific that’s tentatively slated to start in 2022. Thompson hopes that Baybayan’s daughter, Kala, who trained to navigate during Mālama Honua, can go on the voyage in his place.

“Of the thousands that he taught, she is the one that will sail for him,” he said.

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
 
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
 
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

About the Author