“Wake up, there’s a tear in the sail,” are the words Vance Kaleohano Farrant woke up to early one morning, five days at sea and thousands of miles away from the nearest landmass.

Farrant and other crew members aboard Hokulea jolted out of their below-deck cots, donned headlamps, and rushed to lower the spar to change the sail before they drifted any nearer to incoming squalls.

Once the spar was lowered, Capt. Lehua Kamalu slashed the sail ties with her knife, rather than waste time untying each tangled knot.

Capt. Lehua Kamalu has worked with the Polynesian Voyaging Society for the last nine years, sailing tens of thousands of miles and training apprentice voyagers. Courtesy: The Polynesian Voyaging Society

Efficient decisions like those were commonplace in her role on a 3,000-mile Pacific voyage to Tahiti.

But Kamalu herself was unique. On the 17-day voyage, which departed from Honolulu’s Sand Island on April 11, she became the first woman to captain and navigate Hokulea on the ancient sea route from Hawaii to Tahiti.

Kamalu is among a growing number of women reviving an ancient voyaging tradition in the spirit and values of their ancestors.

For them and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, an Oahu-based nonprofit established to research and perpetuate traditional Polynesian voyaging methods, that means including women at the helm of what has long been a patriarchal tradition.

“The need for inclusion and the need to bring community together is a vital piece of being able to make change for a better world,” the group’s president and co-founder Nainoa Thompson said.

This development comes to a head as the Polynesian Voyaging Society prepares to embark on the Moananuiakea Voyage around the Pacific aimed at training the next generation of voyagers.

Rising To The Occasion

Thousands of years ago voyagers settled the Pacific Islands without navigational instruments. The Polynesians traversed vast oceans through wayfinding, a practice of navigating by the stars, sun, wind, waves and even wildlife.

PVS was founded in 1973 to perpetuate the practice and the spirit of exploration. Members created a replica of the traditional double-hulled canoe named Hokulea to rediscover their seafaring heritage.

Raised in Hawaii, Kamalu grew up inspired by Hokulea’s message of cultural revival. Having attended Kamehameha Schools and the Hawaiian immersion school Ke Kula Kaiapuni o Puohala in Kaneohe, she felt the urgency of preserving cultural practice.

But it was not until she was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Hawaii Manoa that she stumbled upon a volunteer opportunity with PVS to send Hokulea around the world on their Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage.

Hokulea Navigator and Captain, Lehua Kamalu, poses in front of Hokulea at the Honolulu Community College’s Marine Education and Training Center. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

“I had no intention of being captain, working here, navigating,” she added. “I thought, ‘If I can help do some sanding, lashing – the basics – it’ll be great because I also have to, you know, get my career online.’”

But after attending the first meeting packed with hundreds of eager volunteers, she never looked back.

“I went to every single training that happened after that, even though I said I didn’t have time for it,” she recalls. 

Upon graduation, Kamalu dove headfirst into volunteering around the clock for the duration of the five-year worldwide voyage, applying her technical skills to mapping, communications and logistics.

In the process, she was invited to train as an apprentice navigator. 

The next thing she knew, she was appointed as captain for a 23-day, 2,800 mile leg of the voyage from Honolulu to Half Moon Bay that she had originally planned for another captain to take up, making her the first woman to serve as both captain and lead navigator of the Hikianalia.

Now, after her landmark voyage to Tahiti this year, Kamalu has come away with a newfound appreciation for the women in leadership with whom she grew up.

“I don’t think I fully appreciated just how different perhaps their experience was like,” she said. “And I feel very blessed that I have this community that allows you to do all the same things – there is no proverbial glass ceiling here.”

‘A Beautiful Balance’

Nine years later, Kamalu describes her experiences as simply walking through doors open to all PVS crew, regardless of gender.

“I would just go as far as I could go once given the chance to learn,” she said. “I don’t think I really wanted to make waves in it.”

“Then suddenly I was like, ‘Oh, I guess we are all girls doing things that are traditionally not held by women,’” she added. 

But Kamalu notes the complexity of the cultural context surrounding that reality.

“Different people have very different opinions – as we all are entitled to – about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, or for a girl to be in these kinds of roles,” she said. “And you just have to kind of be OK with that.” 

Saturday June 17, 2017.
PVS has been voyaging since their maiden voyage to Tahiti in 1976. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

In navigating these relationships, Kamalu looks to veteran women voyagers, like Kaiulani Murphy from Waimea on Hawaii island, who was the top student at Honolulu Community College’s Marine Education and Training Center when Kamalu began her journey. 

“In all my time, I’ve never felt like it was ever differentiated, whether you can do something or whether you can sail because you’re wahine (female),” said Murphy, who has been sailing on Hokulea since she was 19. “It’s a beautiful balance.”

She likens the balance to the relationship between two hulls that together keep a double-hulled canoe afloat. 

On each hull is fastened a kii, a carved statue that represents akua, or gods and venerated ancestors. 

Hokulea has a female kii on one hull and a male kii on the other. The male kii represents knowledge, but does not have eyes – the wahine does. He needs her to navigate to reach the destination. 

“In continuing this ike (knowledge), it doesn’t matter if you’re kane (male) or wahine,” she added. “It’s about meeting that balance.”

Charting The Future

Murphy also began volunteering as a student at UH Manoa and became Thompson’s assistant upon graduation. 

Since her first sail in 1998, she has been involved in nearly every deep-sea voyage, from navigating to coordinating educational outreach. But her favorite voyages have been the interisland trips, where she has built relationships with a growing local voyaging community.

“It’s awesome to be able to go to every island and have a home to stay at, to have family everywhere,” she said.

Murphy hopes that Hokulea will inspire the next generation of voyagers to perpetuate the knowledge that had once been lost.

Women at the Helm, Hokulea
Navigator Murphy and Captain Pomai Bertelmann sail Hokulea on a 2017 voyage from Tahiti to Hawaii. Courtesy: The Polynesian Voyaging Society

Over the next six years, PVS’ Moananuiakea Voyage to circumnavigate the Pacific will require all hands on deck, men and women alike.

Pomai Bertelmann, crew member of Hokulea and Makalii from Waimea, Hawaiʻi, believes that Hokulea’s legacy lies in making voyaging accessible to all.

“What matters is that we make the canoe available for everybody, that there are no conditions on who can become a part of this,” she said.

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