This woman navigated a 3,000-mile Pacific voyage without maps or technology

Polynesian wayfinding has long been a patriarchal tradition. Lehua Kamalu is breaking the mould—and helping to lead a revival of the ancient skill.

By Jordan Salama
Published 24 May 2022, 11:18 BST
Hōkūle'a, a double-hulled canoe, was designed to replicate Polynesian voyaging vessels—and to revive the traditional practice ...
Hōkūle'a, a double-hulled canoe, was designed to replicate Polynesian voyaging vessels—and to revive the traditional practice of navigating by sun, stars, waves, and wind.
Photograph by Courtesy of The Polynesian Voyaging Society

Lehua Kamalu had only a few minutes to talk. She was perched atop a two-hulled canoe called Hōkūle’a in the Pacific Ocean, not far from the Big Island of Hawaii where her crew had just set sail. The wind whipped into the phone as she spoke. An expert sailor and navigator, Kamalu was nearing a crucial moment: At the start of the voyage, she’d need all her concentration to determine the course for the long journey ahead. “We’ll make an estimate of how far we are from the island,” she said. “And we’ll set up on our track to head southeast.” Soon, she’d have to hang up and there would be no calling back: Hōkūle’a and its 10-person crew were bound for Tahiti, some 3,000 miles and 20 days away.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) sails on the high seas unaided by modern navigation technologies. Their spare double-hulled canoes, designed to replicate the traditional vessels that historically plied the Pacific, have in recent years crossed oceans and circumnavigated the globe. The sun and the stars are their compass; the waves and the wind, their maps. “Everything is done mentally,” said Kamalu, the organisation’s voyaging director. “You are tracking the wind, you’re tracking your cruise speed, you’re adjusting the sails.”

Kamalu is Hōkūle'a’s first female captain and navigator—one of the few women to lead what’s historically been a patriarchal tradition, passed from grandfather to grandson. She finds meaning in the story of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire who, as the legend goes, was exiled from Tahiti and made it across the ocean to Hawaii, opening up an ancestral “sea road” between the two islands—the same route that Kamalu was sailing when we spoke.

In 2017 Lehua Kamalu, Hōkūle’a’s first female captain and navigator, sailed with the Polynesian Voyaging Society from the Galapagos Islands to Rapa Nui, known as Easter Island.
Photograph by Courtesy of The Polynesian Voyaging Society

“She’s a goddess,” Kamalu said of Pele, “but she’s also a woman who is the first to truly navigate and open up the pathway from Tahiti to Hawaii. So, even though we don’t hear the stories of the female figures who came after her, that is a very, very powerful story to consider and to think about.”

A National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Kamalu became the first known woman to captain and navigate a long-distance ocean voyage without the aid of modern navigational technology when she sailed 2,800 miles from Hawaii to California in 2018. That she found her way into voyaging in the first place has, at times, felt like chance, she said: “But people keep telling me nothing’s by chance around here.”

Since its inaugural voyage in 1976, Hōkūle'a has crossed the Pacific many times, including this 2017 voyage from Tahiti to Hawaii.
Photograph by Courtesy of The Polynesian Voyaging Society

'One of the great stories of human history’

Scholars now widely agree that seafarers settled the Pacific several thousand years ago through navigation skills grounded in close attention to the natural world and passed down from one generation to the next. But during the centuries of European colonial rule, “accidental drift” narratives prevailed, suggesting that the Indigenous islanders had made it there by chance. Ignoring widespread oral traditions, the theory’s proponents dismissed “communities where this is part of the culture and the genealogy,” Kamalu said. Over time, and with the influx of Western navigation technologies, the ancestral skill of traditional wayfinding gradually vanished from many parts of the Pacific, including Hawaii.

In 1973, a group made up of anthropologist Ben Finney, artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kāne, and sailor Charles “Tommy” Holmes sought to revive it. They founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society with the goal of reclaiming what little wayfinding knowledge was left, and testing the counterhypothesis of deliberate navigation.

In search of living experts in Micronesia, the PVS founders encountered master navigator Mau Piailug on the remote atoll of Satawal. One of the last surviving traditional navigators, Piailug had learned the skill from his grandfather—receiving the sacred initiation ritual of pwo, in keeping with Micronesian tradition. He was willing to share his knowledge with the Hawaiian and broader Polynesian community.

A crew member wields the hoe uli, or steering paddle, on a voyage from Bali to Mauritius during Hōkūle'a’s 2014-2017 circumnavigation of the globe.
Photograph by Courtesy of The Polynesian Voyaging Society
Crew members work together to guide the ship on a voyage from Mauritius to South Africa.
Photograph by Courtesy of The Polynesian Voyaging Society

With a National Geographic film crew aboard, PVS launched its inaugural voyage in 1976 in the newly crafted Hōkūle'a (the same canoe Lehua Kamalu now captains). Sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti with only the traditional knowledge of Piailug and his apprentices to guide them, the crew made it in 34 days—and was welcomed by some 17,000 exultant revellers. A traditional vessel hadn’t made that voyage in at least 200 years, likely much longer.

This 1822 drawing shows traditional rowing boats used by the people of the Ratak islands, a chain within the present-day nation of the Marshall Islands.
Photograph by Illustration by M. Seemuller, DEA Picture Library, Bridgeman Images
1822 drawing of traditional boats from Hawaii, then known to Europeans and Americans as the “Sandwich Islands.” Both drawings by Ludwig Choris (1795-1828).
Photograph by Illustration by M. Seemuller, DEA Picture Library, Bridgeman Images

Hōkūle'a’s successful first journey launched a renaissance of traditional Polynesian voyaging and a movement of historical and cultural reclamation that is still underway. Nearly five decades later, PVS has trained thousands of young navigators and voyagers. Their work, which is based on ancestral knowledge, archival research, and more recent learning and innovation, has since reached members of island communities across the Pacific eager to learn the closest thing possible to the ancient wayfaring techniques of the past.

“The Polynesian migrations are one of the great stories of human history,” said Christina Thompson, author of the book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. “For people to be aware of that charged and powerful history on a global scale is so important.”

The beginnings of Hōkūle'a sprang up amid a larger decolonisation and reclamation movement in the Pacific during the 1970s, and specifically grew out of a movement to revive the study of other aspects of Hawaiian language and history, the author continued. “It’s a story of power, it’s a story of achievement, it’s a story of success and incredible accomplishment. That’s what the voyaging symbolises.”

Respect for the sea

“I can see the point now,” Kamalu said over the wind. “It’s coming up on the horizon.” Our time on the phone was running short. Soon Hōkūle'a would reach the start of the ancestral pathway, the ancient sea route between Hawaii and Tahiti that’s marked by a combination of trade winds and currents, “on-ramps” and “off-ramps.” They make the journey a rather pleasant one, voyagers say, if you can keep a good sense of where you are.

An illustration from British explorer James Cook’s 1773 journals depicts Tahitian islanders using ocean-going vessels of all kinds, from voyaging canoes to short-excursion boats and rafts.
Photograph by Photograph via Bridgeman Images

Each island community has its particular history, Kamalu explained. The reclamation process nearly always involves “a revival of culture, a remembrance of language, a wanting to look back and remember old ways.” But there are also new ways, especially since 2008, when Piailug gave PVS president Nainoa Thompson permission to break the patriarchal boundaries and eventually give pwo to women, naming them “master navigators.”

Hōkūle’a relies solely on the wind in its sails for power.
Photograph by Courtesy of The Polynesian Voyaging Society
The sun peaks over the horizon to the vessel’s starboard side.
Photograph by Courtesy of The Polynesian Voyaging Society

Numerous women have been training, and while none have yet received pwo, Kamalu is leading the charge. “Lehua is going to shift everything in voyaging,” said the PVS president. “She has the whole world, this whole, amazing world, to show her the way.”

PVS has set another goal: to inspire a greater reverence and respect for the sea and the broader natural world, whose rhythms so dictate these journeys. By its 50th anniversary in 2026, the organization hopes to reach 10 million people through in-person events, online classes, and storytelling from a five-year, 41,000-mile circumnavigation of the Pacific Ocean scheduled to begin in 2023.

On May 8, Hōkūle'a safely arrived in Tahiti. Lehua Kamalu had completed her historic voyage—one she accomplished on very limited sleep for nearly three weeks, without a relief navigator of any kind. “You’re the only one who knows where we’ve been, you’ve added it all up in your head, and it’s pretty hard to convey that to someone else,” she said. “You’re constantly keeping track of your progress along that ancestral pathway.”

Knowing where you’ve come from is the first step toward knowing where you’re headed. For Kamalu, the answers are written in the stars.


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