A traditional Polynesian canoe just returned from a global voyage, guided by a female navigator and captain

On June 17th, navigator Ka’iulani Murphy and captain Pomai Bertelmann guided the historic deep-sea canoe Hokule’a into harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This was after a three-year global voyage using only traditional Polynesian navigation techniques and equipment.

The wahine (women), both experienced voyagers, were chosen to lead the canoe on the final leg of its long journey, sailing from Tahiti to Oahu. They were greeted by thousands of people, over a hundred canoes, and a traditional welcoming ceremony that had not been performed in public in 200 years.

Auli’i Carvalho, the voice of Disney’s Moana, was also there to welcome Hokule’a, singing “How Far I’ll Go” as part of the day-long celebration.

The wa’a (deep-sea canoe), Hokule’a, is a replica of those used by the ancestors of today’s native Hawaiian people. It was first launched in 1975 by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and since then it has completed several historic voyages to keep Polynesian sailing and navigation traditions alive. But the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage, whose final leg was led by Murphy and Bertelmann, was its longest journey yet.

Hokule’a (accompanied by its solar-powered sister canoe, Hikianalia, for much of the voyage) covered 40,300 nautical miles, visiting 150 ports, and 23 countries and territories, according to the official website. “Malama Honua” translates to “To care for our Earth,” and the voyage was meant to promote unity among people, as well as “to join and grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world.”

In 1975, when Penny Martin attended the Polynesian Voyaging Society meeting, she asked if they would take women. “Of course we won’t take women,” they replied, according to a story in Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines. They reconsidered and decided to take two, including Martin.

The headline about that first voyage to Tahiti read that it was completed by “An All Male Crew Plus Two.”

"You know, we've come a long way from ‘plus two,’ Martin said. “I'm so happy to see the women who came after us...I think, ‘Wow, they're so much more than I ever thought I was.’ They are talented, strong, remarkable. And I feel a kinship with them because they are women of the canoe.

Today, thanks to Martin’s question at that meeting, more women sail and navigate Hokule’a, which has a crew of 12-13 for each leg of the Malama Honua.

According to her crewmember bio on the Hokule’a website, Captain Bertelmann was born into a family that includes captains and navigators from the founding of Hokule’a, and she has been sailing since 1995. Her family built the double-hulled voyaging canoe Makali’i, which sails around the world teaching about traditional voyaging and sustainability. Bertelmann is an educator, teaching at a Hawaiian charter school where teaching is founded on cultural values and practices.

"When you have a dream or a vision in your mind, through constant pule [prayer], instruction, modeling, and practice it happens – it comes to life and it becomes part of you...It is my job to be the best that I can be physically, to remember that I am a student of the environment, for the environment, and for my kupuna [ancestors]. I am constantly reminded that my actions will be represented by my students, so how I do what I do in their presence is the most essential component of my relationship with them," she writes in her bio.

Captain Bertelmann and navigator Murphy first sailed together in 2000, on another voyage from Tahiti to Hawaii, when Murphy was still an apprentice navigator. Now, Murphy is the first female navigator to guide Hokul’ea on a voyage this long. According to her crewmember bio, she began working with Hokule’a in 1997 as a student, and she began working for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 2008. Today, she is a professor at the University of Hawai: Honolulu Community College, where Hokule’a crewmembers are trained.

In an earlier interview, Murphy said of traditional navigating, “You have to be very observant…You have to use everything —how the wind changes, the clouds, the stars. Maybe you’ll see them half the time; maybe you won’t see them at all.”

In a YouTube video shot days before Hokule’a reached home in Oahu, Murphy said they hadn’t seen many stars on the final leg, but she and the crew used their combined experience to guide the canoe home. She and Bertelmann are part of the new generation of sailors, which is why they were chosen to lead the final leg. Murphy said they have already taken on the role of teaching the crewmembers coming up behind them.

"After this voyage one of the big hopes is that those of us that have been learning will be able to take the reins, you know, passing the torch," Murphy explained. "It’s a heavy kuleana [responsibility] that a lot of us take seriously. I think the teachers that we have that invested their time in us are having faith that their students will maintain all that Hōkūleʻa has done up until now and continue that into the future."

And when they do, there will be way more than two wahine onboard.