Victory at sea, “438 Days”

I started this site in 2010 to fulfill a new year’s resolution I made to do at least three creative things that year. I started a window box vegetable garden and got my first kitten, which I counted as my other two most notable creative ventures for the year.   Six years later, I still have a window box garden – kind of, although I’ve discovered it’s more efficient to shop at farmers’ markets. I don’t have the same kitty cat but I do have two others who are now two and three years old. And finally, I still have this website, which, despite not posting very many blogs over the years, I decided is worth keeping. I still like this format that allows for writing longer observations and thoughts.

I recently finished reading 438 Days, by Jonathan Franklin, a story that made worldwide headlines about a Venezuelan fisherman who survived 438 days floating across the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. As well as being drawn to stories that involve the ocean (usually survival at sea), I am also inspired by what the human spirit can endure and the amazing things it can accomplish.

For spending over a year and two months on the open ocean in a small open boat with not much else to do beside go crazy, this is a story full of drama that never gets boring. The outboard motor had broken, there were no oars, no sail. Pretty much everything that may have been helpful to either propel the boat or be used for survival had washed overboard in the violent storm that prevented rescue after what was to be an overnight routine fishing trip. The open boat was fisherman Salvador Alvarenga’s only protection from the roller coaster of drought conditions and blazing heat to violent storms with winds and huge waves that amazingly never capsized or swamped the boat. Predators smelling food constantly lurked nearby, often bumping the boat in the hope of tipping its human cargo overboard. Alvarenga sometimes had to resort to eating fingernails and his hair to stay alive.

Alvarenga was clearly a very special guy. Even though his life up to that point had been nothing remarkable – a “party boy”, as he calls himself, he had the inner strength, the smarts, and above all, the will to survive when he seemed past the point of hope that he would ever be found.

It was fascinating reading about how the currents carried him across the sea, how the eddies turned him in large circles while providing an abundance of food, how not moving at all in the doldrums became so mentally debilitating. The thought of suicide became an attractive option when food would become scarce and loneliness became overwhelmingly unbearable. Alvarenga discovered God while at sea, in part from his fiercely religious companion who didn’t have enough will to survive. It is hard to imagine how Alvarenga could have endured these 438 days, and I had to keep reminding myself that lived to tell about it so he obviously got through it.

His belief in God became a primary motivating force for Alvarenga to survive. In this way, his story is not unlike others in which belief in a higher power saved them from seemingly impossible predicaments where survival seemed to be neither desirable nor even possible. Who would have guessed that the life of a Venezuelan fisherman living in Mexico would become so significant?

Alvarenga says at the end of the book that much as he didn’t like having to relive his time at sea in order to tell his story, he was compelled to tell it. He does not consider himself a hero, rather his motive was to inspire others who are in situations where they have lost hope. Inspiration can come from many sources, and this is certainly one of them.  Mahalo for that.


More on canoe racing

Another regatta paddling season has come and gone, and notwithstanding the typical drama, it was a good year and my crew and our club, Hui Nalu Canoe Club, did well overall.

I was invited to be on a crew to do the 25 mile Dad Center race, which starts at Kailua Beach, goes around Makapu’u cliffs and Kawaihoa Point, and finishes at Kaimana Beach. It is the most exciting and funnest of the long distance races. The other races, including the Moloka’i to O’ahu outrigger canoe race, are mostly just long and for the most part, flat water, or at least, can be. In any event, there are no challenges of going around cliffs, daring to get as close as possible to the ocean crashing on the steep and unforgiving walls to surf the backwash. Having a great steersperson is a must for this race, especially one who knows the nuances of the particular breaks and currents along the way and trusts the crew – as the crew trusts the steersperson – to be able to paddle the fastest (i.e. hairiest) possible course.

I was flattered to be on this strong crew, especially considering the average age was about 4 years younger than me, which, when one starts getting older, matters (unless, of course, you are a superstar athlete). We did well, no mistakes, came in 17th overall out of 48 crews that started the race. I got to paddle the most exciting parts.

While this is still my favorite race, it’s entirely possible that this may have been my last Dad Center. Why? Probably for the same reason I have no future desire to run a marathon – or even a 10K, or do any long endurance race that requires a great deal of training, of endurance, of focus and determination. It’s not that I’m not still physically capable of doing it, I simply don’t have the motivation. Once upon a time, I was absolutely driven to do these long competitions, and not just to do them for the sake of participating, but to excel.

I tend to think age has a lot to do with it, which is probably why I was one of the oldest people on the crew – my peers have lost interest. I suppose it’s a good thing that the mind has figured out that the body may be slowing down, no matter how willing the body may be. I look back on how excited I used to get about this race and this year, in spite of a great crew, didn’t feel it the way I used to. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have a good time (I did) or that I would seriously never do it again (always depends on the crew!). But it is to say that this is one way I know that I am starting to recognize and accept my limitations, or at least the limitations that my mind wants to put on my body. As I have noted before, paddling is a microcosm of life, and certainly there is a take away from this recent race experience. The drama doesn’t always have to be about the crew, it can be internal as well.

Sailing on Hōkūleʻa

Yesterday I finally got my chance for an overnight sail on Hōkūleʻa. Since coming out of dry dock, Hōkūleʻa has been under sail constantly, going around Oʻahu and traveling to the neighbor islands as well to make sure all old and prospective crew members start getting sailing experience. Last week I went for a mid afternoon sail on Hōkū and by the time we came back to shore about 3 hours later, I could barely contain my seasickness. It did not leave me immediately enthusiastic about going out again, but having always wanted to be on Hōkūleʻa in the middle of the sea during the night, I signed up. First thing I did was borrow a prescription ear patch that helps with seasickness. I am happy to report that in spite of a very dry mouth, which is one of the side effects of the patch, it worked beautifully, and that made all the difference between being miserable and thoroughly enjoying the awe of being on open ocean.

Hōkūleʻa is scheduled to set sail next March on her first leg of the World Wide Voyage. At the end of this month, she comes out of the water for drydock again, this time to finish various things that didn’t get done during the last dry dock as well as to prepare the canoe for this immense journey. Hence the rush to train crew members, although final crew selection for the voyage won’t be made for another few months.

Sailing on Hōkūleʻa 2My purpose for wanting to sail on this small double hulled canoe was to gain insights into the lives of my seafaring ancestors. Pollution has certainly destroyed much of the land and even the shoreline over the years, but out in the deep blue sea, I’m pretty sure that not much has changed, at least relative to non-instrument sailing. Currents, winds and stars continue to provide accurate clues for navigation. I wanted to feel what it may have been like for the Polynesians who traveled from the Marquesas to Hawaiʻi in ancient times. Some archaeologists believe settlers arrived as the third century, long before the migration voyages from Tahiti in the 1300s.

Hōkūleʻa is 62 feet long and 20 feet wide. Not a huge platform on which to be standing with a dozen or more other people while currents and wind pushed the double hulled canoe every which way through the night. Nor is she very high off the water. Every once in awhile I got sprayed from a wave breaking over the canoe while I slept inside a hull while the canoe pitched and bobbed. The water wasn’t cold as we are in the tropics, so it was more startling than anything else. Rather than trying to sleep, though, I wanted to be on deck, where the night sky was incredibly bright with stars, especially after the moon set. What a privilege to step into this world. I have no doubt that I was seeing what the earliest ancestors saw as they followed the stars from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi, relying on Hōkūleʻa, or Arcturus, once they crossed into the northern hemisphere, to guide them to Hawaiʻi.

Our 15 hour trip tacking back and forth across the waters outside the south shore of O’ahu was everything I could have hoped for. The message of aloha and protecting the land and seas that Hōkūleʻa will carry with her as she sails around the world is visionary and powerful, and what an honor it is to be part of this huge adventure.


Nuʻalolo Kai

I was fortunate to be invited on a 5 day ʻāina clean up trip at Nuʻalolo Kai this past Memorial Day weekend. Nuʻalolo Kai is the site of an ancient village on the Nā Pali coast of Kauaʻi, accessible only by water.

Nuʻalolo Kai2 It was home to at least 200 residents since the 1200s, if not earlier. The Nā Pali Coast ʻOhana, a group of Kauaʻi residents who saw the need many years ago to protect the ancient sites of the Nā Pali coast that were being degraded, manages the area, sending in crews at least twice a year, who do clean up, maintenance, archaeological mapping and restoration. Although there is fresh water from a spring, the tour boat companies who have permits to land on Nuʻalolo Kai bring in water and ice in every day for the camper-volunteers. There were 12 of us on this particular clean up trip. Most of the people were regulars, so everyone knew each other, and this being Hawaiʻi, chances of my knowing someone were reasonable, and as it turns out, I knew the group leader, Sabra Kauka.Nuʻalolo Kai3

This was 5 star camping to say the least, complete with an excellent cook who brought in organic and locally farmed produce and fed us amazing meals three times a day! We worked in the morning before the sun came over the ridge, then did other things the rest of the day, from hike to swim to pound kapa to play music or just talk story. There are many archaeological sites in the area, from house sites to heiau to a canoe halau. The biggest degradation has been caused by goats, who easily scale the cliffs and ridges that are otherwise inaccessible to humans, although there is evidence of human activity, including burials in the caves on the sides of the steep cliffs. What an incredibly special place to spend 5 days, on land that hasn’t been altered much since the ancient ancestors lived on it, in a location that is far removed from the noise of ‘civilization’. It is easy in a place like this to understand why the Hawaiians were such a spiritual people who thrived, living in harmony with nature and who saw the spirit in all things.

Nuʻalolo Kai4Equally special, which I havenʻt experienced in awhile, was being outside the radius of cell phones and internet, and, for that matter, anything needing electricity. I didnʻt miss my phone, email, wine, and when a Sunday paper was delivered along with our fresh supply of ice and water, I couldn’t even bring myself to look at it. Being removed from the constant bombardment of news, time becomes irrelevant, as does what’s happening in the rest of the world. I enjoyed the company of the people I was with, spending time with each person to discover our commonalities and enrich each other with the stories we had to share about ourselves and our experiences. It was a rare opportunity to step outside the relentless pace that drives our daily lives and to remember that contentment doesn’t always come in the material things we acquire, it comes just as much in our ability to connect with the gifts of nature – the gift of snorkeling, the gift of simple yet delicious food, the gift of friendship. Mahalo e ke akua for your many, many gifts.


Nuʻalolo Kai5Nuʻalolo Kai6Nuʻalolo Kai7


Aloha ʻoe, Senator Inouye

After the 1986 election, Senator Inouye called me and asked me to be his professional staff for Native Hawaiian issues on the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, to which he had just been appointed chair. I had lost my previous job when my boss lost his bid for governor and was already co-producing a television series on Native Hawaiian issues in Hawaiʻi. I asked Senator Inouye if he could wait until the following June for me to start, and he did.

Aloha ʻoe, Senator Inouye 2During that period between 1987 and the time I returned home again in 1992, to work on his Honolulu staff before branching out on my own, the committee passed significant legislation that directly benefitted Native Hawaiians. The Native Hawaiian Education Act, The Native Hawaiian Health Care Act, The Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Act, the Native Languages Act and the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act were among the significant bills that I staffed during this time, each one of them the law of the land today. At the markup of the Native Languages Act legislation in his committee, I was staff for the bill and was about to respond to Senator Slade Gorton’s criticism of perpetuating Native American languages when Senator Inouye, who was chairing the committee took control and responded. He gave the most eloquent and extemporaneous speech I have ever heard. Sitting in awe, I listened to him undress Senator Gorton, first his clothes, which he piled up neatly, then his skin, then he took his bones apart and laid them in a precise little pile. There was nothing left of Senator Gorton, and while he still didn’t vote in favor of the bill, it passed overwhelmingly by the rest of the committee. It was moments like this that I will never forget. He was one of the smartest men I have ever known, even when he lectured me one day, as I sat with my arms and legs crossed, refusing to look at him, about why the military needed Kahoʻolawe for target practice. He changed his position later (not because of me) and was instrumental in returning the island to the Hawaiian community.

The last story he told me when I visited him in Washington in July, 2010, was about his encounter with a “shark god”. Here is the story as I wrote it out after our meeting: When he was in the Hawaiʻi territorial legislature, Kamokila Campbell came to him for help. She was having problems with the IRS because she was giving lots of money away to kupuna. She said she couldn’t pay him to help her. Even though they were on opposite sides of the Statehood issue, he said he wasn’t expecting pay and would help her. He fixed her problems and after, she used to call him once or twice a month. He went to visit her at Lanikuhonua and she explained to him that this place was very sacred because it was the home of a shark god. She took him down to the water and he waded in. A shark swam in the cove and came within about 10 feet of him and stopped. When the old women who were gathered saw the fin they started wailing “auwe”. He stood, the shark stayed awhile, then turned around and swam away. He thought 2 things: it’s too shallow for the shark to come closer and bite me, and I better not move or I’ll cause a frenzy. After the shark left, Kamokila told him that it was a blessing. My take on his story, as I told him after listening to it and its amazing similarity to the opening of my book, “Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me”, which I had just given him, was that it was one great leader greeting another.

Aloha ʻoe, Senator, and mahalo for your inspiration, for your brilliance, and for the gift of being able to work for you.

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