To take the Hokulea for a spin off the coast of Oahu is to see the Hawaiian islands in perhaps the same way as their discoverers did hundreds of years ago.
Those seafarers likely arrived on a boat resembling the double-hulled canoe, bridged by a modest deck, compelled by three sails, steered by a rudder, its components held fast with ropes rather than screws or nails.
Weather willing, the 20-metre vessel is scheduled to leave Hawaii Monday on its longest-ever ocean voyage. Relying on wind and stars to guide it, the Hokulea will chase the horizon for 75,000 kilometres, dropping anchor at 85 ports on six continents.
"We could be sailing around the world on a high-end yacht, but we're not," said Chad Kalepa Baybayan, one of five master navigators who take shifts on the Hokulea. "We're doing it on traditionally built voyaging canoes, reflective of the architecture of voyaging canoes across the Pacific. This is a cultural project for us. It has a lot of spiritual meaning."
The three-year tour — roughly south and west from Hawaii past Australia, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the Americas, and back via the Panama Canal — will make the Hokulea's watershed first voyage in 1976 look like a light jog.
That round trip to Tahiti demonstrated, for the first time in centuries, the efficacy of ancient Polynesian way-finding and boat design. The canoe became an immediate icon amid an ongoing renaissance in Native Hawaiian language and culture.
The boat's first navigator, Pius "Mau" Piailug, was among the last half-dozen people in the world to practice the art of traditional navigation when he agreed to teach the Hokulea's crew.
The Hokulea endured a disastrous 1978 voyage where it capsized in a blinding storm between Hawaiian islands. Eddie Aikau, a revered surfer and lifeguard on the crew, grabbed his surfboard and paddled for help, but was never seen again.
The pilot of a passing plane spotted the wreck, saving the crew.
The crew soldiered on, and over the years, the Hokulea, which today bears a plaque with Aikau's name, has journeyed to such distant points as New Zealand, Alaska, Easter Island, Japan and Hawaii's remote northwest islands.
The trip is funded through local and corporate sponsors, public agencies, foundations and other donations. Several schools and colleges have partnered with the project; Kamehameha Schools, a private school system for Native Hawaiians, has promised $2 million.
Clyde Namuo, CEO of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which is handling the project, said he is hoping to get $30 million in cash and donated services, including crew time, to support the voyage through 2017. About half of that has already been committed, he said.