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Lucy Kanoelehua Lee KSK’19 steering in calm seas just after sunrise. Photo Courtesy of Lucy Lee.

Kūkahekahe: Sail to the Kūpuna Islands, Papahānaumokuākea

Aug. 3, 2021

  • AUTHORS
  • Hoʻokahua Cultural Vibrancy Group

In this Kūkahekahe article, graduate Lucy Kanoelehua Lee KSK’19 reflects on the most recent Polynesian Voyaging Society training sail to sacred Papahānaumokuākea in June 2021. For more accounts of this amazing place, check out the new documentary Voices of Papahānaumokuākea (2021).

Papahānaumokuākea was established as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument in 2006 to protect the region’s extraordinary natural and cultural resources. Indeed, the islet of Mokumanamana (formerly known as Necker island) is thought to have the highest density of sacred sites in the entire archipelago; more than even the eight main Hawaiian islands combined. These places have once again become important sites of learning, and puʻuhonua (places of refuge) for our lāhui.

Although few of us will likely get the chance to visit these amazing places – much less sail to them – fishermen, craftsmen, kahuna, and others would travel frequently to Papahānaumokuākea for training, resources and worship in generations past. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were extremely sacred. For our ancestors, the region beyond Kauaʻi and Niʻihau led to pō (the dark realm of the gods), both a source of life and where spirits returned after death.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society canoes Hōkūleʻa and Hikianalia embarked on a journey to Papahānaumokuākea in late June of this year in preparation for the 2022 Moananuiākea Voyage across the Pacific. Known as “Navigating to the Kūpuna Islands,” one of the goals of the sail to Nīhoa, Mokumanamana, and Kānemilohaʻi (also known as Lalo) was to provide deep-sea training to a new generation of navigators. Lucy Kanoelehua Lee KSK ’19 was one of four Kamehameha alumni who participated in this endeavor; Kai Hoshijo KSK’15, Nalamakuikapo Jonathan Ahsing KSK’17, and Jonah Apo KSK’18 rounded out this amazing group of young voyagers.

Lee began the learning journey that would eventually take her to Papahānaumokuākea in her senior year of high school in Spring 2019 during Papa Kilo Hōkū, a celestial navigation and sailing course. She wasn’t immediately interested in continuing voyaging beyond her time at Kamehameha.

“In the Mālama Honua class I took as a junior, Nainoa Thompson had asked if I was interested in sailing on the ocean,” she said. “At the time, I was connected to the ʻāina and doing lots of ʻāina-based work and learning. I also like fresh water and using the regular bathroom!”

That year, a group of eight students from the papa travelled to Aotearoa: The opportunity to go materialized quickly, and the group left for Aotearoa the morning after Song Contest, on the first day of March Spring Break. They traveled from Auckland to the Far North to meet Sir Hector Hekenukumaingaiwi Busby in Aurere, continuing their training by learning from the master Māori navigator and waka (canoe) builder. It was at Busby’s home that the students got their first glimpse of the true night sky free from the pollution of lights in cities. The light from thousands of stars illuminated the pō.

Lee graduated from Kamehameha shortly after returning from Aurere and sailed to Maui. She began her freshman classes at Chaminade and a new job that fall, and thought she was done with voyaging. However, when Director of Pacific Innovations and her former kumu Chris Blake KSK’91 reached out to find volunteers for a summer dry dock opportunity with the waʻa, Lee volunteered. She ended up learning how to serve as quartermaster; provisioning and organizing all of the necessary items for a sail, including food supplies, galley items, safety harnesses, tools, and the captain’s box.

Experienced PVS crew members and quartermasters Cat Fuller, Keli Takenaga, and Tamiko Fernelius mentored Lee, who went on to do more sails between the central Hawaiian Islands and also went on the first training and 45th anniversary voyage to Honolua, Maui, this past May. Lee was also invited to be a part of the sail to Papahānaumokuākea.

After sailing more than 160 nautical miles of open ocean, the crew sighted Nīhoa early one June morning after following the path of the sun. The abundance of natural resources in the protected waters of the monument was a clear indicator of the success of protections and regulations meant for preservation, and reinforced Lee’s hopes to pursue a career in environmental law.

What’s more, the cultural significance of the islands and the brilliance of our ancestors was also easily visible, even from the deck of the waʻa. “To look at Mokumanamana and to see all the heiau on the island; I can’t imagine having to sail for two weeks and then being able to build such amazing structures. The fishermen of Niʻihau used to go to Nīhoa and Mokumanamana to keep their navigational skills sharp!” Lee laughs. “I think of all the months of planning and everything we have to do to prepare for a voyage now, and the ease with which our kūpuna would sail. The level of confidence in their knowledge and the amount of skill they had in navigation is humbling.”

For Lee, the “Voyage to the Kūpuna Islands” was extremely meaningful. To prepare for the voyage, crew members had participated in a training offered by KS Executive Culture Officer Dr. Randie Kamuela Fong KSK’78 and Cultural Specialist Lāiana Kanoa-Wong on the significance of Papahānaumokuākea and being in pō.

“I was sitting in my room during quarantine, and looking back, the trip to Aurere was an experience that gained a lot more meaning to me now, and where I am in my learning journey. We were perhaps the last group of students; the last group from Hawaiʻi to visit Uncle Hek in March before he passed away in May 2019. And after the training, I was reflecting on the many people in my family who have passed away and people who have been lost in the voyaging community in recent years: Papa Hek, Aunty Gina Harding, master navigator Kālepa Baybayan and Aunty Laura Thompson. The people who started the journey with me but who are no longer physically here. Going to Papahānaumokuākea, going to pō for my first deep sail, that has been really important to me, to have that as my foundation. It was the perfect sail.”


Kai Hoshijo KSK'15, Dillyn Lietzke and Lucy Lee KSK’19 with Mokumanamana in the background. Photo Courtesy of Lucy Lee.


The island of Nīhoa as seen from the waʻa. Photo courtesy of Lucy Lee.


Student navigation crew. From left to right: Nālamakūikapō Ahsing KSKʻ17, Lucy Lee KSK’19, Dillyn Lietzke, Jonah Apo KSK‘18, and Kai Hoshijo KSK‘15. Photo Courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.


Gina Harding, Sir Hector Busy, and Lucy Lee KSK’19 at Aurere, Aotearoa. Photo courtesy of Lucy Lee.


A map of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo Courtesy of Papahanaumokuakea.gov



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