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Pi'ikea Miller | Ask the Experts | Pose Your Question

SpacePortrait by Herb Kawainui Kane
Portrait by Herb Kawainui Kane.

To listen to the following interview with Pi'ikea Miller, you will need to download RealPlayer.

Q: Talk about the first time you saw Hokule'a.

A: (Listen in Real Audio) People all over the Pacific have been inspired by Hokule'a. For me, I first saw her when she returned from her 1987 voyage, and was arriving back in Kaneohe Bay, and pulling up to Kualoa Beach. I was in the water, waiting for her to arrive and she just sailed up so powerfully and so strong, and when the crew got off you could tell that they had been through an incredible experience. They were weather-beaten, and they were tired, but they all looked so, so proud, and so happy to be home.

Q: Eventually you went on Hokule'a. How did you prepare for the voyage?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Learning the navigation, I spent a lot of time outside under the night sky, watching the changes, watching the progressions of stars, the way they arced, the way they set, the way they rose, what stars rose together, what stars set together. Clouds were a big help. When the clouds cover parts of the sky, then you're really forced in your imagination to have to re-create what's underneath them. And that was a good exercise, because then they [the clouds] pass, and you could see, "How good was I? How close was I?" They're [the clouds are] great resources, great books about weather and about the stars that we have, that we use, that I used when I studied.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the responsibilities of the wayfinder?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) We operate the canoe on a system of watches, generally four-hour watches. You have two watches a day. On the sail home, I was on the 6 to 10 watch, so I was on 6 AM to 10 AM, and 6 PM to 10 PM, and basically the duties of your watch -- [well,] there's a meal. You're responsible for cooking and preparing that meal, and cleaning up after that meal. If there's something that needs to be done as far as steering or trimming the sails, those kinds of things, your watch is on and those are your responsibilities. Although in a certain way, you know, the watch system breaks down a little bit. Because if you're up and you're not on watch, you're generally helping and you're conscious of what's going on, and you're helping out. Wat the watch system does is it it allows people to be off watch and have a chance to get some rest. And since there aren't enough bunks to sleep everybody on a crew -- you know, 12 to 14 people -- everybody takes turns. [They either sleep] down inside the hulls underneath the canvas, which can get pretty hot and pretty smelly. [Or] a lot of people choose to sleep on top in the slings, the hammocks.

Q: What do you eat? How does one bathe on the canoe?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Depends on how close you are. What you eat depends on how close you are to land. How much fresh produce you have left. A lot of the canoe's stores are canned goods for obvious reasons. There's a propane stove in a box that we keep right on the deck, and raise the lid, prop it up, and cook on the propane stove. We try to at nighttime keep a pot of water always for coffee and hot cocoa. And then everyone has plastic bowls and forks, and uses a lot of sea water to wash everything out when you're finished. Same thing with bathing. In the back of the hulls, towards the back of the hull, in the canoe, bathing the whole way is with sea water. You wash your hair and bathe with sea water the whole way. We've got special sea soap that helps. But it's essentially leaning over the side, dragging a bucket in the water, lifting up buckets of water and-and using that to bathe, to wash any clothes that you may have. And I know that that's kind of dangerous sometimes. You can kind of get yanked against the boat because the force of the water is so great. If the bucket fills up too fast, yanks you back. We lost a few buckets on the way back because they got too full, too heavy, [and we] couldn't get them back on board. I've even heard stories of the guys bathing at night and scooping up a bucket of water, pouring it on themselves, and having jellyfish in the bucket. So that was tough.

Q: Why are you doing this? Why are you interested in wayfinding?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) When I first began sailing, it was primarily because it was a great project, with some really wonderful people, and it was so wonderful to be out in the ocean and to be sailing. And I remember one night on the bow of the canoe, realizing how hard it was to be out there, to be sailing. You're getting beaten up by the weather. Conditions aren't easy. There's always the possibility that something can go wrong. And it made me think about my ancestors, about the Hawaiians who had sailed from the Marquesas or from Tahiti. And I realized what incredible people they must have been to have been able to do this, in their time. And for me, that's why I do it. That's why I sail. It's because the sailing, the navigating and the voyaging, it's like a little window -- a precious window onto the past -- that in this modern age, where we've lost so much and I think our culture becomes so confused, it's a way to look back and really realize and hold on to who you are.

Q: Can you talk a little more about that, about how sailing connects you with your ancestry?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) I remember on one of our training sails, it was at night when we were sailing to Molokai. I remember being up on the front of the bow of the canoe, and we had had some bad weather, and I can remember just thinking, "It's not easy. It's hard out there in the canoe, out in the open ocean." You know you're getting beaten up by the waves and the wind, and yet we have foul-weather gear and gas stoves and a lot of conveniences, and a lot of things that make voyaging safe. I remember thinking "My God, if this is how hard it is for us, it must have been so much harder for them. It must have been so much harder for our ancestors to have voyaged when they did." And I have great respect for them as a result of that, that I maybe wouldn't have otherwise had if I hadn't sailed.