Waikiki Beach Walk-and-Talk: Navigating with Ka`iulani Murphy

Kim Steutermann Rogers


The sun was setting behind a bank of clouds off Waikiki when I met Ka`iulani Murphy on the beach fronting Outrigger Reef on the Beach. Conditions weren’t perfect for a green flash. They weren’t even great for picture-taking, but the nightly sunset-watching crowd had emerged just the same. This was back in January. The night before, a thunderstorm had excited the sky with threads of lightning and this evening, strong winds poured on-shore.

We slid out of our slippers to walk barefoot in the sand. Ka`iulani paused to turn off a free-flowing foot shower that someone had left running.

“If you were on Hokulea right now, what would you be doing?” I asked her.

Ka`iulani is a navigator for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, an apprentice under master navigator Nainoa Thompson since 1998. She graduated from University of Hawaii with a master’s degree in Hawaiian studies and now teaches voyaging courses at Honolulu Community College. She’ll, most likely, have to take time off to participate in the upcoming Worldwide Voyage, set to begin a four-year journey around the belt of our planet this May.

“Well, sunset time is one of the most important times of the day,” she said. “It’s important to read the ocean and pay attention to your last directional clue—the sun.”

A few weeks before at a canoe tour with the Punahou student astronomy club, Ka`iulani had explained her method for using the voyaging canoe itself as a compass, in which the canoe is divided into equal quadrants and each quadrant is further divided into eight equal houses. It’s a technique developed by Nainoa. Each sunset and sunrise is noted based on where the sun’s shadow crosses the canoe’s beams.

If you’re not familiar with Hokulea and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, you may not know that one of the many visions of the group is to perpetuate the traditional methods of voyaging—that of using the stars to navigate. So, there is no GPS on board the Hokulea. No compass like the ones you and I may keep in our backpacks. No sextant, either.

“On a nice clear night, you don’t have to worry as much but on a cloudy night like this, you really need to rely on your ability to read what the swells are doing. Throughout the night, you’re trying to keep yourself on course relative to the swells that you observed at sunset. If there’s a big swell coming from far away, the waves should maintain their direction throughout the night. But you want to keep an eye out in case they change.”

On this night, we walked west, away from Diamond Head and toward Ft. DeRussy Beach Park as the last volleyball match of the evening wrapped. This is one of my favorite spots along Waikiki Beach. There’s snorkeling off-shore, and the beach itself is wide and flat, less crowded.

Once the sun sets, Ka`iulani said she watches for planets, because they show themselves first. Then, she watches for stars low on the horizon.

“We rely on the stars for direction,” she said. “But they also help with latitude. Here in Hawaii, Hokulea (Arcturus) and Hikianalia (Spica) rise at the same time. Other pairs rise synchronously as we go south, telling us our latitude.”

This is the way of Polynesian wayfinding, using stars as a road map to navigate Oceania.

As Ka`iulani and I made our way to Duke Kahanamoku Beach near the pier where the Atlantis Submarine disembarks, strains of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” washed over us. Restaurants along the beach had filled. Only a few diehard surfers still walked on water. In the waning light of day, we turned around, and I asked if Ka`iulani would if I could take her picture. She was a bit shy. “Can I leave my hat on?” she asked.

Ka`iulani is a relatively slight woman for one with such weighty responsibilities on board a boat only 61 by 15 feet. She could all but get lost behind that hat of hers. But even with her soft voice, she commands respect, because it is her word that will help direct a crew of a dozen across thousands of miles of open ocean from one speck of land to another.

Walking again, I asked, “Do you have a favorite constellation?” And that brought us to the navigational technique of longitude.

“I’ve always had a strong liking for Scorpio—known in Hawaii as Maui’s fishhook. I also just love the Southern Cross. When the Southern Cross is upright and the distance between the bottom star and the top star is equal to the bottom star’s height above the horizon, that’s the best clue to finding Hawaii coming home from Tahiti.

“It’s a mixed bag of feelings coming home and finally sighting land. Everybody celebrates and we all hug each other, because we made it, and then it’s a sad realization that our voyage is over. Not that we don’t want to go home, but it’s just so simple at sea. You don’t think about the daily grind and traffic and that kind of stuff. It’s good to have a place to go to and like decompress first.”

For Ka`iulani, that decompression place is Waipio Valley, where her mother’s family is from and where she spent childhood weekends working kalo.

Ka`iulani’s first introduction to Hokulea was, perhaps, after one of those weekends working in her family’s taro fields, when her class took a field trip to Kawaihae Harbor to tour Hokulea. And, now, she’s come full circle, sharing the canoe with kids.

Whether it was because I was too engrossed in our conversation or just too intent on watching my feet shuffle through the sand, when I finally looked up toward Diamond Head in the distance, I felt like the moon had jumped out from behind a tree to say, “Boo.” We stopped in our tracks.

“Is it full?” I asked, much taken aback by its appearance.

“I think not until tomorrow,” Ka`iulani said.

A surfer carried her surfboard on her head, walking past us. “Beautiful,” she said.

Ka`iulani found her legs again when a napkin went tumbling down the beach, and she chased it down.

One of the goals of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Worldwide Voyage is to use the canoe as a classroom to teach the world how to live more sustainable on all our “islands,” Island Earth included.

For Ka`iulani that comes down to growing her own food and having less reliance upon the outside world. “And always trying to go back to the wisdom of our ancestors with the technology we have today to move forward in a much healthier way.”

As we threaded back through Outrigger Reef on the Beach, past the line forming outside the Shorebird restaurant and by the pool restaurant—Kani Ka Pila Grille—where Hawaiian musician Weldon Kekauoha was performing, I asked Ka`iulani what she’s seen and heard during her travels to the smaller islands around the Pacific.

“As far as climate change, when we went through Micronesia, we asked people what the reality was and what kind of preparations they were making. Some of them live, very old style Hawaii. Many of these small islands in the Pacific are going to lose their homes and end up as refugees, and they wanted to make sure we shared that.

“When I talk to students, as much as this voyage is about sailing around the world, the question really is what are you doing to malama your home? Because you may not be able to take care of the entire world, but something you’re doing contributes to the whole. We need to think about the things that make Hawaii special, and we should really take care of that.”

Last week, after more than a month in dry dock, Hokulea is back in the water, readying for her departure to Tahiti for the first leg of her Worldwide Voyage. Departure date is a scant two months away now.

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