Penny Martin Shares Hokule’a Memories on Voyage Anniversary
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor
Exactly 47 years ago, Molokai’s Penny Rawlins Martin was sailing aboard Hokule’a on its return leg from Tahiti to Hawaii during its inaugural voyage in 1976. She was 24 years old, one of the youngest on board – and one of only two women selected for that original crew.
The voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back represented proof that early Polynesians could indeed sail across the ocean without the use of modern navigation tools. Instead they used the stars and environmental observations to guide them over the open ocean, nearly 3,000 miles each way.
Martin was already in Tahiti when Hokule’a arrived there from Hawaii on June 4. There were about 15,000 people on the beach to catch sight of the voyaging canoe as it appeared.
“We were waiting on the beach and I’m standing on the sand and then all of a sudden, I find myself standing in the water up to my waist, because there were so many people and they just kept on crowding and crowding us into the ocean,” she recalled. “And then, Hokule’a comes in and it rounds the point and you can’t mistake it for anything else. Those crab claw sails, the two hulls… It’s Hokule’a. And the people just started wailing and crying and lifting up their arms and calling the canoe in. And then you look around you and you go, ‘This is one of the places that I’m from, this is this is who we are. This is our roots, we’re with our people.’ It’s incredible. The other things that we heard that day spoken was, ‘Welcome home. Where have you been? We’ve been waiting over 200 years for you to come home.’ I get teary just talking about it. They were so grateful that we did that, that we came home and brought this home to them.”
For the next month, the crew traveled around Tahiti, where they were warmly welcomed. They stocked up on food and packed for the return trip. The canoe spent some time on the dry dock for minor repairs. Martin said they made so many friends and didn’t want to leave.
But after a month in Tahiti, it was time to sail back to Hawaii.
“On July 4 we left, at 12 o’clock. Went to church in the morning. I remember walking down from the church to the dock and all the people in Pape’ete walking with us and everybody came to say goodbye. They were hugging us and giving us little gifts.”
Martin says that first night of the voyage, she was surprised by how quickly they lost sight of land and how fast it got dark. Much of the trip home, she was seasick. The crew took turns on watch and steering the canoe under the captain’s direction. She remembers the ever-present roar of the wind and sometimes wishing she could turn it off to have a moment of quiet.
She recalled the day they crossed the equator, about halfway through the 22-day voyage home.
“When we hit the equator, I didn’t realize it’s such a big deal, to cross the equator,” she said. “And it’s weird too, because there’s not a sign that says ‘Equator, no crossing.’ Just the captain and the navigator knew. It’s something that you pay attention to and you acknowledge. So we got to the equator and it was also the captain’s birthday. We were all out on deck and I remembered that one of those gifts that the people gave me when we left was a can of Almond Roca. I had it down in my storage. So I went down and I got it and brought it out [for the] special occasion. And everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, chocolate.’ And then we had this very big ceremony for the equator and sang happy birthday to the captain had our Almond Roca and I remember, just licking that little foil and savoring that little morsel of Almond Roca. Best Almond Roca in the whole world.”
She said being in the open ocean, she felt a sense of freedom rather than claustrophobia on the small canoe. She saw the ocean as a highway, with endless possibilities.
Once, a big storm hit, they tightened everything down and she remembers the waves crashing right over the deck and it pushed them off course a bit.
They bathed in salt water but they’d watch for rainstorms so they could have the luxury of a freshwater shower. She laughed as she recalled one day as they watched a squall approach, one of the crew got soaped up and was standing naked on the side of the canoe, waiting for the rain. But they miscalculated the squall, and he was left standing with dry soap.
As they neared Hawaii, the excitement grew.
“I remember we woke up early that morning and everybody’s kind of anxious because they know we’re close,” she said. “I remember we talked about the clouds, they looked different. Like they’re just stationary. They’re hovering over there. You think that there might be mountains under there. And then finally, one of the mountain peaks stood up and we’re like, ‘Wow, can it be?’ Tt’s such a feeling. You’re standing on the canoe in the footprints of your ancestors, looking through their eyes. This is what it was like.”
They passed Hawaii Island, then Maui, and sailed along the north shore of Molokai, getting a view of the valleys and sea cliffs.
“It’s so beautiful. It’s like, how come we never realize it’s so beautiful? You’re bursting with pride that you’re Hawaiian, that you’re from Hawaii and you live in this beautiful place.”
There was a big homecoming celebration planned for them on Oahu but they arrived earlier than planned and the crew was told they had to wait till the next day to sail to Oahu. They were right by Kalaupapa so they decided to anchor overnight in Kalaupapa’s harbor.
“So we pull in and my aunty was working down there and she came out and she was like ‘Come, bebe, come, hui! Come, come.’ It was just so wonderful for me, coming from Molokai, this was our first landing. This is a historical landing. We so wanted to go on land, and all of the people wanted us to come on land too, but it was too late to get a customs agent over to Molokai and we had just come from a foreign country. But the people could come on. And they did. And they brought with them their beverages and food to share and their music that they shared and their tears. And they were just so grateful that we brought the canoe to them. You know, they’re usually forgotten, most of the times, everything just sails past. But we came in and made them part of this historic voyage and that created a friendship which is still is still going on today. The canoe tries to go back as often as it can.”
Forty-seven years later, the canoe is still an important part of her life. Martin has coached paddling and won international races. She works as a culturally-based environmental educator.
“I think one of what I measure as success is that I’ve been able to take my experience and the lessons learned and take it into the classroom and apply it to what we need to do to aloha ‘aina. ‘He wa’a, he moku — your canoe is like an island – he moku he wa’a — and your island is like a canoe.’ So all the lessons that we learned on the canoe about being careful with your water, food and sharing a small space with other people and how all your actions affect one another and affect your wa’a… the way you live on the canoe is the way you need to live on your land. And so we’ve been able to take those lessons and share it in the classroom. And I personally think it’s made a world of difference in our behavior.”
Each anniversary of their voyage brings mixed emotions as more of the original crew are passing away. Martin said it’s important for them to share their experiences.
“We’re starting to lose a lot of crew members and their stories go with them. So now we’re realizing the importance of sharing our stories and telling our stories. Because nobody else has those stories, they’re our stories.”
Now, Hokule’a is British Columbia, Canada on a 43,000 mile voyage to circumnavigate the Pacific over the next two years.
Martin said “never in my wildest dreams” did she think Hokule’a would go on to sail so many voyages and circumnavigate the world.
“It’s amazing to see it on the news and see her sitting in frigid waters,” she said of Hokule’a’s recent visit to Alaska. “And it’s also amazing to see the reaction of the indigenous people come out and greet the canoe and love the canoe like we do. It’s just in their DNA. And when they see something like Hokule’a, it just tugs at them, awakens something in them.”