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Top female Hawaiian navigator Kala Baybayan Tanaka uses ancient Polynesian wayfinding practices to journey across the open ocean — and through life.
KALA BAYBAYAN TANAKA stands on a dock in the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii with a conch shell pressed to her lips. After she sounds the horn, she breaks into a melodic song called Ia Wa’a Nui, a traditional Hawaiian call to the catamaran she is about to sail. Tanaka, one of Hawaii’s leading female “wayfinders,” guides her vessels using the same ancient Polynesian navigation methods that were used when the Polynesian people first came to the Hawaiian islands more than 1,000 years ago. Using only the wind, currents, stars, and other natural elements to guide her, Tanaka has found her way across the open ocean in a canoe, reaching distances as far as 2,500 miles during a 15-day voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti.
Tonight, she is sailing aboard a private catamaran operated by Trilogy, a partner of the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Waliea for “A Wayfinder’s Journey,” an immersive experience where Tanaka shows guests the tenets of celestial navigation while they are served a multicourse “canoe plant” menu, created by the hotel’s chef, Samual Taganeca, who drew inspiration from the foods voyagers brought on their journeys.
As we push off from the dock, Tanaka points to the mountain range to the right, explaining that her great-great-great grandfather was a taro farmer on that very piece of land, but on her Hawaiian side, her heritage goes back much further. “My ancestors have been here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” she says. “Our cosmology story tells us that we are descended from these islands, that our gods and goddesses — what we refer to as akua — were here from the beginning of time.”
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Tanaka has a different relationship from most modern people with her surroundings. She puts her hand up to the sky with her thumb out to measure degrees. She says that on their journeys, they follow birds because “birds don’t get lost.” There is a particular type of bird that lands on atolls, so when the wayfinders see one, they know an atoll is coming up. She can read three types of swells. Her late father, Chad Kālepa Baybayan, a master navigator, could read eight. She says swells on the open ocean are easier to read; closer to islands, the swells react to the contours of the land, which can confuse things.
As the sun begins to set and the stars come out, Tanaka reveals that she knows the Hawaiian names of 200 stars. Hokulea is Hawaii’s zenith star — a very important one for navigation. The name for planets is translated to mean “wandering star,” because, though they appear like stars, they move. Her father used to say, “When you leave sight of land, you discover the stars,” she says and adds, “Sometimes we need to just step away a little bit, so we can see all the beautiful things.”
She says that when she is in a canoe on the open ocean, looking at the stars, she feels most connected to her ancestors. “I was searching for that connection, but I didn’t know I was. We’re all looking for something to ground us.”
She adds, “As navigators, we take that knowledge and use it to guide us: We look above us at the stars and we know where we are, and at the ocean below and we know where we need to go.” Hearing her talk, it feels as if she is seeing the world in four dimensions, while the rest of us are trapped in the dull reality of two dimensions: We stumble through the world consulting our smartphones to find out where we are and where we need to go.
She was quite literally born into this vocation, but Tanaka reports that wayfinding didn’t come naturally to her. Though she grew up surfing and spending time on boats, she says she didn’t “grow up on the sea” like some Hawaiians. “I had no idea what I was doing.” Her father voyaged through her whole childhood, but she didn’t think to ask to join him until college, when she started taking Hawaiian studies courses. In high school, there had been no such courses, but in college, buoyed by new information, she wanted to learn everything she could about her culture.
Instead of going directly to her father, she asked her grandmother to ask him if she could join him, saying of her father, “He could be a little hard to approach.” But he agreed, and now Tanaka says, “That first sail changed my life.” She asked her father what she should do next, and he said, “Go find your canoe.”
Back on the Wayfinder's Journey, Tanaka explains that when planning for a voyage, you choose the most sustaining foods possible to bring with you: hearty taro, banana, and sweet potato. You find fish along the way. “Coconut is always the first thing we have when we get back to land,” she says. These items appear on our plates in the form of coconut gazpacho, caviar with taro crisps, and seared bigeye tuna with molokai sweet potato.
Tanaka explains that these voyages can be spiritual experiences. “Some of our crew have seen things in the sky, like the face of a relative. Or they see things in the clouds or the winds. Maybe a bird lands on your finger. And all of these things are happening on a deceased person’s birthday. When my dad died, we brought his ashes out on a boat, and we saw a pod of dolphins and a tiger shark. All of this is telling you something. The stars are telling you something. The wind is telling you something.”
She says, “Indigenous knowledge holds the key not just to surviving but also to thriving. Indigenous peoples always talk about the importance of reciprocity that humans have with their land and their environment.”
Though we don’t know it then, in a few weeks, the town of Lahaina and the dock we have just departed from will be destroyed as terrible winds blow fire through Maui, killing an estimated 100 people and destroying thousands of homes. Tanaka will join caravans of community members bringing “canoe food” to neighborhoods around Lahaina. The Wayfinder’s Journey will continue from a new location in Maalaea Harbor, and the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea will host numerous fundraisers for aid. “Lahaina is still healing,” Tanaka will tell me after the fires. “But in other parts of Maui, they need tourism, they rely on it.”
For now, we are sitting on the gently rocking boat, unaware of what the future holds, the wind blowing lightly as we watch Tanaka identify various constellations. She points outward generally at our surroundings and says, “What are the signs trying to tell you?”
Laura Smith is the deputy editor of Departures. Previously, she was the executive editor of California magazine and has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and many more. Her nonfiction book, The Art of Vanishing, was published by Viking in 2018.
Dexter Hake is a freelance photographer living in Oakland, California. His work has appeared in various publications such as The New York Times, California magazine, Ballena Blanca, and more. He also has numerous commercial clients in the Bay Area, mostly focused within the food and beverage industry. His favorite film is Kodak Portra 160 VC.
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