Mauna Kea
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A Navigator's view of Mauna Kea

interview with
Nainoa Thompson
June 1990
Ahu A ‘Umi, Hawai’i Island
Interview recorded for the video documentary
Ahupua'a, Fishponds and Lo’i
produced by Nalani Minton

In 1979 I was preparing for my first trip. I had never sailed to Tahiti, or any other place more than a couple hundred miles from the Big Island, navigating without instruments, so I didn’t know what was required.

When I was training, all I was doing was stuffing knowledge in my head. I was studying in the planetarium, I was studying with Mau, I was studying at the University. And I had what I regard now, eleven years later, as 20 to 50 times more knowledge than what’s really required to navigate on a long trip.

And then Mau told me to go study on my own.

And what I did was I spent 8 days up in Pohakuoa, on the edge of Mauna Kea. And I chose Pohakuloa only because that mountain, Mauna Kea, was really powerful to me because that would be my target. These two mountains, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, they would be the highest targets to look for when you come back to Hawai’i because they’re so dominant and they’re so high. And I wanted to be next to them.

So this place became a very spiritual place for me. Because you can imagine, before my first trip, everything was unknown. I wasn’t sure if I could find the targets I was looking for. So at that point I was very afraid.

And I spent days up here, days and nights, in a very quiet, very spiritual place.

I don’t know how much I can attribute to being able to find the first landfall, Tahiti, but I think it had an effect on getting me strong inside to be able to withstand what you gotta do for a 30-day trip. I needed something to get me spiritually ready. This is to me a very powerful, powerful place in Hawai’i.

I don’t know why I came. I just chose this place. Nobody told me to come here.

When I first came, it was very confusing. When you’re down at sea level, you’re looking through more atmosphere, there’s more lights around and there’s a lot of stars at sea level that you can’t see. When I came up here the first night, or the first hour, was confusion, because the Milky Way was so bright. It was almost like a cloud in the sky, there were so many stars.

And the stars like the Scorpion. I remember I had a hard time finding it because the Milky Way goes through the tail of the Scorpion. And there were so many stars that you could barely pick out the major constellations, it was so brilliant. And that was something that was really very different than you’re going to find at sea level. Even if you’re on the open ocean, you won’t see that kind of brilliance because you’re looking through so much more atmosphere. Over here you’re above a lot of that.

And just the fact that it’s so panoramic. A large portion of the sky is unobstructed by mountains up here. It’s a real special place, the view of the stars. So, in a lot of ways it does appear close to the heavens.

But I needed to connect myself to something physical here when I came back. It’s a physical place, but at a spiritual level. I just felt like if I’m next to Mauna Kea, when I come back, I’ll find it. And so that’s why I went there. And that really sorted a lot of things out, in terms of getting ready to let go of those mooring lines and go for 2,500 miles.

When we sailed back that was a pretty interesting story. There’s a real critical turn in finding Hawai’i. And that is that you sail up to the latitude, you stay to the windward. And you better be sure you’re on the right latitude. And you sail to the west and try to find the islands.

When we were coming back, I had to make the decision to turn to the west. But this was my first trip and I wasn’t absolutely sure. So I couldn’t sleep. It was tearing me apart. Every time I couldn’t find the Big Island, I was kind of trying not to fall apart.

During the daytime I would be imagining big mountains and clouds. I just had all these images of mountains, and every time I would see, in my mind I would think that would be the mountain. And I’d call a change and that wouldn’t be it. And every single time it became a disappointment. Not only a disappointment, but I began to lose confidence.

Then, I don’t know how to explain it, but there was fairly heavy cloud cover at about this time of day when the sun was going down. And I was looking in the west and the sun was getting close to the cloud. When the sun goes behind the clouds, the clouds will turn gray. That’s the image you look for when it goes behind the clouds.

But for some reason I felt something was different about this cloud. And so I went up to the bow of the canoe because we were heading towards that particular cloud.

And when the sun got closer to the cloud, the cloud kind of split apart. And then the sun went behind a very black opaque object and that was Mauna Kea.

Beyond my control. I was just riding at that point. But who’s to say how important that stay was?

That’s all I can say.



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