When Chad Kālepa Baybayan was a teenager growing up on Maui, scientists believed the first Hawaiians had reached the islands by accident—hapless fishermen or wayward voyagers blown off course in a storm.
The notion that ancient Polynesians could have populated an ocean so vast as the Pacific puposefully, sailing against the prevailing winds and routinely crossing thousands of miles without benefit of compass, sextant or chart, was simply beyond the imagination of scientists raised in Europe and the mainland.
Hawaiians knew better, and in 1975 a few of them built a double-hulled voyaging canoe to prove it. They named the canoe Hōkūleʻa (Star of Gladness) and prepared to sail it 2,300 nautical miles to the Marquesas and Tahiti, from whence their ancestors had come on similar canoes nearly 1,000 years ago.
Baybayan was 18 years old when Hōkūleʻa stopped on Maui during an inter-island shakedown cruise. “It just grabbed my heart,” he told fellow voyager Sam Low. “I knew that if there was anything in my life that I wanted to do, it was sail on her.”
He was deemed too young for the historic crossing to Tahiti guided by the legendary Micronesian wayfinder Mau Piailug in 1976. He was an alternate for the ill-fated 1978 voyage, in which the canoe capsized and the iconic Hawaiian waterman Eddie Aikau was lost.
Baybayan helped rebuild the Hokele’a after that disastrous attempt, earning a place on the crew that returned to Tahiti in 1980. Papa Mau sailed on that voyage too, but a young Hawaiian named Nainoa Thompson was the wayfinder. For the first time in hundreds of years (no one knows precisely how long) native Hawaiians had guided a canoe across the Pacific, using once-lost ancestral knowledge that they had recovered and re-imagined.
Baybayan learned from Mau and Thompson on that voyage and many others. He became a master wayfinder in his own right, and, over the next four decades, travelled farther on Polynesian voyaging canoes than anyone in living memory. Baybayan took part in every major Hōkūleʻa voyage since 1980, and served as captain on the voyaging canoes Hawai‘iloa and Hōkūalaka‘i. He was Thompson’s assistant navigator and apprentice on Hōkūleʻa’s 12,000-mile Voyage of Rediscovery to New Zealand and throughout central Polynesia from 1985 to 1987, and in 1999 he guided Hōkūleʻa to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the farthest corner of the Polynesian triangle.
The wayfinding art he helped to rediscover unlocks invisible pathways written not only in the stars, but also the movement of the sun, wind and swell, the behavior of birds and the color of distant clouds. And that’s just the navigation, Baybayan wrote days before Rapa Nui revealed itself as a thin shadow beneath the overcast. “Wayfinding is more than guiding the canoe. It is about nurturing a crew of friends by building positive relationships on the deck of this canoe and among the communities we visit. It is also about continuing the tradition of honoring our ancestors, and the culture and heritage they represent.”
For all of his navigational exploits, Baybayan’s greatest contributions came as a teacher. The New York Times remembered him as “a face of a cultural movement to preserve the old ways, and a tireless educator who taught the science of wayfinding in classrooms and auditoriums across the country.” In his 30s, Baybayan earned a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies from the University of Hawaii Hilo, juggling family life and work as a hotel porter and airline gate agent. He later earned a master’s degree in education, which he used to hone his presentations on the art and science of traditional wayfinding. He often visited schools to teach children the principles of the Hawaiian star compass, rolling out a large mat in the shape of the Polynesian star compass.
His 2013 Ted Talk reveals a gift for reducing the intricacies of celestial navigation to simple terms. The star compass is at once both highly technical and highly metaphorical, and as an apprentice navigator Baybayan struggled to reconcile those two spheres of understanding until Thompson supplied the right allegory. Imagine a bird in flight, Thompson had said, with a circle of ocean below and a field of stars reeling overhead. Whichever way the bird flies, there’s a star ahead and another behind, one on the left wing and another on the right. “See, the bird is never lost,” Baybayan said with a sly smile. “And Nainoa said to me, ‘The bird is the canoe.’”
From 2014 to 2017 Baybayan helped guide Hōkūleʻa on a 42,000-mile journey around the world, serving as captain and wayfinder on 18 of the circumnavigation’s 31 legs. At landfalls it often fell to Baybayan to greet the local community with a pule, or prayer, in Hawaiian. On that voyage Baybayan safely guided Hōkūleʻa and her crew on the 2,400-mile leg from Mauritius to Cape Town, deemed the most dangerous section of the worldwide voyage. In Cape Town, as the crew performed hula for archbishop Desmond Tutu and other dignitaries, a memorial service was underway for 12 commercial fishermen lost in a storm the Hōkūleʻa had avoided.
In 2007, Baybayan and other Hawaiian wayfinders voyaged 4,000 miles to the Micronesian atoll of Satawal, where Mau initiated them as Pwo, or master navigators. During the visit, Mau inducted 16 people into the elite brotherhood, including Thompson, Baybayan and three other Hawaiian navigators. Mau presented Baybayan with a bracelet of spiny coral—a token of his new status, and a reminder of the responsibility that came with it. Mau said, “To be pwo is to be the light. To be light is to be love. You heal. You solve conflict, you take care of your island.”
Thompson recalled those words in April, 2021 after Baybayan died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 64. “Mau said you only become master when you die, and you passed it on to someone else,” Thompson said. “If that’s the criteria for master and traditional navigation, Kālepa has got to be ranked as the world’s greatest navigator.”
Top Photo: Polynesian Voyaging Society