Training to Voyage

Jenni Szlosek Chow

In November 2018, the MIT Media Lab’s Open Ocean Initiative invited Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society to speak at the 2018 National Ocean Exploration Forum: All Hands on Deck.  Co-hosted with the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, the goal of All Hands was to imagine new, creative ways to broaden participation in ocean exploration. Little did we know that the relationship between the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) and MIT would grow into a fruitful collaboration between scientific innovation and traditional sailing.  

On February 1 , 2020, four members of Open Ocean travelled to Hawai'i to undergo training and intense physical trials for a chance to become “cleared to sail” aboard Hokule’a, the society’s flagship wa’a, a traditional deep-ocean voyaging canoe.  Working closely in hand with Nainoa, Media Lab Director's Fellow Lehua Kamalu, and a seasoned crew of adventurers and instructors from Hawai'i and around Polynesia, the MIT team  set out to meet the challenge before them.

Open Ocean director Katy Croff Bell, Jenni Szlosek Chow, Allan Adams, and Dan Novy trained for several months prior to trials in Hawai'i in order to meet the rigorous physical requirements of sailing aboard the canoe. Meeting at PVS headquarters in Honolulu, they spent a week of classroom training, dockside drills, and open water testing. While each member of the MIT team is an experienced sailor or diver, the unique nature of a voyaging canoe required they set aside their prior knowledge and learn how to sail and navigate without the aid of compass or GPS.

In the classroom, they learned the history of voyaging, the mystery of Po, the mythology of Hawai'i, and new names for known things; constellations, and ship parts. Dockside, they learned to use the body as an instrument — how to measure degrees from horizon to stars with the span of a hand or the flat of a few fingers. Some days, the classroom was outdoors, before dawn, and required a 1.2 mile run uphill to a lookout point before the full rising of the sun. They were greeted by the rays of the sun and the spouting mist of humpback whales far out at sea. Other days required a mile swim in under an hour in open water. No goggles, no fins.

Nor was their work completed as the sun went down. Night brought on new challenges. Whether navigating the shores of Oahu only by star cluster and the light of Venus, or engaging in full-crewed night exercises aboard Hokule'a off the point of Diamondhead, the MIT team learned to work together with their voyaging teachers. Eventually, each was given the great honor of holding the great sweeping oar and driving the great ship by the light of the stars that showed them the way. 

The only disappointment was that the night plunge and extended float in full safety gear to test our panic responses was delayed until a later date. Alas. In the end, each member was “cleared to sail” and assigned homework by Nainoa — exercises in observation, especially of the changing shape of the moon, the motion of the stars, and the shape of clouds. 

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