Honoring Kālepa Baybayan

Pwo Navigator Kālepa Baybayan sits in the navigator’s seat aboard Hikianalia, docked at Sand Island, 2014.

For those honored to ride one, the voyaging canoe is a powerful teacher.  And for those who have ridden them the longest, they have in turn become teachers.  In 2007, Kālepa Baybayan and four other Hōkūleʻa navigators were initiated into the order of Pwo, the two-thousand-year-old society of deep-sea navigators in Micronesia, by their teacher Mau Piailug on the island of Satawal in Micronesia.

Born and raised in Lahaina, Maui, Kālepa first sailed on Hōkūleʻa in 1975 at the age of 19, and he went on to sail on all major Hōkūleʻa voyages since then.

“When I first saw Hokule’a in 1975,” he recounted, “it just grabbed my heart. I knew that if there was anything in my life that I wanted to do it was sail on her.”

In the forty-plus years since, Kalepa served as captain on Hōkūleʻa as well as on voyaging canoes Hawai‘iloa and Hōkūalaka‘i. He was the Site Director of Honuakai, the Exploration Sciences Division of the ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, which teaches the Hawaiian Language to participants that crew aboard the Hōkūalaka‘i.

Until his passing, Kalepa served as the Navigator in Residence at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i, developing wayfinding activities, curriculum materials, and conducting outreach.

In a 2011 interview, I asked Kalepa how being on the canoe had changed his life. 

“It forced me to get really focused on wanting to climb the ladder and become a navigator, but it also had me take a look at that avenue through education, going back to college and finishing my B.A. and then I went on and got my Masters in Education right after that.”

During his BA studies he took Hawaiian language classes and became fluent in Hawaiian.

Why education? I asked him.

“Being on the canoe, I think it forces you to be a communicator—like educators are communicators. They have big ideas and they want to inspire other people. They want to work with their community, so I just thought that education was probably a skill set I naturally had, and then I wanted to work towards my strengths.”

Kalepa with the author, aboard Hōkūle‘a upon its arrival in Washington, D.C. 2016

In 2016 I had the privilege of learning as crewmember under Kalepa, as Hōkūleʻa came up the Chesapeake Bay.  He was consistently kind, patient, and humble as I tackled the learning curve.  More than that,  Kalepa was one of the first people to show me that the canoe teaches much larger lessons for us all.

“It’s not about my ability to navigate the canoe,” he told me, “but about navigating the community, hosting conversations—as a collective group on board whatever canoe we’re on—towards some kind of common landfall….Navigation…is really just one small component of a wayfinding skill set, which is about making sure that you not just navigate to a land fall, but you take your whole community with you in a holistic way. Everybody arrives there and they’re happy, they’re satisfied in a collective experience with the group.”

I am honored to count this man among my teachers, and wish him well on his journey to that final shore.

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