story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa
navigators Ka‘iulani Murphy,
Catherine Fuller and Shantell Ching
The first time that Penny Martin saw the double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a glide majestically into Moloka'i's Kaunakakai Harbor, she fell in love. “It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen sail into the harbor,” she says adoringly.
That was in 1975, the year before Hokule‘a’s roundtrip odyssey to Tahiti, a journey that affirmed history’s accounts of Polynesian migration—that ancient seafarers traversed the wide ocean to discover Hawai‘i using only nature’s compass: the stars, the sky, the wind and the waves. Penny was living on her homestead on Moloka‘i when the head of her canoe club announced that Ben Finney, one of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, was coming to recruit crewmembers. She attended the meeting and asked one question: “Are you going to take women?” The answer: “Of course, we won’t have women.”
But then the PVS organizers reconsidered and decided that they would allow two women to join Hokule‘a’s landmark sail—on the return trip. Thanks to a fortuitous meeting with two crewmen on a short plane trip from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu, Penny was selected, along with a female paddler from Kaua‘i named Kiani Reiner. Together they became the first modern-day women voyagers in June 1976, sailing from Tahiti to Hawai‘i, retracing the journey their ancestors had made 1,500 years before. The newspaper headline read, “All Male Crew Plus Two.”
“You know, we've come a long way from ‘plus two,’” Penny says now. She’s referring to the new generation of female voyagers, about a dozen of whom have taken leadership roles—navigator, doctor, nurse, cook, documenter, canoe builder—in the past two decades. In the ’80s, the outstanding women included Marion Lyman, Jo-Anne Kahanamoku-Sterling and Elisa Yadao. They were followed in the ’90s by Pomai Bertelmann, Pi‘ikea Miller, Moana Doi, Catherine Fuller, Shantell Ching and Ka‘iulani Murphy.
“I'm so happy to see the women who came after us,” Penny continues. “I think, ‘Wow, they're so much more than I ever thought I was.’ They are talented, strong, remarkable. And I feel a kinship with them because they are women of the canoe.”
The crewmembers affectionately call the canoe “Mom,” the navigator “Dad.” The job of the navigator is to keep the canoe on track—it requires a keen understanding of weather, a pure devotion to the sea and unconditional faith in the sixth sense. Polynesian navigators guide the canoe without manmade instruments, relying instead on knowledge, experience and conviction to chart their course.