Ka‘iulani Murphy checks a star compass
as she prepares for a journey
Ka‘iulani Murphy, at twenty-six the youngest of the female navigators, tells the story of a powerful occurrence on a return trip from Tahiti. The crew had been waiting two weeks for enough wind to depart. On a fair morning that dawned with favorable conditions, they set sail. Just as they were leaving, gray clouds rolled in, bringing rain, thunder and continuous lightning.
“That night, you could see lightning flashing all around us, the entire horizon was lit,” she remembers. “Everything is based on weather. On land, you can hide from it. But once you make that departure, you’re in it.”
Ka‘iulani recalls seeing smoke on the mountain where lightning had started a fire. And while her hand was resting against the mast, she felt a jolt pass through her arm. The way she describes it, the crew was not fearful but in silent awe. “The küpuna were giving their blessings for a safe voyage home,” she says.
Many might not see lightning and thunder as blessings; that view makes more sense if you know that the fire goddess Pele was among the first voyagers who sailed to Hawai‘i by canoe. (Legend has it that her favorite sibling was her youngest sister Hi‘iaka, who was hatched from an egg that Pele kept warm in her armpit during the long journey to Hawai‘i.) Pele’s brothers were Kanehekili, who appears as thunder; and Keuaakepo, who appears as showers of fire.
Ka‘iu, who hails from the Big Island town of Waimea, started paddling canoe when she was ten. She attended school at Kamehameha on O‘ahu, and later, at the University of Hawai‘i, where she enrolled in a Hawaiian Studies course that Nainoa Thompson was teaching. In 1997, she began helping out with Hokule‘a when the canoe was in dry dock. Her first voyage was a sea trial to Moloka‘i.
Ka‘iulani began learning how to navigate, learning valuable lessons from Nainoa. “You have to be very observant,” she explains. “You have to use everything—how the wind changes, the clouds, the stars. Maybe you’ll see them half the time; maybe you won’t see them at all. Nainoa always told me that he can tell me what he sees, but he can’t show me. I have to figure out how I can read the signs.”
Blessed with the charisma of her Irish father and the beauty of her Hawaiian mother, Ka‘iulani is a natural leader. She looks like a carefree surfer girl with her toned physique and a deep tan fashioned by lots of water time. But she exudes a patience and confidence that indicates she’s serious and smart about what she’s doing. She commands an unquestionable respect from her crewmembers—big, stalwart watermen who obey her directives willingly.
Watching her in action as she guides the canoe, it’s clear that Ka‘iulani has found her calling. Just like Shantell and Catherine, she exhibits an innate comfort and belonging on the canoe, and you suspect there’s no place she’d rather be.