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Leading Women: Navigator Kaiulani Murphy Charts Life and Sea Using Ancient Wisdom

When she hears her name paired with the word “extraordinary," ocean navigator Kaiulani Murphy says she certainly doesn't think of herself that way. But anyone who uses traditional wayfinding techniques to travel from Tahiti to Hawaii on a Polynesian voyaging canoe is certainly not commonplace.

Murphy was among the navigational party that traveled 40,000 nautical miles on the round-the-globe voyage, called Malama Honua. The voyage was comprised of two groups that set out on the famed Hokulea and sister canoe Hikianalia in 2013. By the time they completed the journey in 2017, they had visited more than 150 ports in 23 countries and territories.

The journey's name means “To care for our Earth," and its goal was to invigorate awareness in the worldwide community around living sustainably, while sharing Polynesian culture and letting traditional knowledge thrive. Along the way, global relationships were created and valuable information was shared, all centered around the paramount mission of sparking an active interest in caring for our “Island Earth."

Murphy was lead navigator on the historic journey's final leg, successfully leading Hokulea from Tahiti back to Hawaii.

An Early Start

Murphy has been sailing on the iconic Hokulea since she was 19 years old. When she saw master navigator Nainoa Thompson's name attached to a two-semester course at University of Hawaii at Manoa, called Hookele ("to sail"), she immediately signed up. The course taught Hawaiian astronomy the first semester and how to sail in the second. She has now come full circle and is giving back by teaching those very same courses at Honolulu Community College and UH.

Getting to sail on the waa (traditional voyaging canoe) that first time as a young student back in 1998 was thrilling for Murphy. She took to it, well, like a fish to water—and though not everybody was invited to continue with the Hokulea crew, when they discovered she didn't get sea sick, they asked her to come back.

“Being out in the middle of the ocean," she says, “and having a sense of where you are—and feeling like you're on a familiar path because your ancestors traveled it, is so humbling. It's magical."

After that initial involvement with Hokulea in college, Murphy worked for the Polynesian Voyaging Society as an assistant to Thompson. Unlike so many crew members who were having to carve time out of their daily work schedule to fit in their voyaging interests, voyaging was her job, and she had the fortune of helping Thompson prepare for the 1999 Rapa Nui voyage.

Once she had finished assisting Thompson with his preparation, Murphy began teaching Hawaiian Studies full-time at Honolulu Community College, where she still works. The college has been supportive of her lifelong love affair with the Hokulea, giving her excursions their full blessings, as long as she gets her classes covered while she's gone.

From Taro to Sea

Growing up in Waimea on Hawaii Island, Murphy and ohana spent every weekend in Waipio Valley, farming kalo (taro). She moved to Oahu for high school, to attend Kamehameha Schools Kapalama (class of 1996). Until she met her new classmates who had been raised in Honolulu, she thought everybody grew up spending their weekends in the loi (taro patch).

When visiting her family, Murphy still helps with the kalo—something she particularly enjoys after an extended period of time out on the canoe.

“I like to go to Waipio, where there's not a whole lot of people, and slowly adjust to coming back to life on land," she says.

When she is out on the Hokulea, in addition to serving as lead navigator, Murphy has also filled other roles on various legs of the trip, such as being watch captain and co-navigator, and says it's easy to get hooked on sailing with the canoe. She likes being able to focus on her natural surroundings, without the distractions of running around, having to be somewhere at a certain time, or being tied to a phone or computer:

She says being out on the ocean for weeks at a time gives a person a different sense of time and a chance to focus on the things in life that are most important:

"It kind of clears our heads and lets us refocus."

Some of the greatest benefits of voyaging with Hokulea for Murphy, have been the relationships that develop when crew members rely upon each other for survival, and the connections they make at each landing port. The interactions make the canoe's crew part of an extended family that goes far beyond the Hawaiian Islands to other areas of Polynesia and the Pacific:

“The relationships are so deep. There is a home where you can stay on every island you visit."

The voyaging lifestyle also led Murphy to her long-time partner, Kawaioli Hoe, whose family is from Hakipuu, where Hokulea had her maiden voyage in 1976. He too has spent many years sailing and caring for the waa. When the two are not sailing or working, they might be found—this should come as no surprise—swimming and spending time in the ocean.

Advising the Next Voyagers

When young girls, or boys, ask for advice about becoming a voyager, Murphy tells them how important it is to be a good student. What teacher hasn't heard students complain, insisting they'll ever have to use math in real life. Murphy lets students know that math and science are relied upon heavily while voyaging.

“You always need to be open to learning anything people are willing to teach you," she says. “Whatever age you are, you can start learning things that apply to voyaging, if that's your passion."

As for those aspiring to leadership, Murphy considers being humble and observant important qualities. She's happy to share lessons she has learned while carrying on the same work her kupuna (ancestors) engaged in, and to be able to pass the knowledge on to the next generation:

“The (kupuna) were so smart—I try to learn from their wisdom. We can combine a lot of what they learned about how to live here (in the Islands) with the technology we have now."

The Hokulea crew consciously uses both traditional and contemporary knowledge and technologies as they aspire toward the most sustainable future possible.

Meanwhile, Murphy has successfully navigated through a career that is predominantly a man's domain. When reflecting upon being a female voyager in a world where most of the crew has been men, Murphy simply notes that both men and women are needed on board a canoe for there to be balance.

“In the 10 years I've been a part of the voyage, I've never felt any less, or more, because I am female," she says. “If you can perform your kuleana (responsibilities), then you're good."


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