Books & Culture, Hawai'i

What Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low Can Teach Us About Navigating Life

The internet has much to say about how to navigate life’s challenges, how to find success, and how to make life’s most important decisions. There’s enough practical advice out there. But Nainoa Thompson, the great Hawaiian navigator of the Hokule’a offers a different perspective, one we might be wise to keep in mind in this era of social media fixation, disconnection, political apocalypse, pandemic, and war. Sam Low writes about Thompson’s amazing journey in Hawaiki Rising, a nonfiction book worth reading and rereading. In this book recommendation, I’ll explore how Sam Low’s Hawaiki Rising offers insights about how we can not only be better navigators of the sea, but better navigators of our lives.

Nainoa Thompson is most famous for being the first Hawaiian in generations to sail using only the stars, the swells, winds, birds, and other natural signs as his guide. He sailed the Hokule’a, a traditional Hawaiian double-hulled canoe from Hilo to Tahiti, using the setting stars, the motion of sea currents, and birds as his guide.

On the twenty-fifth day of the journey, the Hokule’a encountered a storm that spun the canoe around. With one hundred percent cloud cover and the currents moving every direction, “all the normal steering clues were lost.” For weeks, Thompson had been frightened, but had a good sense of where he was. But now, for the first time on the journey, Thompson truly felt like he couldn’t navigate.

Sam Low, in Hawaiki Rising explains what Nainoa experienced next: “‘…something strange happened…I gave up fighting…Then, a warmth came over me. I felt the moon on my right shoulder. All of a sudden, I knew where the moon was. I couldn’t see the moon—it was so black—but I knew where it was.”

When there was finally a break in the clouds, the moon was right where he had imagined it to be. Up to this point, Thompson had been scientific, methodical, and precise about his navigation. He had spent hundreds of nights in the planetarium in Honolulu, studying the sky at various latitudes, running through hundreds of possible scenarios in his celestial simulator. He didn’t have the training of his ancestors, who would have learned navigation from infancy. In the old days, he would have gone on many voyages as an apprentice, learning to tell the signs from the master navigators, only taking the sails after years of training. Instead, Thompson, used the tools at his disposal. Many doubted whether a western educated man could do it.

He used math and science. He used star charts. He used the nights he spent on the beach and in his boat watching the stars set and rise. He used his extensive notes. At no point in this process did he give way to the esoteric or the mystical. But here, on the twenty-fifth day of his voyage, he couldn’t deny it. Besides all the science and math and practical knowledge, there was something else guiding him, something he couldn’t explain. He recalls the moment with wonder.

Sam Low, quoting Thompson, writes: “‘I can’t explain it . . . there was a connection between something in my abilities and my senses that went beyond the analytical, beyond seeing with my eyes. It was something very deep inside… I didn’t know how to trust my instincts . . . that night, I learned there are levels of navigation that are realms of the spirit. Hawaiians call it na’au, knowing through your instincts—knowing through your instincts, your feelings, rather than your mind or your intellect.’”

I have struggled in my life with this dichotomy: the split between the body and the spirit, the material world and the felt one, the soul of a thing and the thing itself as seen and felt and sensed. I have struggled between doing the “practical” thing, and doing what I felt was right. So often, the practical conflicted with the felt sense of rightness.

There are levels of navigation in life that don’t involve life plans, or spreadsheets, or even the practical decision. There are levels of navigation that come from a deeper place—from “realms of the spirit.” When we ignore these calls, the consequences are far greater than we realize. The loss of the spirit is the loss of your own life, a loss of self, a loss of meaning in your life. For so many years in my own life, I failed to listen to the inner voice, the truest voice within me that guided me where I needed to go.

Waipio Valley. Watercolor on watercolor paper. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Waipio Valley. Watercolor on watercolor paper. Janice Greenwood.

Every decision we make matters. Not making a decision is also a decision. About a year ago, I was living in New York as a successful writer, and I can’t explain it, but while walking through Crown Heights one afternoon, a feeling came over me that stopped me in my tracks. It came from deep inside and it told me that things would change very soon, and that I would move to Hawaii. Navigation of the heart, like navigation by sea, can sometimes be mystical. 

I didn’t dismiss the feeling, but I went on with my day. Within a month, things indeed changed. I packed my boxes, drove across the country to my parents’ apartment in Portland, and bought myself a ticket to Honolulu.

It was the best decision I ever made.

The story of the Hokule’a is one of human triumph. It is a story about the Hawaiian people finding themselves again after many alienating years of colonial rule and natural desecration, a story that continues today with the protests atop Mauna Kea (local elders believe that building a thirty meter telescope on the summit of that sacred mountain would be the equivalent of lighting a thousand-year old cathedral on fire). It is a story about a man finding his ancestors. But it is also a story for all of us.

Our technologies alienate us from ourselves, from each other, and from the natural world. The same technologies that make our lives comfortable and safe, are also destroying the planet, making it uninhabitable and dangerous. Capitalism’s credo of infinite growth, unlimited consumerism, and greed divide us from the values of community, sharing, connection, kindness, love, compassion, and hope. These are things we need now more than ever. We need to lead more with our instincts and hearts. Maybe we need to throw away the GPS and get lost in our own neighborhoods more often. I did that one morning and found fruit rotting on the ground, the abundance of Honolulu rotting away, while we wait for the Matson boats to ship us cans of tuna.

Here, in Hawaii, in the most food insecure state in the nation, we let fruit rot on the ground.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.