Oral traditions in Hawaiʻi are rich in themes of voyaging, from migration myths to hero myths. Indeed Hawaiʻi’s history is steeped in maritime activities since this was the only way to reach these remote islands until the invention of the airplane in the 1900s. Despite all of these rich traditions, Westerners questioned and debated the validity of Pacific Island maritime techniques. Their skepticism was so great that one man named Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that the Polynesians drifted to their islands from currents off of South America. To make his point he built a raft by the name of Kon Tiki and drifted on these very currents.
Although Heyerdahl’s experiment proved that it was possible to reach the isolated islands of the Pacific simply through his drifting theory, his study had many flaws, the greatest one being the sheer amount of planning and provisioning that is required to populate whole islands to a sustainable point of independent cultural development; not to mention the rich history of oral traditions that preserved our maritime endeavors and techniques.
And so in 1970s several proud citizens of Hawaiʻi set out accomplish their own scientific experiment with the intent to prove that Pacific Islanders were more than capable of sailing into the wind and navigating across the large Pacific ocean on lashed canoes. Thus Hōkūleʻa was born, our mother and the first voyaging canoe seen in Hawaiʻi since the time of the Kamehameha’s. With the help of Pwo (Master Navigator) Pius Mau Piailug, endearingly referred to as Papa Mau, Hōkūleʻa set out on her maiden voyage to Tahiti in 1976, proving that Pacific Islanders had the technology and the tenacity to survive open ocean voyages with intent on specific destinations.
During this journey of rediscovery two young brothers from Waimea, Hawaiʻi Island, found themselves deeply lashed to this lifestyle of Pacific Island voyaging. Milton “Shorty” Bertelmann became one of the first students of Papa Mau to bring life back to non-instrument navigation in Hawaiʻi. His brother Clay quickly rose in the ranks to Captain of Hōkūleʻa. Together these brothers worked with many other captains and crew to remind us here in Hawaiʻi as well as the larger Pacific of our rich voyaging traditions.
In the early 1990s, Clayton Bertelmann had a dream, to further perpetuate this lifestyle, he needed to provide a vessel whose main purpose was to be an educational tool for Hawaiʻi and the Pacific. He wisely realized that it is not enough to be an example of this special lifestyle, but in order to insure its continuance, the lifestyle needed to be introduced and infused into every community through the platform of education. His second reason for constructing Makaliʻi was to provide a canoe to allow his brother Shorty to continue to practice his navigation and sailing lifestyle here on Hawaiʻi Island.
When the brothers approached the kupuna (elders) and Papa Mau about building another voyaging canoe, they were instructed to first build one in the traditional manner. From this charge, Mauloa was born in 1991, a single hulled fishing canoe made entirely out of natural materials found here in Hawaiʻi that were customarily utilized for canoe construction. Upon her successful completion the brothers were given the permission to build their own voyaging canoe Makaliʻi.
After 9 months in a Quonset hut in Waimea and the dedication and love of a whole island community, especially the Kohala district, Makaliʻi was born on February 4, 1995. She quickly left Kawaihae for her maiden voyage to the South Pacific where she met up with the other canoes in the voyaging family from Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Rarotonga and Aitutaki (Cook Islands).
Since then Nā Kālai Waʻa has developed several educational programs from the ʻImiloa High School DOE program in the late 1990s to their partnerships with Kamehameha Schools today. Because we are Nā Kālai Waʻa, the canoe builders, the organization has also continued this tradition with the construction of a second voyaging canoe, Aligano Maisu, completed in 2007 and delivered to Micronesia and to Papa Mau as a gift to him and his people in thanks of the rich legacy that he has brought back to Hawaiʻi.