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Our History

"Build the Canoe"

Nā Kālai Waʻa means canoe builders. The root of our organization started with a dream and the foresight to want to perpetuate and pass on knowledge to the future generations about non-instrument navigation or wayfinding.

Uncle Clay and Uncle Shorty Bertelmann are brothers. They learned from Papa Mau, a kūpuna and master navigator from Micronesia. The longing to build a waʻa (canoe) for their home island Moku ʻO Hawaiʻi led uncle Shorty and uncle Clay on a journey that started in the Keauhou forest of Kaʻū to search for the Koa tree that would birth their first canoe Mauloa. As Papa Mau would say the first step to navigation is "build the canoe." 

Shorty Mau Clay_edited.jpg
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"Sincere Heart & Good Mind"

Clay Bertelmann became interested in non-instrument navigation or wayfinding in 1975 when the Polynesian Voyaging Society built the double hulled canoe Hōkūleʻa to retrace the migratory routes of our ancestors and families. He was involved with Hōkūleʻa for a number of years. In the early 1990ʻs he had a dream to further perpetuate wayfinding by building a canoe for the main purpose of educating those who wanted to learn and came with a "sincere heart and good mind". He understood that in order to ensure the continuance of this waʻa way of life he would need to do more than just set an example; He would need to implement this ʻike (knowledge) into communities through education.


Uncle Clay also wanted to build a waʻa was for his brother Shorty Bertelmann to be able to continue to practice voyaging and wayfinding at home on Moku O Hawaiʻi. Uncle Shorty was one of the first students of Papa Mau, a master of non-instrumental navigation from Micronesia and "a living ancestor" as Uncle Shorty often describes him. Uncle Shorty and Papa Mau were part of the original crew that sailed on the Hōkūleʻa maiden voyage from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 1976. In the 1970ʻs there was an urge to return to cultural identity and traditional kānaka maoli culture in Hawaiʻi. This voyage played a significant role in an awakening across Moananuiākea (the vast Pacific ocean). 

When the brothers asked the ʻOhana Makaliʻi Kupuna council, (Kupuna, Hale Makua, Uncle Robert Keakealani, Uncle Sonny & Aunty Marie Solomon, Uncle Clarence & Aunty Minie Medeiros, and Uncle Parley Kanakaole) and Papa Mau for their blessing to build another voyaging canoe. They were instructed to first build one in the traditional manner including ceremonial protocols. Mauloa was born in 1993, a single-hulled fishing canoe, made entirely out of natural materials from Moku O Hawaiʻi.

Uncle Shorty & Mau Pwo Ceremony Original
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Double Rainbow Kawaihae

Makaliʻi & Alingano Maisu

Upon the birth and successful completion of Mauloa uncle Clay and uncle Shorty were given the blessing to build their voyaging canoe Makaliʻi.


Makaliʻi was built, in 9 months, in a Quonset hut in Waimea with the aloha and dedication of the whole of Hawaiʻi moku, especially the Kohala district. Makaliʻi was born on February 4, 1995 and soon after left Kawaihae for her maiden voyage to the South Pacific where she visted with the canoes in the voyaging ʻohana from Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Rarotonga and Aitutaki (Cook Islands).


​Nā Kālai Waʻa continues to stay true to this dream to perpetuate and pass down this legendary knowledge to future generations through programs and partnerships with several organizations and schools. The waʻa (canoe) is the classroom.  In 2007, Nā Kālai Waʻa continued this tradition with the birth of a second voyaging canoe, Alingano Maisu. She sailed with the crew to Papa Mau in Micronesia as a hoʻokupu (gift) to him and his people for returning this ʻike and knowledge back to Hawaiʻi and reminding us to stick together.



The Hawaiian oral tradition of storytelling is abundant with stories of wayfinding and migration. These moʻolelo are legendary. The only way to reach these islands was by sea on canoes or boats until the invention of the airplane in the 1900ʻs. However, Westerners debated the validity of these stories telling of great navigators across Oceania wayfinding to these islands. The skepticism of a man named Thor Heyerdahl led him to set out to prove that these navigators drifted to their islands from currents off of South America. He built a raft named KonTiki and drifted on these currents. 

Although Heyerdahl’s "experiment" proved that it was possible to reach the isolated islands of the Pacific through his "drifting theory", his study had many flaws. The greatest being the amount of planning and provisioning required to populate entire islands to a sustainable point of cultural development. Most importantly his "experiment" set a group of several strong Hawaiians on a mission to restore pride to the people of Oceania.


In the 1970s this group proved that Oceania peoples could sail into the wind and navigate across the vast Pacific ocean on lashed canoes.


Hōkūleʻa was born, our mother, and the first voyaging canoe in Hawaiʻi, since Kamehameha. She set out on her maiden voyage sailing from Honolua, Maui to Tahiti in 1976 with her crew and Pwo (Master Navigator) Pius Mau Piailug, loving known as Papa Mau. Hōkūleʻa is living proof that Oceania peoples had the technology and resiliency to survive open ocean voyages and navigate to set "destine"ations with the stars to guide their journey. 


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