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Keala Kai And The Meaning Of Hokule‘a

Touched by the voyaging canoe from a young age, Keala Kai now is a regular crew member

Keala Kai is always honored to be invited aboard the Hokule‘a. He recalls being in complete awe of the Hawaiian treasure the first time he ever set eyes on the double-hulled voyaging canoe in 1980. The vessel was making an appearance in the movie Behold Hawaii, which happened to be filming at Kai’s grandfather’s (Bill Chu) property in Haena. The Hokule‘a had recently returned from its second voyage to Tahiti and many of the crew members were present.

“All these people, they’re like the gods,” Kai says fondly, remembering how he carefully swam around the canoe in admiration, waving to one of the original crew members, John Kruse.

He never would have guessed more than two decades later he’d be asked to join the crew. While serving as an employee for the county, Kai happened to cross paths with Kruse, who invited him to meet at Nawiliwili Boat Harbor after work one afternoon. Much to Kai’s delight, when he arrived, the Hokule‘a was floating in the water like an enigma right before his eyes.

“It shocked me because I hadn’t seen Hokule‘a since the time they made the movie,” he says.

He felt even more privileged when he was invited to hop on board.

“When I jumped on the canoe, I didn’t know where to sit. I never thought I’d ever even be on the Hokule‘a,” he says. “I was just nervous being on it because it’s so sacred and has so much history. It’s just the mana of the canoe.”

Kai couldn’t believe he was amidst all the voyagers he had only read about in school. He was even more astounded when the crew encouraged him to sail the next day and jokes that he didn’t have to think twice about calling in sick to work.

“The Hokule‘a shows you there’s more to life out there,” says Kai.

The Kapaa native left his lifeguard post at the county soon after that first trip to Oahu on the Hokule‘a and began placing his attention on sailing, including focusing on Kauai’s double hulled voyaging canoe, Namahoe.

Before long, he was asked to be a part of the Hokule‘a voyaging crew to Japan in 2007. There were several legs to the Micronesia and Japan journey, “One Ocean, One People,” and Kai was part of the trip that sailed to Hiroshima, Iwaijima and Fukuoka.

The first night upon arrival in Japan, Kai remembers looking at the Hokule‘a resting on the ocean and seeing the star the canoe was named after (the zenith star of Hawaii or “Star of Gladness”) sparkling directly above it.

“It was one of those amazing things,” he says, adding that the next day, Elia Kawika David Ku’ualoha Kapahulehua, the first captain of the Hokule‘a had passed away. Some of the most memorable parts of the trip for Kai occurred at Hiroshima where, in a dedication to peace, the crew got to extinguish a flame lit from a fire that has burned since the 1945 bombing.

Some memories aren’t always so pleasant, however, especially when bad weather creates tough sailing situations.

“But you just take it because it’s an honor to be there,” he says.

And mistakes also are part of the experience. The first time Kai tried to steer the 16,000-pound canoe, it spun around twice.

“When you mess up like that, everybody knows about it,” says the 1976 Kauai High School graduate. “But nobody says a word, they all want to help you.”

Errors aside, nothing beats taking the Hokule‘a reins.

“You’re holding Hawaii’s most prized possession in your hands, and when you grab that steer you can feel her strength and it’s like she’s alive.”

Though he admits it is no easy feat to direct the canoe, “I think she knows where she’s going anyway,” he says.

Kai, who also took the Hokule‘a on the Palmyra Atoll voyage in 2009, now mixes his love of canoes with his creativity to develop artwork. Kai sketches outrigger canoes which he sells on canvases as well as clothing.

“He has so many different characteristics that make him the remarkable man he is today,” says his long-time girlfriend Diane Hughes.

Kai, father of Kanoa and Hali’a, also is a song writer and guitar player and enjoys spending time in his garden, raising koi fish and hanging out at the beach with his dog Pa’a.

Visit theoriginalkealakai.com to find out more about Kai.