Ryan McDonald

Peninsula resident and writer Jennifer Allen Sailing Through Time

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The vessel Hōlūke’a approaching South Africa during its three-year journey around the world. The craft dispenses with modern technology like GPS. Photos by John Bilderback.

by Ryan McDonald

For her latest writing venture, Jennifer Allen set out with a deep sense of kuleana, a Hawaiian word that roughly translates as “responsibility.”

The  three-year project documented the circumnavigation of Hōlūke’a, a traditional voyaging canoe, relying on only ancient Polynesian techniques. As with all writing projects, she had a responsibility to her readers, to get things right. But she felt it on a deeper level, closer to the word’s traditional connotations of reciprocity: a debt or duty to the people who had opened her eyes to these ancient practices.

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“As often said by those who have been on a voyage with Hōlūke’a, there are larger forces at work here. That someone like me would have the chance to document it was such an honor,” the Peninsula resident said.

The book, published by the outdoor-enthusiast brand Patagonia, features photography by John Bilderback, a former senior staff photographer for Surfer Magazine.

Allen wrote portraits of the crew and Hōlūke’a’s history and ventured to ports all over the world to meet the Hōlūke’a when it docked. Once there, she documented the intersection between the ancient sailing techniques and the rapidly changing worlds the crew landed at.

Allen said it was her intent to capture the “purpose, hopes, and fears” of each place she visited. In each location, she interviewed a member of the local environmental community, and an elder from the area.

The project began when Bilderback reached out to Allen, whom he got to know during college at UCSD. Bilderback, who has lived on the North Shore of Oahu for 30 years, was familiar with Hōlūke’a through Eddie Aikau, the namesake of a big-wave surfing contest and a legendary Hawaiian waterman. Aikau lost his life in 1978 while attempting to swim for help on one of the early Hōlūke’a voyages, when Hawaiians were attempting to resurrect the ancient sailing techniques.

In the years since, Hōlūke’a has become part of a growing movement to embrace elements of native Hawaiian culture that were all-but destroyed by missionaries and colonists. Along with reviving the Hawaiian language, traditional Hawaiian ideas about protecting the environment have gained support amid rising sea levels and threats to the islands’ biodiversity.

When Hōlūke’a docked near Bilderback’s home on the North Shore and he learned more about the project, his life changed. He underwent the 18 months of training needed to become a full-fledged Hōlūke’a crew member.

“I had to get involved and put meaning in my life like these people had found in theirs, trying to save the planet,” he said in an email.

Bilderback asked Allen, who had previously written for Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, to write about the project while he would take photos. Allen was excited, but also a intimidated by the task of putting the ancient practice down on paper. She decided to write a letter to the Polynesian Voyaging Society to seek their approval; it took her a month to get up the courage to send it. The experience was humbling, but proved valuable later on in a way she did not foresee.

“On this voyage, it was all about permission. Do we have permission to come on to your land? This forest: do we have permission to come into this forest?”

With the okay from the voyaging society, they found a publisher in Patagonia, who often sponsors ecologically minded ventures to complement their brand’s responsible-sourcing ethos. Two weeks before the the Hōlūke’a set sail, Patagonia gave the okay.

Along with sparsely populated islands and coral atolls, Hōlūke’a also stopped in metropolises like New York City.

The crew departed Oahu in May 2014, and returned in June 2017. Among the areas they visited were Cuba, South Africa, New York City and New Zealand. Allen said that a key moment in the journey came when the crew was departing the Galapagos Islands and heading for Easter Island. One of the elder, experienced navigators was urgently called home to Hawaii, and it was left to a crew of relatively new voyagers to pilot the craft to Rapa Nui, a remote Chilean territory better known as Easter Island.

Rapa Nui is considered the most isolated inhabited place in the world. Modern sailors would likely struggle to come within 100 miles of it without GPS.

“It kind of seemed like, ‘We’re just going to go straight for a while, then we’re going to go left.’

We talked about studying the wind, the stars, the birds, but it really came down to na’au, instinct. There was a moment where the crew was thinking ‘Mathematically, we should take a left now.’ But it didn’t feel right, and so they waited,” Allen said.

The successful voyage was inspiring for Allen who, along with journalism, is a local yoga teacher. She said that lessons of sailing without a computer-charted course reminded her of  yoga and meditation. Both, she said, require a kind of “going against your intellect.”

“Having to quiet the mental side and just tap into a more centered part of yourself, that thing that is part of yourself but also part of everything around you: it takes courage to listen to that,” Allen said.

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