Crew Blog | Heidi Guth: St. John and Hōkūleʻa

Heidi GuthWritten by Heidi Guth

As Hōkūleʻa sailed into the Caribbean Sea, headed from the Atlantic Ocean toward the channel between St. Lucia and Martinique, we seemed to be chasing a vibrant double rainbow, always just ahead of us, arcing from port to starboard.  It lasted long enough to be used as a course-setting mark for those of us steering into the sea.  What a beautiful hoʻāilona from the Caribbean!


Warm, tropical rain brings laughter and giddiness to our crew as we jump around in our first fresh water showers in days, rinsing salt water off of our skin and out of our hair and clothes.  Generally, our showers and laundry washing come from buckets of salt water that we pull out of the sea from the canoe and dump over our heads or clothes after lathering up.  The simple joy among the crew reminds me of when it would rain enough on St. John, Virgin Islands, that our home’s cistern (water catchment under our house) would overflow, and we would race for the rarity of being able to take a shower without having to turn off the water between lathering and rinsing.  On Hōkūleʻa, we carry our rationed fresh water in jugs in the hulls.  On St. John, we store our fresh water in the foundations of our homes, relying on the gifts of the rainy season falling on our corrugated roofs.


The closer Hōkūleʻa gets to St. John, the more similarities come to mind.  With the water jugs in our hulls, we also carry boxes of food, labeled by day, with breakfast, snacks and dinner planned and packed ahead of time by volunteers and crew.  My mom used to take the ferry to the island of St. Thomas once a week with her two-wheeled luggage rack to go grocery shopping.  In an all-day event, she packed our week’s food into boxes that she wheeled on the luggage rack to the open-air bus, the ferry and then our car on St. John, packing everything with care, including milk and meats that were sorted with frozen blocks that she brought from home.


Living on a small island – whether it is a floating one like Hōkūleʻa or a stationary one like St. John – takes a lot of care, preparation and effort.  A small population learns to know and care for one another’s better qualities and skills.  We respect each other’s solitude and enjoy each other’s company.  We become colleagues, teachers, students, friends, family, teammates and crewmates in equal measure.  We learn how important a sense of humor can be: laughing at ourselves at least as much as we laugh with others.  We look out for each other in times of danger and in preparation for the possibility of life’s and nature’s storms.


Island and voyaging people are constantly surrounded by inspirational, natural beauty.  Tourists used to ask me as a child if we just got used to our tropical views on St. John.  I remember answering no, that part of why we loved our home was because the beauty always awestruck us.  The same is true of the marine vistas from the waʻa.  We are constantly appreciating the scenery and the regularly renewed realization that the ocean is our avenue to anywhere.  The sea spikes our curiosity and fuels our need for adventure and discovery.  As any islander or coastal dweller knows, the ocean can be our best medicine, spiritual guide, experiential teacher and a source of both inspiration and humbleness, as we seek to care for that which cares for us.


Both St. John during my childhood and Hōkūleʻa now have limited communications (despite incredible advances in satellite technology) and electricity (many nights, I did homework by kerosene lantern on St. John, and on Hōkūleʻa, we do everything at night under the glow of the moon or our red head lamps so that we do not blind each other or disrupt the navigators’ and steersmen’s views of the stars).  Provisioning, resupplying and repairs can be expensive and time-consuming projects, with required items having to be innovatively created or come from overseas on a different timeline from that of many continental dwellers.  Recreation, besides outdoor activity, generally includes song and storytelling.


Growing up on St. John, I was proud to tell people I was born in Hawaiʻi.  While it didn’t hold the same credibility as having been born in the Virgin Islands, at least I had been born on an island, and one with an equally special heritage and living culture.  I first learned about traditional Polynesian navigation and Hōkūleʻa while living on St. John and going to school on St. Thomas, via the daily school kids’ ferry.  Today, far from the Pacific, Hōkūleʻa is being navigated to St. John by pwo (master) navigator Kālepa Baybayan and apprentice navigator Brad Wong.  Our earth’s oceans continue to connect people, places, ideas and inter-generational learning opportunities in a basic and majestic way.


It is astonishing to be sailing home to St. John on board an iconic part of Hawaiʻi – another place I’m honored to call home – getting ready to introduce two sets of my hanai (adoptive) families to each other.  Some of the happiest moments of my life have been on St. John and on board this waʻa kaulua.  To have the oceanic people of both island places physically connect is phenomenal.  St. John is a special flower in the lei of hope, peace and awareness that Hōkūleʻa is weaving around the world.  The majority of St. John’s land and surrounding seas are protected within the National Park that brought my father to the island for work, and its proud heritage of the indigenous Taino and homegrown West Indian Virgin Islanders make it a beacon for island and cultural sustainability.  Mahalo nui loa to all who have enabled our crew to be able to experience this connection and who have helped to make St. John and Hawaiʻi’s canoe – Hōkūleʻa – significant representatives of cultural perpetuation and environmental protection.

Crossing North

After a 20-month sojourn in oceans south of the equator, Hōkūleʻa has returned to the northern hemisphere in the blue waters of the Atlantic. Please, help celebrate our crew by supporting their journey.

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