Crew Blog | Todd Yamashita: Moving Up the Okeechobee

Todd's PVS Headshot 9-2014Written by Todd Yamashita

During our crew-call in the pre-dawn hours yesterday morning, we all paused to look up as Nainoa gave instruction for the complicated day ahead.  A large meteor over the eastern horizon burned green and orange across the sky.  For three or four seconds it streaked and flared until disappearing. Nainoa murmured “hōʻailona” and without a spare moment, continued with our crew meeting.

Ahead of us, the Okeechobee Waterway –– a 132 nautical mile inland route that will take us from the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s west coast, to the Atlantic on the east.  The passage will carry us through the heart of Florida including five locks and Lake Okeechobee, which is as large in area as the entire island of Maui.


As dawn broke yesterday, the crew was greeted by fog and mist obscuring much of the waterway. For us, it made our introduction to this new place slow-going, shrouded, and at times, mystical. The waterway is narrow and shallow in parts, as well as littered with a number of low-lying bridges. To complicate matters, Hōkūleʻa is under tow for the entire length of the passage requiring teamwork and tight communication with our escort vessel. To navigate safe passage, our Leg 18 crew spent half the day on Monday lowering both sails and masts allowing Hōkūleʻa to be less susceptible to wind, low bridges and frequent lightning strikes for which this area is known.

“It’s totally different than sailing the open ocean, right down to checking the train schedule to see when they can open bridges for us,” said PVS sail planner Lehua Kamalu who spent months researching every aspect of the passage.


Now as we make our way toward the first lock, Hōkūleʻa surely appears to some as an ornate raft. With her masts down, her deck is littered with a mess of stays and rigging that normally decorate her skyline. But the truth is, there’s nothing normal about this portion of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage.

As Hōkūleʻa is lifted several feet above sea level through the first lock, she is voyaging higher in elevation than ever before. A lock is a waterway system used for raising and lowering watercraft between bodies of water of different levels on rivers and waterways. Today when we enter Lake Okeechobee in central Florida, she will also be navigating through her first lake and doing so at a record elevation 15ft above sea level. When we puka through to the east coast of Florida, it will be the first time that Hōkūleʻa will have sailed directly through a state other than Hawaiʻi.

Why go through the trouble? In the 41 years and 170,000 nautical miles of voyaging, Hōkūleʻa and her intrepid voyagers have always chosen the meaningful path over the easy. That path led us nearby to the Everglades where earlier in the week, we met with Native American representatives from various tribes. As the first people of this continent, we humbly asked their permission and blessings to be here in North America.

Instead of circling back toward the east coast of Florida, the adventurous side of master navigator Nainoa Thompson made the decision to cut through the state. Hōkūleʻa has had many firsts throughout her history and moving up the Okeechobee would bring handful more. On this stretch of water, Kawika Crivello, by request of Nainoa, captained Hōkūleʻa for the first time.


“When Nainoa asked me, the first person I thought of was Uncle Mel and how far we’d come as Molokai crewmember. I thought of our home and how we are making him proud,” said Kawika who made a point of acknowledging the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s first captain from Molokai.

“It’s not about captaining ––more so, it’s about the kids at home, knowing that one day they will captain their own Hōkūleʻa, whatever that Hōkūleʻa is.”

After an evening of thunderstorms and rain, crewmembers awoke in Moore Haven, halfway point of the passage. Kawika’s foray into the Okeechobee as first-time captain is not yet over, but whatever anxiety that may have been, had long faded as quickly as yesterday’s mist.

“I was nervous about these waterways –– especially these locks which are completely unknown to us. But when I saw that meteor it actually quitted my soul.”

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