Crew Profile: Charles Nainoa Thompson

PVS Member Since

HOMETOWN: Honolulu
PRIMARY DUTY: Pwo Navigator and Captain
OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES: President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society
WORLDWIDE VOYAGE LEGS SAILED: Doldrums Sail May 2021: Hōkūleʻa
Charles Nainoa Thompson, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, is a pwo (master) navigator. He is the first Native Hawaiian since the 14th Century to practice wayfinding (art and science of ancient non-instrument navigation) for long distance ocean voyaging. Nainoa’s first solo voyage sailed between Hawaii and Tahiti in 1980. Among his many voyages, he covered more than 16,000 ocean miles navigating the storied canoe, Hokule`a, across Polynesia from Hawaii to New Zealand and back between 1985-87. Nainoa has dedicated his life to exploring the deeper meaning of voyaging. He has trained a new generation of navigators and has led a revival of traditional arts and values of caring for nature and culture associated with wayfinding.

Inspired by his kūpuna, his teachers, he has dedicated his life to exploring the deep meaning of “voyaging.” Among many other important mentors, fisherman Yosio Kawano took him at an early age to tide pools to explore the mysteries of the inshore ocean. Artist Herb Kane introduced him to the stars his ancestors used to navigate great ocean distances. Pwo navigator Mau Piailug taught him to see the natural signs he would use to guide Hokule’a, a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe, throughout the Pacific. And Nainoa’s father taught him the universal values of voyaging – of having a vision of islands rising from the sea, of self-discipline, preparation, courage, risk-taking and the spirit of aloha that would bind a crew on arduous journeys.

On long voyages, under a dome of stars and surrounded by the vast empty ocean, Nainoa came to appreciate the Hawaiian concept of “malama” – of care taking. “Our ancestors learned that if they took care of their canoe and each other,” he has often told his crew, “and if they marshaled their resources of food and water, they would arrive safely at their designation.” Astronaut Lacy Veach, who observed the Hawaiian Islands from space, helped Nainoa understand “malama” from a planetary perspective. “The best place to think, about the fate of our planet is right here in our islands,” Veach told Nainoa. “If we can create a model for well-being here in Hawaii we can make a contribution to the entire world.”

"Our great teacher, Mau Piailug, told us to always voyage in seram - the light," Nainoa says. "To set out from our islands and to bring back 'something of value' for our community. So today we sail around the world to learn from others who are striving to live sustainably and to share with them the wisdom our ancestors gave to us."

Nainoa’s years of experience and learning from his kūpuna have culminated in the realization of his vision of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, led by the Polynesian Voyaging Society and blessed by global leaders including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This 3-year, extraordinary voyage which was completed in June 2017, engaged and united all corners of Island Earth, sailing 47,000 nautical miles to nearly 100 ports and 25 nations. Its purpose was to practice sustainable living while sharing Polynesian culture, learning from the past and from each other and creating hope and global relationships around protecting our most cherished values and places from disappearing.

A leader in transforming education, Nainoa is the Co-Founder and Advisory Board Member of Mālama Honua Public Charter School, established in 2014 and dedicated to indigenous cultural values reflected in value- and place-based education. In the early 2000s, he was the impetus and inspiration for the Navigating Change curriculum used by hundreds of teachers whose classes followed the 2002 Statewide and 2004 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Voyages. Immersion in Navigating Change continues today as Nainoa continues to inspire educators to immerse students in their own archipelago through science and culture to teach the values of mālama (caring for) Hawaii. Recently, Nainoa has inspired and led the genesis and growth of two complementary and unprecedented collaborations: 1) Promise to Children, a consortium of Hawaii’s education institutions dedicated to inspiring future generations to explore, discover and mālama Island Earth; and 2) Promise to Pae`aina, a conglomerate of environmental organizations dedicated to working together to conserve and restore Hawaii’s unique and fragile environment.

Nainoa is a former Regent of the University of Hawaii where he remains deeply connected as Special Advisor on Hawaiian Affairs to the University President. He is an Ocean Elder, a Trustee for Hanahau`oli School and a former Trustee for Bishop Estate, Hawaii’s largest private land owner and private educational institution. His natural leadership skills that have galvanized vast and diverse sectors throughout the community to realize the importance of caring for our planet and all of humanity have earned him numerous awards including the 2015 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Marine Exploration, the 2001 “Unsung Hero of Compassion” award from his Holiness XIV Dalai Lama on behalf of Wisdom in Action, the Native Hawaiian Education Association’s Manomano Ka`ike Educator of the Year, the 2015 Asia Pacific Community Building Award from the East-West Center, the 2013 Visionary Award from the Maui Film Festival, the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation, the 2017 Hubbard Medal from National Geographic Society, and the 2017 Explorers Club Medal. Born and raised in Honolulu, Nainoa is a graduate of Punahou School and the University of Hawaii.

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