Kamahele, the Support of Both an Escort and a Community
- Posted on 5 Sep 2013
- In Voyaging
Honolulu, Hawaiʻi —
By Karen Holman. It takes an entire village to launch a canoe. These words form an old saying in Hawaii, echoing traditional ways of life, but also relevant to contemporary living. Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in the magnitude and breadth of a journey as enormous as the Worldwide Voyage of Hōkūleʻa. The components of a worldwide voyage are infinite…from the crew themselves to the support of their families, as well as dry dock of the canoe and all the considerations inherent in a voyage that include food preparations, customs, travel plans, safety, weather patterns, cultural protocols and education.
Although not as high profile as the voyaging canoes themselves, an essential partner in any voyage is the escort vessel. The backbone of the canoe, the escort vessel is a critical support system to make voyaging successful. An enduring guardian, she is always there, watching over the canoe from afar. The canoes simply could not sail without their escort.
The Worldwide Voyage of Mālama Honua, or care for the Earth, is a journey to globally unite communities that are preserving their ecosystems and cultures, and committed to nurturing a balanced relationship with out planet. Hōkūleʻa and her sister vessel Hikianalia will sail 145,000 miles and stop in 26 countries. It is a voyage that would not be possible without community support, rooted in kindness and from the heart, support that is often unspoken and invisible to the public eye.
One such “unsung hero” is Keʻehi Marine Center (KMC), a marine and boatyard facility on Sand Island, and one of the few commercial and professional dry docks where sailors can repair and renew their vessels. KMC has been supporting The Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) since 1995. The center offered PVS a space without asking for any monetary gestures in return, and recently gave 75 days of dry dock in kind, an irreplaceable and invaluable example of community support. The people at KMC consider the Worldwide Voyage to be such a valuable service to the community that that they want to support it, a very generous gift from a for- profit enterprise.
This escort is named Kamahele, which translates as “the traveler” or “a strong branch off the trunk of a tree.” A 48 foot sloop made of steel, Kamahele holds true to her name and, in one of several voyages, she towed two canoes (Hōkūleʻa and Maisu) over 300 miles to Japan. In navigating unchartered waters, she is a forgiving boat, but also very tough. She was built by a man named Alex Jakubenko in 1995, with a custom design specifically for escorting voyaging canoes.
Alex determined the needs and built them into his vessels. He seems to be somewhat of an enigma, with a colorful and mysterious background. He learned to build steel boats in Australia or possibly France, and has roots in Russia or the Ukraine. In WW2, during the purge of Russia, his parents were killed and he grew up to be an underground fighter for the resistance in France. Alex is his code name, one he has kept all these years, but his real name is reportedly Gregory.
Captain Bruce Blankenfeld describes him with a smile, noting that after the war, fighting was over for him, for he was a compassionate man. He worked deliveries in France and Germany, which is how he met his wife, a woman born into the very people he fought.
His partner never spoke to him again for marrying a German woman, but he chose love over nationalism and conflict. Bruce explained that “he had a human side to him”, and a marked tenacity as a young man, fighting for a cause at age 18. Through his emotive description, Bruce painted an enduring image in the mind through, summarizing with the statement, “that guy was a tiger.”
There is an old, frequently referenced story of a sudden squall enveloping Hōkūleʻa off the Hamakua coast of Hawaii Island in 1980. The escort vessel at the time was Ishka, named after Alexʻs granddaughter. Mau Pialug was sailing on Hōkūleʻa as she began drifting inshore. The winds were strong and Alex attempted to grab the towline, but missed. He came around again, in dangerous conditions, and succeeded, towing the canoe to safety in Kawaihae. Bruce recalls his spirit, mana, and Aloha, remembering his words, “I will take care of you guys no matter what it takes.”
The stories seem to create a fond remembrance in Bruceʻs eyes. He launches back to the days of building the voyaging canoe Hawaii Loa. Hawai`i Loa was first built in the early 1990’s in the traditional way. After searching widely, no Koa large enough for a canoe could be found in the forests of Hawai`i, where they were once plentiful. Hawai`i Loa speaks to the need for wise resource management, but also to a gift given by sharing and cultural exchange. While the forests of Hawai`i stood depleted, the Tlingit and Haida tribes of Alaska generously donated two massive Sitka Spruce trees, from which the hulls of Hawai`i Loa were carved.
Bruce recalls the humble recognition of the Alaskan people in their words, “we gave you wood, you guys gave us dreams.” In referring to Yoshi and Muroka of Keʻehi Marine Center, Bruce says, “they are like that”, humble and giving, recognizing the gift for the dream. As Hōkūleʻa and Hikianalia begin their voyage around the Earth, these stories live on, amongst all the stories yet to be born, stories of the innate kindness that unites us, stories of Aloha.