Hawaiian Nainoa sums up his life in one word, "Lucky!" Even as a young boy he saw his future as a quest for knowledge about his native Hawaiian culture and the way it connected him to the ocean and other indigenous Pacific island peoples. He laments that he learned little about his heritage in school. "By the time I graduated [high school] at 18 years old I knew nothing about where my ancestors came from or worse, how [they got] here."
Thompson attended the University of Hawaii in the early 1970s, a time that coincided with a cultural renaissance in Hawaii. Much had been lost, including the Hawaiian language, which was dominant when the islands had been annexed by the United States in 1898. Native Hawaiians began to make demands to reclaim their heritage.
A chance meeting on campus introduced Thompson to the Polynesian Voyaging Society. The group planned to build a replica of the voyaging canoes that had brought the first Polynesians to Hawaii in the 14th century. Thompson recalls being inspired soon afterward, standing under a star-studded night sky, as the idea of a bold ocean voyage infused him with hope, new strength and a sense of mission. "These are the stars that we will use to sail down and pull Tahiti out of the sea and bring dignity to our ancestors and we will give it to our children."
That single moment changed his life.
"All the pieces were connecting: my heritage, being young, wanting to explore and being a part of something special." His hope, he says was to "do something to make the world a better place."
He and others built the Hokule'a, a 19-meter-long, double-hulled, double-masted replica of the deep-sea voyaging canoes of the Polynesians. On the Hokule'a's maiden voyage in 1976, Thompson served as a crewmember. In 1980 he was the first Hawaiian native in 600 years to captain the vessel, retracing his ancestors' 4,000-kilometer journey from Tahiti, in the Southern Pacific. Like them, he would be guided not by modern instruments, but by the moon, the stars, ocean swells and seabirds.
Thompson trained for two years. He memorized the stars. He learned to read the ocean like a book. But he says he was not prepared for the Doldrums, a region near the equator where winds disappear and vessels can be trapped in clouds for days or weeks on end. "When the sun sets and the sky goes fully black, you can't see the ocean swells. From a navigator's point of view or vantage point, you are blind."
Exhausted and scared, Thompson says he called out to the spirit of his wayfaring ancestors. Fear slowly subsided. He says at that moment he knew where the moon was — without seeing it. "There was this little hole in the clouds and I knew when that hole [came] through the clouds the moon was going to be there and absolutely [when it did] it was right there."
Since that journey, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which Thompson now heads, has built a dozen voyaging canoes and trained navigators and sea captains. The deep-sea canoes have criss-crossed the Pacific, introducing thousands of people to their wayfaring past.
Every voyage, Thompson says, has become a powerful journey for greater understanding, not just among native people, but among all the peoples of the world.