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Author: Lindsey Gomez, PWF Digital Marketing Specialist

He waʻa he moku, he moku he waʻa
A canoe is an island, an island is a canoe

September is Hawaiian History Month — a time to celebrate native Hawaiian culture and perpetuate the richness of Hawaiian cultural history and knowledge. This month and all year long, we encourage folks in Hawaiʻi and around the world to engage with Hawaiian culture through education, reflection and action. 

With a mission to protect the ocean through science and advocacy and inspire environmental stewardship, Pacific Whale Foundation will be revamping our “Voices of Maui Nui” series to regularly spotlight native Hawaiian voices, organizations and stories.  

This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Anela Gutierrez, Executive Director of Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society (HOCVS). With a passion for the preservation of Hawaiian culture, Anela works tirelessly to share her knowledge of the Hawaiian canoe voyaging lifestyle with groups and individuals around the world.   

A hub of culture, education and sustainability, HOCVS is rooted in the perpetuation of the Hawaiian voyaging lifestyle. Their mission is to promote sustainability, environmental health and respect for Mother Earth and humankind through the preservation, education and perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture through protocol, voyaging and the way of life on the canoe. 


ANELA: HOCVS started with uncle Kimokeo Kapahulehua, who had the vision of connecting all of the islands — from Hawaiʻi Island to Kure Atoll — through voyaging in a six-man outrigger canoe, or waʻa. Kimokeo was inspired by his uncle, Kawika Kapahulehua, who was the first to captain Hokuleʻa, an ocean-voyaging double-hull canoe that sailed its maiden voyage from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1976. 

Kimokeo began the voyage in 2003. Six years and over 2,000 miles later, Kimokeo succeeded in paddling to each of the Hawaiian Islands. This voyage represented not only the nautical connection of the island chain, but the spiritual and cultural connection to the ancestors who arrived in Hawaiʻi by canoe thousands of years ago. The canoe was named Ke Alakaʻi O Kou Mau Kupuna, or “Following the Path of Our Ancestors.” 

Today, HOCVS continues to voyage from island to island, but we have now gone global. We get invited to paddle with other voyaging groups as well as inspiring canoe clubs around the world to start voyaging. We’ve joined the tribal canoe journeys with the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and we voyaged in Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Next year, we’ll be voyaging from England to the Netherlands. We are moving past the idea that canoeing is simply a sport — it’s really a lifestyle.  


ANELA: It’s a lifestyle that was brought to the Hawaiian Islands by our Polynesian ancestors. If you’re Hawaiian, you have voyaging in your DNA. They learned the lifestyle by being on the canoe for weeks at a time. During this time, you have to take care of each other. You have to work together. You have to do your job, or else the canoe doesn’t run well and you won’t make it to your destination. You learn to be sustainable, because there is a limited number of resources that you can bring for everybody. If someone drinks all of the water in the first week, the crew has nothing to drink for the rest of the journey. If somebody on the boat decides to eat as much as they want without thinking of others, then the rest will starve. Because of this, you learn to ration, to be sustainable and to take care of one another. 

Our ancestors knew that, when you make it to your destination, you continue to carry that lifestyle with you. “He waʻa he moku, he moku he waʻa.” This means the canoe is your island, and the island is your canoe. On the canoe, everything you need to sustain yourself and your community is on board. You need to take care of those resources. We’re supposed to be living that same lifestyle, whether you’re out to sea on the canoe or whether you’re on land. 

When I began voyaging with HOCVS, I found a different aspect of paddling. At other canoe clubs, much of the paddling was focused on competition — on going fast. But voyaging was different. On the voyages, paddling became about connecting with the elements, connecting with each other and connecting to Hawaiian culture. We focused on building an understanding of nature; we learned about the stars, the ocean and the ancestors. That really called to me and was very fulfilling. As a Hawaiian, the act of practicing your culture and being able to teach it to the next generation is very powerful.   


ANELA: Of course, we have paddling here five days a week. But HOCVS has never been a canoe racing club. We are a club that loves to voyage. We are about the culture.  

Once a week, we offer classes teaching Hawaiian protocol, traditional hulas and chants that are connected to the waʻa. This is very important, because practicing those chants and hulas is the only way that they can live on.  

We’re also about practicing sustainability and promoting health for our community. We’ve offered yoga and qi gong classes; we have a community garden where we teach kids about planting and growing their own food; and  we had a compost station for a time where we taught folks to compost their green waste. It’s not just about what we’re doing on the ocean. It’s also very much about what we are doing to live the voyager lifestyle on land. 


ANELA: Sustainability means making sure that your land and your waters are being taken care of, and that your community is being taken care of. Our island has limited resources, just like the waʻa at sea. If we don’t take care of the land and the waters, there are consequences. On an island like Maui, we have a front-row seat to the effects of non-sustainable actions. 

Maui is a beautiful place, but in many ways, it suffers from unsustainability. Under-regulated tourism, for example, can stretch our resources to the limits. We’ve had water shortages, and we’ve had food shortages due to our reliance on shipping. That’s not sustainable. We need proper management to make sure that visitors can come here without harming our ecosystems and the way of life for residents. 

In Hawaiʻi, we are more connected to the elements and to nature, because we see it all around us every day. We understand that everything we do affects the world around us. We see the effects of climate change, because we can see how our weather is impacted every year by these changes. We see the changes in the health of our ocean, our coral reefs, and we see the rain patterns changing. As someone who paddles canoe, we can see the hurricane seasons changing. Beginning earlier each year. This gives us less and less time to voyage across the Pacific — giving us a smaller window. These effects are not just imaginary. We feel them. Everything is connected. Everything we do has an effect — it’s time to choose those effects. Will they be good or bad? 

For those visiting Hawaiʻi, this can be an incredible opportunity to take the time and learn a new way of looking at the world. We encourage them to take the time to learn Hawaiian culture, learn how Hawaiian culture is built on sustainability, on being connected to nature. Here at HOCVS, we have visitors telling us that their experience on the water was life changing. We get to share a lifestyle and a culture that many people have never experienced before, and these experiences allow folks to see the bigger picture of their role in living sustainably. 


ANELA: We offer visitor paddles where visitors can come out and have the opportunity to experience Hawaiian culture. This involves learning Hawaiian chants, going down to the fish pond and learning about food sustainability, and of course paddling together in the waʻa. These experiences are opportunities to deepen your understanding of Hawaiian culture through learning the voyager lifestyle.  

To learn more about HOCVS, head to their website at