Introducing Chad Kālepa Baybayan

Chad Kālepa Baybayan is well-known and respected, both in Hawai‘i and around the world, particularly for his role as a master navigator and captain aboard deep-ocean wa‘a (canoes), perhaps most notably with his captaining the 2013–2017 Mālama Honua worldwide voyage with the 62-foot double-hulled Hōkūleʻa.

In 1997, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii-Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian Language and, shortly after, his master’s in education from Heritage College. In 2007, he received the designation of pwo, or, master navigator. Locally, he is also known for his activities in support of education, such as serving as ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center’s navigator-in-residence. Among other things, in this position he develops curriculum materials and performs education outreach to schools statewide. Kālepa is also captain and navigator aboard the Hokualaka‘i and Hawaiʻiloa, and worked with ‘Aha Punana Leo, an organization dedicated to preserving Hawaiian language and culture.

Living his whole life in Hawai‘i, with ancestral roots reaching deep into the islands’ past, Kālepa is immersed in Hawaiian history, culture, and practice. He holds fast to his heritage in conjunction with his support of astronomy on Mauna Kea. These days, he is a prominent advocate of the state-of-the-art observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), to be constructed on Mauna Kea.

Kālepa Baybayan aboard the Hawai‘i’s deep-ocean canoe, the Hōkūleʻa.
photo courtesy of ʻŌiwi TV

Kālepa currently resides in Kona on the Big Island. He was born in Oʻahu in 1956 and was raised in Lahaina, Maui, living there until he was 39. In 1975, at the age of 19, he first sailed aboard the Hōkūleʻa. At first sight of the vessel, he remembers, “It just grabbed my heart. I knew that if there was anything in my life that I wanted to do it was sail on her.” It would take another five years before he was able to take his first ocean voyage to Tahiti, though he bore witness to the Hōkūleʻa’s shaky start.

Hōkūleʻa‘s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976 was marked by troubles. Some of the crew faced unexpected difficulties managing four and a half weeks of life onboard an isolated vessel, which continued to amplify after making landfall. These conflicts ultimately led the navigator, Mau Piailug, to exit the adventure and not take part in the return trip to Hawai‘i.

The goals and perceived responsibilities among the crew—some Hawaiian, some not—were not optimally aligned. In addition, the 1970s had brought a needed Hawaiian cultural revival or reawakening, after years of their people, culture, and language being suppressed. Unfortunately, such a renaissance can arise in conjunction with bitter memories of the past (the echoes of which exist, to some extent, to this day), engendering hostility to perceived outsiders. Without a shared sense of mission or vision among the crew, the situation was ripe for problems.

Kālepa Baybayan at an educational demonstration about navigation.
Photo courtesy of Kālepa Baybayan

But the young organization, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, learned from its early mistakes and nearly 25 years after Hōkūleʻa’s first Tahitian trip, Kālepa bore witness to a different scene. He faced his group of prospective crewmembers-in-training: men and women of many backgrounds—Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Portuguese, English, American—whose differences, through the hours of their training, made no difference.

“You are all here because you share a powerful vision for Hawai’i,” Baybayan told them. “And that vision joins you together across differences in ethnicity and race and where you may have been born and raised. You share a common desire to make this world better.”

Kālepa’s success, and interest, in developing unity from diversity is connected in with his understanding of wayfinding. Wayfinding is similar to navigation in that it involves understanding an environment to successfully get from Point A to Point B. Wayfinding also involves leadership, training and supporting a crew of responsible people to work together with aloha and mutual respect, having a defined sense of purpose, and managing on-board resources in order to sustain the crew through to the destination. Seen in these terms, race, nationality, sex, and gender fall out of the equation.

This also ties in with Kālepa’s understanding of mālama honua, the name given to the worldwide voyaging trip he is famous for captaining. In its broadest sense, mālama honua means to take care of the world, an excellent goal indeed although a bit daunting for any one person to take on by themselves. Kālepa’s approach to the idea is, at the individual level, to set achievable goals (taking care of one’s self, one’s family, one’s community). On a team with others striving together with aloha toward the same mission, we can achieve unity through our diversity to cumulatively take care of the world. Not entirely unlike working together as the crew on a wa‘a kaulua.

For more information:

Kālepa Baybayan: Interview with Sam Low

The Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage

To Seek Far: ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center Reaches Out to Students of All Ages

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