Photo: Bob Abraham/Getty Images

When it comes to heroes, David Komine picked a great one: Polynesian Voyaging Society president and Coastal Living Ocean Hero Nainoa Thompson. See how Komine joined Thompson's history-making journey around the world in a traditional Polynesian double-hulled canoe. 

By Lauren Phillips

Hundreds of years ago, double-hulled canoes traversed the seas of modern-day Polynesia, crewed by voyagers able to navigate through open ocean without instruments using the stars, the sun, ocean currents, and other natural elements. These travelers, as part of the Polynesian migration, helped colonize the Pacific—including the islands of Hawai‘i.

These canoes disappeared more than 600 years ago. And then, in 1976, a deep sea voyaging canoe built in the tradition of these ancient vessels sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti. The canoe was named Hōkūle‘a, “Star of Gladness,” and it inspired a whole new generation of modern wayfinders and voyagers.

“For all of us, for a lot of Hawaiian people, for me, it was like watching the moon landing all over again,” says David Komine, an O‘ahu native who served as a crew member on the 2014 Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, in which Hōkūle‘a embarked on a round-the-world sailing trip that took more than three years and included more than 150 ports of call in 23 countries and territories. “To see a voyaging canoe from Hawai‘i sail the traditional way back to Tahiti, which wasn’t done for almost 600 years prior, was the flame that lit the Hawaiian renaissance. The pride of Hawaiian culture just exploded, not only here in Hawai‘i but throughout the South Pacific, as well.”

The journey instilled in Komine the desire to join the Polynesian Voyaging Society, an organization founded on the legacy of Pacific Ocean exploration that promotes the art and science of traditional Polynesian voyaging through educational programs. The Polynesian Voyaging Society’s founders built Hōkūle‘a, and the organization coordinated the worldwide voyage.

Related: Get to Know Nainoa Thompson, the President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Between its first Tahiti voyage in 1976 and its worldwide voyage, Hōkūle‘a was crewed by a select group of people, Komine says. He was willing to wait, though: “I’ve always said, when the opportunity came, that I would get involved,” he says. His father was a rodeo cowboy, and the younger Komine followed in his footsteps, practicing all through school and eventually competing in collegiate rodeo at a school in west Texas.

After getting injured during practice, a recuperating Komine recalled the land and water activities—little league, surfing, football—his classmates had taken part in and that he had bypassed in favor of practicing his roping and riding skills and caring for the horses. “I just thought, ‘I’ve got to try something different,’” Komine says. “The attraction of that grabbed me.”

Over a two-year period, Komine—22 when he stopped practicing—slowly traded equestrian sports for watersports like paddling and surfing. “That’s when I made the transition from the rodeo to sailing and paddling in Hawaiian culture,” he says.

Komine returned to Hawai‘i and joined the hospitality industry on O‘ahu, where he began working with the island’s Sheraton hotels. He has been working with their hotels in Hawai‘i for about 33 years combined, at three different properties, and today works at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani in Waikiki.

Watch: A Perfect Weekend in O'ahu, Hawai'i

All that time, Komine waited patiently, and in 2008 his opportunity came. That year, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society Nainoa Thompson, with the help of his colleagues, made the long-debated decision to plan and execute the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage.

In late 2008, a friend of Komine’s who had gotten involved with the Voyaging Society in the late 80s and early 90s reached out: The Society was recruiting new crew members to help sail Hōkūle‘a around the world.

They both thought it was kind of crazy, Komine admits. But in the same breath his friend said, “You know, the one thing I learned while sailing with the Polynesian Voyaging Society was not to bet against Nainoa.”

“And when he said that, I said, ‘Sign me up,’” Komine says. “‘I’m in.’”

Komine, along with the Voyaging Society's other new recruits, began training in 2009. Komine moved from classroom training to sailing the double-hulled canoe, eventually participating in overnight and days-long sails. In 2012, he was chosen to go to New Zealand with a group of crew members to help bless, launch, and do sea trials on Hikianalia, the sister canoe to Hōkūle‘a. He helped sail Hikianalia from New Zealand to Tahiti on her maiden voyage, his first actual voyage.

And then, in 2014, the worldwide voyage began. The voyage was broken into 31 legs of four to five weeks on average, he says, with about 280 crew members cycling through the various legs. During each leg, two ships each carried 12 to 16 crew members, each holding multiple responsibilities. These included tasks such as captain, watch captain, medical officer, carpenter, and more.

Komine sailed on leg 1, from Hawai‘i to Tahiti; leg 13, from Darwin, Australia, to Bali, Indonesia; leg 17, from Natal, Brazil, to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands; and leg 31, the final leg, from Tahiti back to home port in Hawai‘i.

“I was blessed to sail on really good legs under good conditions,” Komine says of the journey. Throughout, at the various ports of call, he and his fellow crew members served as ambassadors, meeting with scientists, world leaders, and local communities, helping to spread the message of Mālama Honua: “to care for our Earth.”

“It’s strenuous work, it’s time-consuming, it takes you away from your family, your job, your responsibilities,” Komine says. “Once you’re on the crew, once you’re on the canoe, everything else is pretty much put aside. There’s nothing you can do about your personal life at home. You’re just focused on sailing your vessel.”

Taking so much time away from his responsibilities at home wasn’t easy, but Komine had some help. “The Sheraton hotels were a major sponsor in the worldwide voyage,” he says. “They made a huge contribution to the worldwide voyage. Mr. Frederick Orr [general manager of the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani] knew the importance of the worldwide voyage. He knew it was in the best interest that I participate and be a part of this. It was all possible because of his support and understanding of the worldwide voyage and the importance of it all—the hotel and Mr. Orr were very accommodating to me.”

And participating was well worth the time away. “It is one of the greatest achievements there probably will be of my lifetime,” Komine says.

He was one of the crew members sailing into home port at O‘ahu’s Magic Island, where a grand celebration awaited the canoes’ homecoming. “We knew there were going to be a lot of people, but we couldn’t imagine how big it was once we got there,” Komine says. “We were able to go full circle. We started in Hawai‘i and we finished in Hawai‘i. We took the long route, we sailed around the world, and the pride … you could see the pride in everybody’s eyes. They were so proud to say, ‘That canoe’s from Hawai‘i. That represented my culture.'”

And the worldwide voyage’s message goes far beyond celebrating Hawaiian culture and preserving the legacy of Polynesian wayfinding: It also shares a message of ocean conservation, and loving and protecting the planet and its seas. “The Voyaging Society—it’ll always be the preservation of Hawaiian culture and the art of wayfinding,” Komine says. “But it’s gone beyond that now. It is now an environmental mission, as well, to help make people aware of our pressures on our oceans and our environment.”

Related: Meet 13 Ocean Heroes Fighting to Save Our Seas

The worldwide voyage has ended, but the journey continues, as Hōkūle‘a travels throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Back in O‘ahu, Komine and his fellow crew members speak at schools and in communities, educating young Hawaiians on the crisis the planet faces and encouraging them to take steps—now and in the future—to protect it.

“We remind them that they are going to be the leaders,” he says. “That they’re the ones who are going to make the difference. They kind of sit up a little bit when you tell them that.”