You might think that Bruce Blankenfeld, captain on Hōkūle‘a’s Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, and one of Hawai‘i’s five “pwo” (master) navigators, would search high and low for only the most talented sailors Hawai‘i has to offer to carry the navigational torch aboard the canoe. Yet when you chat with Bruce about what he looks for in his students, he won’t hesitate to tell you that more than anything, he looks at a person’s values. “At the heart of it, it’s the values that they live by,” he says. “If they can’t get along with others it won’t work.”
Taking his role as mentor seriously, Bruce embraces the opportunity to tap into the connections of his ancestors and the cultural and spiritual awakening that is coming from it. He believes the next generation will go even deeper into this than his generation has, and this is a driving force behind his commitment to keep mentoring. In fact, it was the cultural aspect of the Hōkūle‘a that first attracted him to the canoe in the early days. At a time when Hawai‘i was culturally lacking, Hōkūle‘a represented a revival of ancient traditions and practices. Over time, the canoe and its voyages has led to a renaissance of traditions and Hawaiian culture, to the point that today this cultural component is even featured as part of the school curriculum. “This is fairly recent,” Bruce explains. “People are realizing that being part of the voyage is very doable and not some specialized skill that leaves people out. A lot of our sailors are teachers,” he continues. “They are taking all of this back and implementing it into their curriculum. They see the value of it.”
Another change that Bruce has witnessed over time, is the increase in women aboard Hōkūle‘a. Although women have always played a role since Hōkūle‘a’s earliest days, their participation has grown, or as Bruce puts it, “It’s always been there, but it’s nice to see how it has blossomed...It is no longer outside of the scope of what they can dream about.” Yet male or female, the goal remains the same: to live the culture and share those learnings with their greater community. Bruce emphasises how important it is that Hōkūle‘a’s crew take what they’ve learnt from their travels around the Pacific and life on board the canoe and share that in their everyday lives. And that sharing of information translates not just to Hawaiians on home soil but also to the people they visit during their voyages. “Sharing is a 2 way flow,” Bruce says. “We are sharing about the canoe but they are sharing about their culture and home and their outlook on what’s important. That’s how we expand our thinking and how we get a paradigm shift as well.” That paradigm shift is already well under way, with more and more Hawaiians showing interest in Hōkūle‘a. In fact, there were over 300 people who sailed on the last voyage, and they make room for everyone.
With a renewed sense of value in Hawaiian culture and traditions, and a team of young navigators continuing the trend thanks to Bruce and his peers, what does the future look like for Bruce himself? “I’ve got another good 15 years (of sailing) in me!” he says. Chances are, Bruce Blankenfeld and Hōkūle‘a will be inextricably linked for a lot longer than that.