HONOLULU – No modern navigation instrumentation guided a Polynesian voyaging canoe as it followed the horizon during a three-year journey around the globe.
About a dozen crewmembers for each leg of the voyage relied only on their understanding of nature's cues — ocean swells, stars, wind, birds— and their own naau, or gut, to sail across about 40,000 nautical miles (74,000 kilometers) to 19 countries, spreading a message of malama honua: Caring for the earth.
On Saturday, thousands are expected to welcome double-hulled canoe Hokulea home to Hawaii when it enters a channel off the island Oahu and ties up to a floating dock with iconic Diamond Head in the distance.
"Watching Hokulea crest the waves of Oahu's south shore as she returns home, much like the canoes of our ancestors, will be a once in a lifetime experience," said Nainoa Thompson, navigator and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society who oversaw the expedition and mission.
The voyage is perpetuating the traditional wayfinding that brought the first Polynesians several thousand miles to Hawaii hundreds of years ago. The trip also helped train a new generation of young navigators.
Hokulea means star of gladness. The canoe was built and launched in the 1970s, when there were no Polynesian navigators left. So the Voyaging Society looked beyond Polynesia to find one.
Mau Piailug, from a small island called Satawal in Micronesia, was among the last half-dozen people in the world to practice the art of traditional navigation and agreed to guide Hokulea to Tahiti in 1976.
"Without him, our voyaging would never have taken place," the Polynesian Voyaging Society said on the website for Hokulea. "Mau was the only traditional navigator who was willing and able to reach beyond his culture to ours."
The epic round-the-world voyage that started in 2014 shows how far Hokulea has gone since its first voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976.
Disaster befell another voyage in 1978 when the canoe capsized off the Hawaiian island of Molokai in a blinding storm. Eddie Aikau, a revered Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard on the crew, grabbed his surfboard and paddled for help, but was never seen again. The rest of the crewmembers were rescued.
Crewmembers hope the success of the latest journey will inspire other indigenous cultures to rediscover and revive traditions. Thompson said he also hopes indigenous cultures can help with solutions to modern-day problems such as climate change.
Native Hawaiian ancestors were not only skilled navigators but good stewards of the islands who farmed and fished sustainably.
"They figured it out — how to live well on these islands," Thompson said. "And I think that is the challenge of the time for planet earth and all of humanity."
Crewmembers of the worldwide voyage were mindful to incorporate that into daily life.
Fish they caught for meals never went to waste, even when the crew once landed a 49-pound ahi, crewmember Naalehu Anthony, who participated in about half-a-dozen legs of the voyage, recalled in a blog post.
"The fish was plenty for us for the day," he wrote. "In fact too much — because we do not have any refrigeration, we either need to consume it, share it or dry it."
Crewmembers slept in plywood bunks covered with waterproof canvas and bathing was simple, recalled Russell Amimoto, a Hokulea crewmember for two legs.
"We have unlimited supply of nice, ocean-temperature saltwater available," he said, explaining that crewmembers threw a bucket attached to a rope overboard to scoop up water for bathing.
"We'll towel-off right away to try to get as much salt off us as possible," Amimoto said.
The voyage has had challenges and reaching South Africa in 2015 — the journey's halfway point — was the most dangerous leg because of complicated ocean conditions.
In February, a team of four apprentice navigators spotted tiny, remote Easter Island. Pinpointing the island that is also known as Rapa Nui at sunset was a major accomplishment because it is considered one of the most difficult islands to find using traditional wayfinding.
During the Caribbean leg of the trip last year, Hokulea stopped in Cuba, where crewmembers joined a meeting on U.S.-Cuba relations and discussions on cultural connections between Cuba and Hawaii.
Last week the crew spotted the 10,023-foot (3,055-meter) high Maui mountain Haleakala looming in the distance, signifying Hokulea's official return to Hawaii waters.
After returning, Hokulea will embark on an eight-month trip sailing throughout the Hawaiian islands.
"We will go to as many as 70 communities and 100 schools to thank Hawaii's people and share what we have learned with their children," Thompson said. "We are also looking forward to hearing Hawaii stories of malama honua."