Archie Kalepa on the Hokulea from Mauritius to Madagascar and Around the Cape of Good Hope
The last time we talked to Archie Kalepa it was September 25 and he was standing in Honolulu Airport, getting ready to board a plane to fly halfway around the world for the adventure of a lifetime: Crewing the Polynesian sailing canoe Hōkūle’a from Mauritius to Madagascar to the east coast of Africa, then south around the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town.
A big adventure, an historic adventure, a dangerous adventure. The Hōkūle’a is a Polynesian ocean-going canoe transiting a new and unfamiliar ocean – the Indian Ocean, the Mozambique Channel, the Agulhas current and a lot of weather coming at them west from the continent of Africa, south from the Roaring 40s and north from the Agulhas Current. These waters are renowned for producing rogue waves that regularly sink vessels much larger than a 62-foot Polynesian canoe.
Kalepa was part of a 12-person crew who left Mauritius on October 4. Their adventure was making that crossing regardless of what the weather threw at them. Their mission was to spread the word of Malama Honua, “sailing across Earth’s oceans to join and grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world.”
On November 19, Archie was safe and sound in Cape Town, South Africa, having survived – and thrived – on a month-and-a-half crossing where the infamous Indian Ocean weather played an important role.
OluKai: Sounds like you had some weather.
Archie Kalepa: Yeah it’s actually pretty cold here right now.
OK: I read all the blogs you guys posted from your crossing. Nainoa Thompson wrote: “The breadth of the systems here is extremely large, like the continent of Africa; the weather is also terrifyingly beautiful, and somewhat sinister to behold. Warm air migrating from the African plains merges with the cool air of the Indian Ocean, producing very large and powerful weather systems…” So how does that ocean feel? Did you know you were somewhere different?
AK: Yeah, we definitely knew we were in a different ocean. I think once we left Mauritius and passed under Madagascar, we started to see some really big swells from storms coming out of the southeast. So the swells were fairly big and as we got closer to South Africa, we noticed a dramatic change in the weather temperature. It got cold, and then it was touch and go a few times. Knowing the history of the Mozambique Channel, everybody was on their toes and really watching the weather.
Just yesterday in Cape Town we invited people out to come and visit the canoe. There was a funeral service right next to us: A big fishing vessel maybe three times as big as Hōkūle’a had capsized in the same storm that we sailed through. Twelve people lost their lives. It was sad, and a reminder of how lucky Hōkūle’a was, and a reminder of how good the crew of the Hōkūle’a is. Also our ground support and the support we had back home, as far as monitoring the weather, and giving updates. The success of our trip was a combination of all that, and then understanding the need to rely on local knowledge to help us see the big picture.
OK: You were headed for Madagascar and had dates and times to meet, but the weather was wrong and the decision was made not to pull in. Was that a big decision?
AK: We were wanting to make sure we stayed in the Agulhas Current to maintain six to eight knots a day. It was very very crucial to this leg that we try and use the weather to our advantage. There was one day where we clocked up to 17 knots.
OK: Woohoo! The Agulhas Current is going north to south, right?
AK: Yeah it’s going north to south and that’s the weird thing when we were going 17 knots. because the swell was coming another way. It was really really… It’s a different ocean. I honestly must say. It’s a lot bigger, you know? Everything we know back in Hawaii, it’s pretty small in regards to how big things are.
We got caught in a lightning storm that was off the charts. It was big and the thunder roars for a long period of time, not like back home in Hawaii. Over there, it rolls. It sounded like giant bowling balls rolling through the heavens.
OK: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I was in Byron Bay in 1980 and it was like the the Gods were at war. Non-stop lightning and continuous roar of thunder and it’s violent and it’s scary, really.
Same thing in Africa: Air from a huge, dry land mass meeting in swift collision with cold, wet air coming off the ocean. Did you ever feel like you were in danger?
AK: Well you know the funny thing is… I think the mental preparation for this voyage started way before we even left. They made peace with people at home. We were totally committed. And there was times when adversity was in front of us, where the crew could have given up and could have become more or less part of the problem and not the solution, and I think the crew really stepped up and didn’t let any mishaps bother us. Stayed in the positive frame of mind and worked through it. Because that’s really important. If one person starts to become afraid, or negative, it has a domino effect. But if everybody is, “Okay, we’ve got this. Let’s do this. Keep going. Keep going.” And no one, at no one time did anyone say: “I don’t know about this.” or “We can’t do this.” It was really really awesome to see that everybody was totally committed, and they didn’t even have to say anything. A lot of them you could tell by the look in their eyes, everyone was totally committed and staying in the positive for whatever adversity we were faced with.
OK: So you left Mauritius on October 4 and were supposed to pull into Madagascar on October ??, but the weather wouldn’t let you in. Then you crossed the Mozambique Channel aiming for Richards Bay in South Africa, but the weather didn’t let you do that, either.
AK: We had to go up to Mozambique and pulled into a place called Maputo. And that’s where the challenges began. We couldn’t go ashore so they put us literally right in the middle of the shipping lanes, and that was when the storm hit. We’re dealing with big oil tankers on the left and the right of us coming in and out of the harbor and we’re sitting on this little, 62-foot canoe right in the middle of it.
It was crazy but they wouldn’t let us come to shore and tie up anywhere, and that was where we got hit by the thunderstorms, the gale force winds, and the lightning.
Maputo was very challenging for us. It was a wake up call where we decided we needed to rely more on local knowledge to keep us out of harm’s way, which was really really awesome.
OK: Did you have help along the way?
AK: We had a lot of kokua from the National Sea Rescue Institute. These are South Africa’s ocean rescue guys, volunteers working in stations all along the coast. They took good care of us because every port that we came into, that’s where we picked up the local knowledge. They would tell us where to go, and what to do and there were a few legs where we actually put some guys on our canoe to help us navigate the Mozambique Channel and the Agulhas current and everything Africa and the ocean were throwing at us.
OK: Big gap in the blog. Between October 25 to November… There’s a big gap between Richards Bay and Cape Town, so I guess you were sailing down the coast of Africa the whole time.
OK: So what was going on. You were talking to the rescue guys and communicating, because they certainly would know that ocean better than anyone. They have to deal with it.
AK: Even back home there’s something that personally I’m very familiar with, is you always rely on the local knowledge. Local knowledge is a great resource, because they are around it every day in and day out and they see and know things that the common folks don’t know.
That was evident when there was another catamaran that was still kind of up the coast from Cape Town. They got into trouble. They crashed and swamped and almost needed to get rescued. And then what happened the other day with this big fishing vessel.
It was a reminder of how lucky we were, but luck is just part of it. The other part is: “Do your homework.” Studying, learning and preparing yourself.
OK: Did you have any encounters with rogue waves?
AK: One night we had some pretty big waves building up in the evening and Nainoa Thompson asked me: “Archie, How big is that?”
I said: “When that gets to shore that’s probably about 40 feet waves. That’s pretty big, Nainoa.” But being out in the open ocean, I think that’s where the canoe performs, that’s where the canoe really really comes alive and is at home in those kinds of conditions.
OK: See anything else out of the ordinary? Waterspouts? UFOs? Eighty-five foot sperm whales trying to headbutt Hokule’a and sink it?
AK: We would see whales every day. Every single day. For us in the canoe that was like a blessing, yeah. To know that whales are around. We saw whales every single day.
One night when we were coming in to… it was like Avatar. I’d never seen anything like and I don’t think a lot of us … nobody on the canoe had ever seen anything like that, but the whole canoe – the whole ocean – was illuminated. You know how you have the phosphorescence in the water? The ocean was glowing. I’ve never seen anything like that. Even in the whitewater, the amount of phosphorescence it had… it was a different color – more of a blue color – it was really really… nobody wanted to sleep. It was incredible to see.
OK: From Mozambique down the east coast of Africa, how many places did you pull in? Anywhere?
AK: We pulled into Mossel Bay, Simonstown. Saint PORT? Elizabeth and then here in Cape Town.
There were a lot of things that happened along the way. In Durban they had a Christian surf camp for kids who come from challenging backgrounds – homeless kids and poor kids. We met them and talked to them and took them surfing and it was pretty touching because the instructors were telling us about some of the challenges they have when they go back into the real world. You want to help take care of those kids. For two hours they are disconnected from all the hardship they have. It was awesome to see the smiles on their face. How much they enjoyed being in the water.
OK: On the blog there are photos of someone kelp diving?
AK: I got a chance to dive with Craig Foster in False Bay. We dove in the kelp bed and that was one of the top 25 things I’ve ever done in my life.
OK: Next time you’re in southern California, go dive the kelp towers off Catalina Island. It’s epic. Did you get any lobster?
AK: There were sharks. All kinds of marine life. What we call opihi there were all kinda varieties of that. Abalone. All this marine life that was alive and well. And it was really really awesome. And Craig’s knowledge about that place and what he shared to me was a wakeup call about how much caring about our own…??????
We also saw a great white shark. WHERE WAS THIS? FALSE BAY OR SOMEWHERE ELSE? We were gonna go diving with a great white shark. He actually left when we got in the cage. He was a small shark, maybe about 14 feet. It came around and we got to see a great white up close. That was pretty awesome.
OK: So you went around Cape of Good Hope because Cape Town is on the west side and you were coming down the east side.
AK: Yeah, we went around Cape of Good Hope.
OK: How was that? I know two girls who live on a sailboat in the Ala Wai. They took a 38-foot sailboat around Cape of Good Hope but they had to wait a while for the weather.
AK: It was actually nice. We were blessed with good weather and we were fortunate enough to get just in front of the weather, and it didn’t start blowing really hard until we actually came around the Cape of Good Hope. We were really really blessed. And guys like Nainoa with his knowledge and working with the risk management team back in Hawaii who gave us the valuable information to stay on top of the weather.
OK: How far offshore were you while sailing along the east coast?
AK: We were maybe seven to 10 miles offshore, because we needed to stay in the current, yeah? The Agulhas Current. And then there were other times toward the end there where we went round the Cape of Good Hope where we were four or five miles offshore and we could actually see some of the coastline.
OK: When are coming back to Hawaii?
AK: I’ll be back to Maui on November 24th.
OK: Hows the family?
AK: They’re good, they’re good. My kids are ??? so I can’t wait to get home. My wife has the Honey Do list.
OK: So just one question. There is a theory that around 800 AD, the Polynesians made it to the west coast of North America and showed the Chumash and Gabrielino Indians how to make planked canoes. Now that you’ve sailed the Hokulea through unfamiliar waters and into cold weather and out of the tropics, could you see your ancestors sailing from Hawaii to the west coast?
AK: Oh yeah. Two thousand years ago our ancestors were equivalent to astronauts.There is no doubt the Polynesians actually sailed to Madagascar. There are findings that the Polynesians made it to Madagascar. For us it was coming full circle that we made it here. As we were coming from Mossell to Simon’s Town to Cape Town, it was a constant reminder of the Polynesians being the newest race on the planet meeting up with the oldest race on the planet. And the fact that every living form has a gene that is dated back to Africa – we just came full circle.