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Pomai Bertelman, who works with Nā Kālai Wa’a, a voyaging organization in Waimea, sat down to discuss the renaissance in Hawai’i of traditional canoe voyages. Originally, nearly 600 years ago, these voyages brought Hawaiians throughout Polynesia; now, they celebrate that tradition as well as bring new innovations on board. The most famous of these canoes is Hōkūleʻa, which first set sail to Tahiti in 1976.{{ image(4338, {“class”: “fill round”, “width”:640, “height”:342}) }}

SFUSA: Where is the boat built? How many people does your boat fit?

PB: Every canoe is built in a different place in a different way, which makes each canoe unique. Every canoe has different characteristics and a different personality. This distinctness means that each boat can carry a different amount of weight and, therefore, a different number of people. There are normally 10-16 people on board, but 10 is most comfortable.

SFUSA: What is the kitchen like on your boat?

PB: We have a two burner stove housed in a weatherproof box connected to a propane tank. The box can be closed so that the top of it can be used as a cutting board. There’s a small pantry nearby, and pots and pans are 10 feet away. Everything needs to be in quick reach. It’s like cooking while camping – rain or shine, you’re cooking, and you need to be prepared for anything. When things get rough, everything sharp needs to be put away so that the cook can go perform boat tasks, like adjusting the sails.

SFUSA: Traditionally, what kinds of food would people eat on these voyages? How does the food differ today?

PB: Our elders took what the environment provided for them and mostly ate raw foods. They would prepare foods on land that would prepare them for storms or famine, since they knew that if these foods would last them six months on land, then they would last at least two months on sea. They typically ate leafy greens and root vegetables, relying on the ocean for fish. In 1995 on my first voyage, I was pleasantly surprised to see stew in a can – I had never seen it before! Staples onboard were processed foods. The food nowadays has transitioned quite a bit. Four years ago, my husband asked the community if they could provide food from the island for one canoe voyage that would last 30 days. No one said anything. Later he asked the same question, and they all said yes. Now schools are growing us vegetables, and the kids are excited about pickling and dehydrating things for us. We can’t prepare for these voyages all by ourselves. You have to let the community know how to help you.

You have to let the community know how to help you.

Pomai Bertelmann

SFUSA: Why do you do this?

PB: We are an oceangoing people; we come from the ocean. It’s a tradition we have that lets people be their absolute best selves. Canoes are not made for everybody – some people are meant to be doctors, some farmers, etc. –, but the canoe is a great metaphor for putting something together, giving it life, then pulling it apart and making it better.

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SFUSA: Can you give an example of something that was traded long ago that is still being traded today?

PB: People! Not trading, of course, but relationships between people happen no matter what. It’s not uncommon for crewmembers from different countries to marry. It’s all about reciprocation. We’ll make foods and tools here, and then give them to individuals we meet. We bring them things we know will be useful, not just things to hang on their walls, and they strengthen and nourish people.

Canoe plants from the Ark of Taste:

Hawaiian ‘Ulu

‘Ulu is the traditional variety of breadfruit grown through the Hawaii archipelago for centuries. It was one of the ‘canoe plants’ brought by early Polynesian settlers from the Society Islands to Hawaii centuries ago.

Hua Moa Banana

Originating in Polynesia, possibly in the Marquesas Island chain, the bananas were spread throughout the South Pacific islands by indigenous islanders using outrigger canoes.

Poi: Kalo

Early Polynesian settlers brought Kalo to Hawai’i where it quickly became a staple of the regional diet. To make poi, the whole tuber of the Kalo plant is cooked and mashed with water. Poi is often referred to as the “soul food” of Hawaii.

SFUSA: Can you describe some of the greatest surprises you’ve seen on the high seas?

PB: In 2010 in Tahiti, we set sail after waiting for two and a half weeks for a storm to clear. On our second night, there was a huge storm, with no wind. We sat on the boat, making popcorn, and looked out at the sea. It seemed as if someone had taken some material with neon green polka dots and placed it over the sea. All the dots were squids! We then saw a hammerhead shark, who would go up to each dot, and suddenly that dot would disappear.

What do you miss most about the sea when you’re on land?

The ocean is comparable to a university in many ways; it can be an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, or even a PhD. I miss being able to make it to the next day because of the people on the boat, being in the mental and spiritual state to make it to that next day. The ocean has been a great teacher.

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