The Story of Kamaola

Emma Rose Layaoen ’22 and Mehana Leafchild ’21 hold the line and focus on keeping the kia steady, while faculty Adam Jenkins (right) explains to Ethan Chaiko ’22 how to secure the kia to the heiau (mast step).
The Story of Kamaola


The Punahou community has been actively involved in revitalizing Polynesian voyaging. Five alumni and a teacher sailed aboard Hōkūle‘a on her historic voyage to and from Tahiti in 1976. Numerous students, faculty, alumni and family members continue that tradition today, crewing on canoes across the Pacific. The School continues to embrace this legacy in a tangible way, with a new voyaging program and its own wa‘a.

The latest endeavor, Kamaola, started with a challenge. Four summers ago, Dillyn Lietzke ’20 was volunteering aboard Nāmāhoe, a canoe on Kaua‘i. A crew member told her, “You should build a wa‘a kaulua for Punahou.” Lietzke laughed, but the friend continued. No school had its own wa‘a kaulua, he said. Punahou could be the pioneer. “He addressed the canoe as if she had already been built – as if she physically existed,” Lietzke says. “In his mind, she was already sailing.”

The idea seemed far-fetched to Lietzke, who paddled outrigger canoe, but knew little about the massive, double-hulled vessels rigged for deep-water crossings. Nevertheless, by the time she returned to O‘ahu for her sophomore year, she too could envision the School’s wa‘a kaulua.

“I remember Dillyn walking into my office,” says Kylee Pōmaika‘i Mar. “She said, ‘I want to build a canoe for Punahou.’ I said, ‘Great! I need you to talk to these 10 people and start doing some groundwork.’ I wanted to test to see she was really serious. And she did every single thing that I asked her to do with intention and enthusiasm. So I said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this. Let’s get your team together.’” Mar was the right person to steer this ambitious project.

Punahou’s archivist for the past 22 years draws upon School history to develop dynamic curriculum. Special projects like this are her forte. Plus, she’s a voyager herself. She provides land-based support for the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) and helped facilitate Punahou’s recent involvement in the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage. The School’s Kuaihelani Learning Center for Hawaiian Studies made sure Punahou students took part in Hōkūle‘a and her sister canoe Hikianalia during their three-year, round-the-world adventure. “Every kindergarten through eighth grade student got a chance to visit Hōkūle‘a before she left O‘ahu,” Mar says.

Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau ’05 instructs Ilihia Kalama-Ohelo ’24 on tying the inline bowline knot that helps hold the kia (mast) in place.

“We had a canoe-to-classroom link, where we were able to connect all of our classrooms with the wa‘a while they were out.” Punahou also sent teams of teachers to destinations around the world to do educational outreach in advance of the canoes’ arrival at each port. “You can only send 12 people on a canoe,” Mar says, “but you can engage 3,700 students at school.”

Mar helped Lietzke write a canoe-building proposal and recruit other faculty to help. Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau ’05 was a natural choice. The Outdoor Education and Voyaging teacher is a licensed captain who sailed five legs of the Worldwide Voyage. Academy Principal Emily McCarren gave the project a green light and asked Taryn Loveman, director of the School’s Design Technology and Engineering department, to develop a voyaging program. An advisory team was formed. At the same time Adam Jenkins, a science teacher and Hōkūle‘a crew member, proposed a new voyaging class. What started as a single student’s project quickly blossomed into an entire voyaging program. By summer 2019, a dozen students had enrolled in Ka Hālāwai Hou, a pilot voyaging course, and the new wa‘a was under construction.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Lyman- Mersereau says. “It also takes a village to launch a canoe.” As the advisory team worked out the specs for fabricating a wa‘a kaulua, they sought help from the community via Kuaihelani. Loveman was particularly excited to approach the design process from an indigenous perspective, led by Ke‘alohi Reppun ’99, director of the Kuaihelani Center. “We sought out fishpond builders, hale builders, the voyaging community and Hawaiian artists and craftsmen, and asked them about their process. We tried to delve into what is a Hawaiian design process.” The team incorporated what they learned into “Kū Hala,” a place-based design system with three phases: inspiration, creation and release.

“The inspiration to create something could come from a dream. It could be the right time of the year to do something, like plant,” Loveman says, or it could be a responsibility that’s handed to you from an elder, as with Lietzke and the canoe. The next phase – creation – involves specific protocols governing how materials are collected and handled, and who takes part in the creation. “That’s quite different from, ‘we’re ready to prototype, so we’re going to order some steel, go into our lab, and build our thing,’” Loveman says.

We’re being watched over. There are a lot of spirits with us, on our shoulders. They’re there whether you see them or not. That’s the mana‘o we go sailing with. What we’re doing isn’t just for us; when we teach wayfinding as we were taught by Papa Mau and the others, we’re keeping them alive.

Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau ’05

The team discussed carving a traditional wooden wa‘a, but ultimately decided fiberglass hulls and synthetic, Coast Guard-approved ropes would best serve their goal – to get students out sailing. Loveman ordered custom-designed hulls to give the canoe a lineage of her own. Once the twin hulls arrived, students in the voyaging class got to work. They fashioned one of six arched crossbeams, or ‘iako, and began the meticulous work of lashing the wa‘a together. A local woodworker taught faculty to fabricate ‘iako, knowing the process is vital to the ongoing maintenance and life of wa‘a.

“So many knots and lashings!” Lyman-Mersereau laughs. Teaching the lashing patterns and knots was a way for the sailor to honor his own teachers. “It’s a tangible connection to Papa Mau Piailug and all the voyagers who came before us,” he says. “Something I’ve noticed – this work with your hands, it really brings people together. I’d watch the students lash; they really enjoyed it. They got into the challenge. I think it’s in our DNA. Rope is one of those things that goes so far back in our genetics. It was the ultimate tool for thousands and thousands of years.” Plus, he says, “The patterns are just so beautiful, and their function so strong.”

Pop-up tents were set up on campus, where students worked on the wa‘a until March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted in-person instruction. The School’s new Voyaging Club kept meeting monthly online. Lietzke graduated in Spring 2020 and turned the club’s leadership over to four of her schoolmates.

Cole Soranaka ’21 was honored when asked to be a Voyaging Club leader. He got his first taste of sailing during a three-day extracurricular course his sophomore year. Punahou students were able to borrow a canoe from the Marine Education Training Center. “I loved every second of it – steering the wa‘a, manning the sails,” Soranaka says. “Every aspect of being on the water was an awesome experience.” When he and his friends heard about Jenkins’ voyaging elective, they signed up immediately. During the yearlong course, he spent time outside working the rigging, observing birds and stargazing at night. “Just to connect with nature was something different. It uses another part of your brain.” The recent graduate plans to study business at the University of Utah, but is glad he prioritized voyaging while at Punahou. “I knew I would never get another opportunity to take something like this. It’s a once in a lifetime chance.”

Another Voyaging Club leader, Joey Misailidis ’23, became fascinated with trans-Pacific sailing in seventh grade. In 2020, she enrolled in both Punahou’s voyaging course and the Kānehūnāmoku Voyaging Academy, a nonprofit Hawaiian voyaging academy based in Ka‘alaea, O‘ahu. She trained all year with Kānehūnāmoku, learning knots and practicing maneuvers in the calm waters of Kane‘ōhe Bay. The program will culminate in a 10-day voyage at the end of the summer. “We’re hoping to go to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” Misailidis says. “I live in town, where there’s a lot of light pollution. I bet there will be a lot more stars out there.”

For school each week, Misailidis observes natural phenomena and records data in her kilo (observation) journal. “Looking back at my journal from the beginning of the year, I can see the changes in the sky and the stars,” she says. She can hardly wait to test her observations at sea. “Kumu Kaniela talks about coming off a voyage as a different person with a different perspective. I’m really excited for that.”

Kila Aisea ’21 guides the tension on her line as the kia is lifted.

During the pandemic shutdown, work continued to finish the canoe’s big wooden components – mast, spar and boom. Students returned to campus to help raise the mast, and on December 28, 2020, the School hosted a naming ceremony for the canoe. Students draped the wa‘a with tī leaf lei they made in her honor. ‘Ike Hawai‘i faculty Kimo Keaulana christened the boat “Kamaola,” the life of the child. The ceremony was especially poignant for Lietzke. “It’s like her spirit has always been here,” she says, “but now she finally has a kino (body) and a name.”

The naming ceremony initiated the third phase of the Kū Hala design process: release. “We built this voyaging canoe for the community, so how do we let go?” Loveman asks. “It’s not our canoe, it’s intended to be for the community. So how do we go about releasing what we’ve created for its intended purpose?” The next obvious step is ocean safety trials. The team has been carefully preparing Kamaola to touch the Pacific Ocean for the first time. This summer, the adult crewmembers will take her out to make necessary adjustments to the rigging and ensure the boat is safe. They hope to sail with students in fall 2021. “We’re being watched over,” says Lyman-Mersereau, who will serve as the canoe’s captain. “There are a lot of spirits with us, on our shoulders. They’re there whether you see them or not. That’s the mana‘o we go sailing with. What we’re doing isn’t just for us; when we teach wayfinding as we were taught be Papa Mau and the others, we’re keeping them alive.”

While Kamaola hasn’t launched yet, she has already sent out ripples of influence far and wide. Misailidis spent the spring 2021 semester working with a classmate to create voyaging lessons for K – 1 students. Their extra fun activities introduce kids to the Hawaiian star compass and history of voyaging. A guessing game teaches kids how to identify native seabirds, and a scavenger hunt helps future sailors locate different parts of the wa‘a. Loveman contributed to the K – 1 curriculum, too, with faculty Ka‘ai‘ōhelo McAfee-Torco, while Adedoyin Ogunniyi created curriculum and laser-cut canoes for each child.

Several classes and clubs have worked on components of readying the wa‘a. Punahou junior Chloe Yoshiki ’23 embarked on the meticulous process of weaving a traditional lauhala canoe sail. The Voyaging Club helped her harvest and prepare the lau and Weaving Club members will help bend them together. On the Richardson Design Lab lānai in the Academy, students are developing automated solar-powered watering systems and aquaponics to simulate a process that might be used to grow edible plants at sea. The voyaging faculty also added a traditional hale building course to the 2020 – 2021 curriculum, and the spring 2022 voyaging class will take place in the afternoon, allowing the students to head off campus for sailing practice. The Academy Social Studies Department is working with Starr Johnson Tuki ’98 to incorporate voyaging into the curriculum via the ninth grade Introduction to Social Studies course.

Mar believes that experiences at sea can cultivate students’ highest potential. “When you look at the planet from an ocean-based perspective, it goes from the ‘me’ to the ‘we’ easily. When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, you need the ‘we’ to get back to land. That experience physically opens people up to different parts of themselves. We want to give students the opportunity to go deeper, go wider. If we can do that – oh, that’s the best kind of teaching!”

Lietzke, now studying at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, plans to join Kamaola as often as possible. Her dream is to see students out sailing every day, connecting with the natural environment and adding their names to the list of traditional Polynesian voyagers. “This wa‘a is not just a wa‘a,” she says. “It’s a vessel of knowledge to show that indigenous knowledge has value and a place here in modern settings.”

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