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For two Boston brothers, a magical voyage aboard Hokule’a

Hokule’a at sea with unfurled sails.
Hokule’a at sea with unfurled sails.

HONOLULU — “Did you feel the mana?” a woman asked me at the Honolulu airport, while I was waiting to board my flight back to Boston. I told her it was my first time visiting Hawaii. “Yes, I definitely did,” I replied, riding a feeling of certainty, but unaware of the word’s true definition.

Mana, as I’ve come to understand, is a power, an energy, that radiates from all things on the islands. Illustrated by the woman’s hands, which motioned in a circle coming from her chest and outward as she explained the term, it is spiritual. It signifies strength. And it is magical.


You can feel it when you “start to get goosebumps” as one local told me. And Mike Cunningham, a Boston native, surely felt it standing on the roof of Hawaii Yacht Club back in 1976, watching Hokule’a — the double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe — from a distance, as it returned to Honolulu on Magic Island on its journey to Tahiti and back.

In a historic voyage, Hokule’a’s crew would forgo up-to-date technology, using celestial navigation to prove that ancient Polynesians used only the stars, sun, moon, wind, and waves to travel to the islands in the Pacific. It would prove that the crew’s ancestors were not simply blown off course to Hawaii — that they were expert voyagers, who sailed with a purpose. Many thought the sail was impossible, partly because Hokule’a was, and still is, a working replica of a traditional wa’a kaulua (voyaging canoe).

But the skeptics were wrong, and Hokule’a made it safely to Tahiti and back. “That was the biggest news since statehood, at the time,” Cunningham told me. He reflected on that day, marveling at Hokule’a’s accomplishment. “Here I am, a new guy from Boston. Even though I’m a sailor, I don’t know anything about the culture, or canoe sailing. So I said, all I can do is watch from the sidelines.”


Cunningham, now 75, followed Hokule’a’s trips over the next three decades. Until eight years ago, when someone from the Polynesian Voyaging Society reached out to him, asking if they could use his sailboat as an escort for Hokule’a in a trip around the Pacific. Cunningham was in. He would eventually sail aboard the magnificent vessel as an engineer. And on a trip to Palmyra in 2009, the crew needed a cook. Cue Mike’s brother, Tom Cunningham.

The Cunninghams grew up in Roslindale, drawn to the sea from an early age. When Mike was 10, he built a wooden boat in his backyard, and when he went to launch it at Nahant Beach, it sunk immediately. Mike Cunningham graduated from Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1964, while Tom, now 83, graduated from Boston College High School and went on to serve in the Navy. Decades later in Hawaii, Mike reached out to Tom Cunningham, saying they needed volunteers to help sand Hokule’a, which was in drydock. Ever since then, the Cunninghams were officially connected to Hokule’a.

Not only did the Cunninghams get to sail with Hokule’a in the Pacific, they also had the opportunity to sail in their home waters around New England on Hokule’a’s worldwide voyage, which embarked in May 2014.

The most memorable moment came as they entered Boston Harbor. “I have a picture of Tom and I with the Boston skyline behind us,” Mike told me. “It’s one of the best photos I ever saw.”


Back in 1976, Mike looked at Hokule’a in awe as it entered Magic Island, victorious in its journey to Tahiti.

Forty one years later, Mike and Tom could finally welcome it home — this time, as veteran crew members — in a warm homecoming celebration on June 17.

In the journey, Hokule’a and her crew visited 85 ports in 26 countries, traveling 47,000 nautical miles without GPS, powering through the seas with the same knowledge their ancestors used. Hawaii Governor David Ige called it “the longest [ocean] voyage in recorded history.”

Hokule’a served as a beacon of environmentalism as it toured communities across the globe, in an effort to “grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world,” as stated by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Hawaii was the first US state to formally stand with the Paris Agreement, and, according to Ige, that effort started with Hokule’a.

Mana flowed through its sails as it returned to the shores of Hawaii, specifically Magic Island on Oahu. In attendance at the homecoming event were Ige, US Represenative Tulsi Gabbard, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, and, the star of the event and Hawaiian hero, Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a master navigator, and original crew member of Hokule’a’s inaugural voyage.

“It was a spiritual journey, and it was a magic journey,” Tom told me, as we sat down to talk in Honolulu during the celebrations. “For someone who is a bit of an adventurer, it doesn’t get any better than that.”


Jeremy Rellosa can be reached at jeremy.rellosa@globe.com.