A Legendary Photographer On The Voyage Of Hokule’a — The Polynesian Canoe That Circled The Globe

Life & Culture Writer
02.02.18

John Bilderback

In the early 1970s, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was moved to craft Hokule’a — a performance accurate double-hull voyaging canoe built in the traditional style of the native people of the region. The intent was to prove that Polynesian people intentionally navigated throughout the Pacific in a concerted effort to find new lands and settle them. When it was built, Hokule’a was the first vessel of its kind to sail the seas in over 600 years, and she makes her way without the benefit of compass, engine, or GPS. Since her launch in 1975, she has traveled as far as Japan and California. But, that simply wasn’t enough.

In May 2014, Hokule’a launched from Hawaii to sail around the world to ports in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and North and South America as part of the Malama Honua voyage. Its mission was to raise awareness of global sustainability practices. After seeing the ship at his local harbor, photographer John Bilderback, a Surfer Magazine senior staff photographer for twenty years, was inspired to collaborate with author Jennifer Allen on a book documenting the four-year voyage. They recorded Hokule’a’s travels to 23 different countries, as well as her experiences in port. The book, Malama Honua: Hokule’a – A Voyage of Hope, forwards the narratives of crew members and master navigators, as well as local pioneers striving to maintain the planet in environmentally sound ways. It is, above all, the story of the connection between people and the planet.

Speaking to John Bilderback on the phone from his home in Hawaii, we asked about the years of work that went into creating this amazing text, including his time on the crew of Hokule’a. He also broke down his gear and what it takes to follow in his career footsteps.

John Bilderback

The book feels as much like a coffee table photo book as it is a text.

Yeah, it’s unusual that way, isn’t it? And going in, that was sort of hard to visualize, you know? I didn’t know what the shape of this thing would be or anything about how it would be done so, it was hard. I go up in a helicopter and I’d have to line up Hokule’a and… say… the Sydney Opera House and I don’t know if I’m trying to frame a long rectangle or a square or what I’m really shooting for. It was unusual in that way; it’s kind of a hybrid between a photo book and a book of just text. But, I think we succeeded.

The editor and publisher get all the credit for its design. I couldn’t imagine trying to layout a design for a voyage that’s gonna take place over four years. It’s just such a big project. I come from a magazine background where our deadlines were every 30 days. This four-year deadline was a real, a real change.