Chad Kalepa Baybayan, Seafarer Who Sailed Using the Stars, Dies at 64

Chad Kalepa Baybayan, a revered Hawaiian seafarer who was a torchbearer for the art of “wayfinding,” which ancestral Polynesian sailors used to navigate the Pacific Ocean by studying the stars, trade winds and flight patterns of birds, died on April 8 at a friend’s home in Seattle. He was 64.

His daughter Kala Tanaka said the cause was a heart attack. He suffered from diabetes and had had a quadruple bypass over a year ago.

Many centuries ago, oceanic tribes sailed the waters between the islands and atolls of Polynesia in double-hulled canoes. They plotted their course by consulting the directions concealed within sunrises and sunsets, ocean swells, the behaviors of fish and the reflections of land in clouds. As Polynesia was colonized and modernized, the secrets of celestial navigation were nearly forgotten.

Mr. Baybayan became a face of a cultural movement to preserve these old ways, and a tireless educator who taught the science of wayfinding in classrooms and auditoriums across the country.

Mr. Baybayan (pronounced “bay-BAY-an”) was a teenager when he joined the crew of the fabled Hokule’a (“Star of Gladness”), a voyaging canoe in which he learned to become a wayfinder under the tutelage of the Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug.

At the time, traditional Hawaiian culture was in peril. Usage of the native language was declining, sacred lands were being desecrated and fewer ceremonies were being held. In 1973 the Polynesian Voyaging Society was formed in hopes of preserving the region’s seafaring heritage, and it built Hokule’a, a replica of an ancient deep-sea voyaging canoe.

In 1976, the vessel embarked on a historic trip from Hawaii to Tahiti without the aid of navigational tools, in what was intended as a display of wayfinding’s technical sophistication. The trip, which was led by Mr. Piailug and documented by National Geographic, also sought to disprove theories that Polynesia was settled accidentally by hapless sailors lost in an aimless drift. (Mr. Baybayan was too young to go on that famous voyage, although he served ceremonial drinks made from awa root to his crewmates before their departure.)

When Hokule’a finally made landfall in Tahiti, thousands of people had gathered on shore to greet the canoe, and the occasion was declared an island-wide celebration. The voyage’s success galvanized a revival of native culture, known as the Hawaiian renaissance, that included a celebration of slack-key guitar music and the hula.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Mr. Baybayan sailed on Hokule’a for more than 40 years, rising to the rank of captain and master navigator — though, he told National Geographic in 2014, “I will never be a ‘master’ because there will always be more to learn.”

“What it truly does is sharpen the human mind, intellect and ability to decipher codes in the environment,” he added. “It’s also incredibly rewarding to navigate and make a distant landfall. For me, it’s the most euphoric feeling that I have ever felt.”

In 2007, Mr. Baybayan was initiated by Mr. Piailug, who was then 75, into an elite class of wayfinders known as Pwo. The ritual commenced with the blowing of a conch shell, and Mr. Baybayan was given a bracelet of stinging coral to mark his new status. In 2014, he helped lead Hokule’a on a three-year circumnavigation of the globe.

In his late 30s, while raising a family and juggling jobs as a hotel porter and a ramp agent for United Airlines, Mr. Baybayan decided to pursue a higher education. He graduated with a B.A. in Hawaiian studies from the University of Hawaii at Hilo in 1997. He then earned a master’s degree in education from Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash.

Mr. Baybayan became an educator at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, using its planetarium to teach visitors about celestial navigation. He also traveled to classrooms across the country to talk about wayfinding with the aid of an interactive star compass floor mat. In 2013, he gave a TEDx Talk that recounted the history of Hokule’a.

“There are only a few people in the world who can really navigate properly, and Kalepa was one of them,” Nainoa Thompson, a fellow Hokule’a master navigator, said in a phone interview. “But where Kalepa separates himself is how far he took things with education. He broke the rules.

“Traditional navigation schools,” Mr. Thompson continued, “have always been highly protective of the knowledge. There are 4,000-year-old navigation schools in Micronesia that still won’t teach their methods to outsiders. History will say that Kalepa was the one who stopped the extinction of the great navigators because he shared our knowledge with the world.”

Chad Kalepa Baybayan was born in Honolulu on Aug. 15, 1956, and was raised in Lahaina, Maui. His father, Llewellyn, was a laborer and postal worker. His mother, Lillian (Kalepa) Baybayan, was a homemaker. As a boy, he went spearfishing with a grandfather and his family ate their fresh catches for dinner, served with poi.

In high school, Chad played basketball and football and was on the wrestling team. In 1975, when Hokule’a docked on the shore of his seaside town, he felt something stir inside him.

“It just grabbed my heart,” he said in an interview in 2000. “I knew that if there was anything in my life that I wanted to do it was sail on her.”

His daughter elaborated: “For him, seeing Hokule’a was like seeing this thing he’d only heard about in stories and history books, but then there it was and it was real. It wasn’t just a story anymore.”

When Mr. Baybayan first joined the crew, he was charged with tasks like washing and scrubbing the vessel. He began learning the techniques of wayfinding in his 20s, and he went on to guide voyages that took the canoe to Cape Town, Nova Scotia, Cuba and New York.

Mr. Baybayan’s progressive approach to preserving tradition sometimes made him a polarizing figure in his Native Hawaiian community.

He was an ardent supporter of the construction of a $1.4 billion telescope on the dormant volcano Mauna Kea, a sacred site considered the resting place of gods. Called the Thirty Meter Telescope, it is expected to be one of the most powerful telescopes ever made, but activists have protested its construction for years.

“I’ve heard the comment that the protesters want to be on the right side of history,” Mr. Baybayan told The Associated Press in 2019. “I want to be on the right side of humanity. I want to be on the right side of enlightenment.”

In addition to his daughter Kala, Mr. Baybayan is survived by his wife, Audrey (Kaide) Baybayan; another daughter, Pukanala Llanes; a son, Aukai Baybayan; his mother, Lillian Suter; two brothers, Clayton and Lyle Baybayan; a sister, Lisa Baybayan, who now goes by Sister Ann Marie; a half brother, Theodore Suter; and six grandchildren.

Last month, Mr. Baybayan was in Seattle with his wife to visit some of his grandchildren when he collapsed suddenly one evening.

The night after he died, a group of his crewmates, including Mr. Thompson, gathered aboard Hokule’a for a moonlight passage in his memory. Mr. Thompson, who had studied celestial navigation alongside Mr. Baybayan as a young man, looked toward the stars as he honored his fellow wayfinder.

“I think Kalepa has gone to where the spirits go,” Mr. Thompson said. “Now he is up there with our ancestors who dwell in the black of the night.”

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