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Campus & Community

At the helm of the Iosepa canoe

Captain Mark Ellis leads the Iosepa voyage to new horizons after almost a decade of the canoe’s inactivity

Mark Ellis standing by Iosepa.
Mark Ellis standing by Iosepa
Photo by Camille Jovenes

Growing up, he has always respected and loved voyaging, said Mark Ellis from Nu’uanu, Hawaii, and the director of Voyaging Experiences at the Polynesian Cultural Center. He said the opportutiny to sail the Iosepa is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to represent his culture and be entrusted as the captain.

Ellis said his fascination with the ocean began during his childhood in Hawaii. He said growing up in a Hawaiian community, the sea is deeply revered as part of their culture and everyday lifestyle. When Ellis was 7 years old, he said he was fascinated with the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled Hawaiian canoe. He said his lifelong intrigue about the canoe eventually aligned perfectly with his career aspirations. “Upon seeing the vessel, I told my parents that I wanted to sail on it. Little did I know that it would be something that would happen in the future,” he said.

Besides his fascination with the Hōkūleʻ a, he said he was intrigued by his ancestors voyaging experiences. Getting a glimpse of what his ancestors did led to his curiosity about how his ancestors managed to voyage around the world without technology and modern tools.

As time passed, Ellis said education was his parents’ priority. He completed his undergraduate degree in organizational development and communications in 1994. Unsure of his path, he said he served a mission then became a flight attendant. Ellis said he went to graduate school at Utah State University, where he studied instructional technology and design. “After graduate school, I received enormous offers to work at consulting firms in the tech industry and education. I entered a career, but my longing for the ocean and voyaging remained,” he said.

A Hawaiian compass
A Hawaiian compass.
Photo by Camille Jovenes

As his career progressed, he said his longing to voyage on the Hōkūleʻa slowly aligned with where he went.

For the past 10 years, he has been able to transfer to jobs that helped him feel close to his community. He became a voyaging educator and taught curriculum at Kamehameha School, he said. As part of the Moananuiakea voyage crew, Ellis said he also worked as a project manager for voyaging engagement, helping students and the community for Hawaiian voyages before becoming the director of Voyaging Experiences at PCC. “I am grateful for the experiences I had that led me back to voyaging,” he said.

According to the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s website, Ellis first sailed on Wa’a Kaulua in 2007 and has been on several voyages since.

Ellis said he has sailed from Yakutat to Juneau, Ketchikan, Tacoma to San Francisco, and San Francisco to Ventura. He also sailed from Samoa to Aotearoa, Florida to Virginia, New York to Virginia and around the
Galápa-gos Islands, he added.

A close-up of Iosepa.
A close-up of Iosepa.
Photo by Camille Jovenes

Iosepa Voyage

The preparations for the Iosepa’s voyage were extensive, said Ellis. Since the canoe was first launched in 2001, he said it has undergone upgrades and repairs whenever it is set to sail. For this year’s voyage, he said the crew epoxied the whole canoe and made several upgrades in its body, ensuring the canoe was seaworthy and safe for crew members to sail.

Kalāhikiola Enos Haverly, a freshman majoring in political science from Hauula, said Ellis trained him to be part of the crew for the Iosepa voyage. Haverly said he had no sailing experience but was willing to learn and be trained for the journey. The sail of the Iosepa was monumental for him because he had witnessed its inactivity for years, and seeing it sail again struck his interest in joining and being part of the crew. “Training for the voyage began in early January 2024, with sessions held twice a week for five months,” he said.

During his training, Haverly said he was reminded of the beauty of his culture. Being part of what their ancestors have done is very special for him, he added. “Growing up in Hawaii, I was exposed to Hawaiian culture. I spoke in Hawaiian, learned to read and write in Hawaiian before English and was taught to practice and love the culture including being on the water,” he said.

Throughout the training process, Haverly said he learned essential skills like knot-tying, assisting in basic canoe repairs, and navigation using natural elements such as the star compass, wave patterns, bird flight directions and wind directions. Under Ellis’s mentorship, Haverly said he learned to appreciate the ocean even more. Part of their training was spending as much time as possible in the sea to make the voyage comfortable.