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Iosepa: A floating classroom

The Iosepa has become part of the university and the Laie community over the years

Bi-weekly training sessions for Iosepa crew members at
the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Bi-weekly training sessions for Iosepa crew members at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Photo by Moevai Tefan

The Iosepa canoe last sailed eight years ago, says the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Instagram page. This year, in 2024, the canoe is voyaging again for the Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture. “The festival happens every four years, so they choose a different place to host it, whether Polynesia, Melanesia, or Micronesia,” said Mark Ellis, the director of Voyaging Experiences at PCC. “Hawaii is honored to host the festival from June 10 to the 15 this year,” he said. The eight years of not sailing was due to high maintenance cost, the COVID-19 pandemic and inconsistent weather, said Robecca Salleh, a sophomore from Malaysia majoring in biology, who works as a demo guide at the Iosepa Section of the PCC. The canoe festival was the motivation that got the crew to get the boat back in operation, she said.

Ellis said the BYU-Hawaii canoe first launched in 2001 as a floating classroom to teach the students navigation through voyaging. The Iosepa has been a part of the community since it was first launched, said Roy Kaipo Manoa, the Hawaiian Village cultural expert & presenter at PCC. “I remember [the Iosepa] being out in the field where McDonald’s is now,” he said.

According to Manoa, William Wallace, also known as Uncle Bill, was the director of the BYUH Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian Language and Culture Studies. He used the Iosepa to teach students to respect the land and the ocean while using these resources. Manoa added, “As an islander, the sea has always been our refrigerator. If we needed something to eat, we would go to the sea together, and in return, we would pay respect by taking care of the ocean.”

This year the community came together and prepared the Iosepa for its journey, ensuring it is seaworthy for the festival, said Ellis. “We put in a lot of work, like repairing the inside and out of the canoe and varnishing it,” Ellis said. The sailing crew consists of BYUH students, faculty, PCC employees and community members. Training sessions were held twice a week to ensure competency among the crew, he explained.

Iosepa crew members at the weekly training
People prepare for the Iosepa sailing.
Photo by Moevai Tefan

Salleh said the canoe and those working on it have taught her no matter where people are from, their ancestors were intelligent people and the traditional knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation must be cherished.

Salleh shared her sailing experience saying, “I had the chance to present our beloved Iosepa at the Canoe Festival 2024 in Kualoa, and we chanted the Hiki Mai before we sailed it to the ocean.”

Salleh expressed gratitude for the knowledge she gained and for being able to teach others about sailing skills, such as navigating by the stars, learning sailing knots, and making ropes from natural materials.