Born and raised in ‘Āina Haina on O‘ahu, Austin Kino is a navigator, educator and cultural practitioner who is inspiring connections with the ocean and causing ripples. He founded Holokino Hawai‘i, a sailing business that gives guests aboard the Hawaiian sailing canoe Uluwehi an opportunity to experience wayfinding techniques used by navigators for centuries throughout the Pacific. He is also part of Huli, a collective of ocean-based individuals promoting environmental stewardship and cultural awareness through site-based education for students, community members and businesses. Inspiring projects by the collective include the Maunalua Junior Konohiki Program and Maunalua Future Navigators Program.
Austin became enthralled with the ocean during his hanabata days in a four-man canoe with his dad and brother. He comes from a long line of canoe paddlers and ocean lovers, who taught him how to paddle, rig a canoe, surf, and fish. He grew up among elite watermen like George Downing, Nainoa Thompson and Bruce Blakenfield – trusted mentors who shared their wisdom, great stories and work with humility and aloha. They inspire generations of people, including Austin, to not only protect our marine realm, environment and culture, but also to change hearts and minds through collaboration and by connecting communities.
Austin is passionate about wayfinding. While in high school, Austin got involved with the Polynesian Voyaging Society as a member of Kapu Na Keiki, a young group of sailors that trained with Hōkūleʻa crew members. Hōkūleʻa, which means “Star of Gladness,” was the first traditional Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoe built in 600 years and has been sailing since 1975. As a Kamehameha Schools Kapalama junior, Austin first sailed to Kauaʻi and Ni’ihau on Hōkūle‘a in 2005. Since then, he’s been on four open ocean voyages, including on the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage. Along the way, he’s discovered a stronger connection to his Hawaiian culture and his ancestors, as well as a commitment and kuleana for passing on his knowledge.
Q&A with Austin
Q: You are deeply involved with the ocean culture in Hawai‘i, what was your attraction to the Ocean?
A: For me, the richness of the ocean culture in Hawai‘i is deeply tied to the people that make up the ocean community. From learning about the history of the early Polynesian explorers to stories right here in my own community, I was attracted to the ocean because I love the ocean just as much as all of these people who came before me, and I wanted to be a part of the tribe.
Q: What were the aspects of the ocean that attracted you the most?
A: Since I was a kid I can remember how much I loved the feeling of being in the ocean. I can honestly say there has never been a time where I came out of the ocean unhappy. Over time, I have also grown to appreciate how much the ocean grounds me to my home. I love the feeling when I am surfing in Waikiki that I am in the same water my grandparents, and parents grew up playing in. It's like being able to time travel, although much has changed on the shore that feeling of enjoying the ocean has never changed, and hopefully, never will.
Q: Who were the people you looked up to when you were young?
A: From the time I was in middle school and able to converse with adults, I remember getting the opportunity often to sit down and talk story with Uncle George Downing. Whether in the little back corner office of his Downing Hawai‘i store on Waialae Ave. or on the seawall in front of his Aina Haina home before paddling out to surf. Uncle George was a pioneer of ocean sports in Hawai‘i and his influence is known worldwide, but still he would make the time if you asked him a question. In all of his humility and aloha, he would share with us stories that I will never forget. I remember Uncle George being the first person to help me understand that if I truly loved the ocean, then I would have to do my part to protect it from changing.
Q: Did your dad, seeped in canoe sports and paddle making, have an influence on you?
A: My dad by far has been my biggest influence on the ocean person that I am today. Literally from the time I was in diapers, he was taking my brother and I out in four-man surfing canoes to share his love of the ocean. My dad and I communicate best through our time spent in the ocean together, whether he was coaching me in canoe paddling or we were discussing a hard topic on our drive home from the beach, the ocean continues to bring us closer together.
Q: What are the sports that really attracted you?
A: Out of all of the ocean sports that attract me I would say that I feel the most at home when I am in or around any Hawaiian canoe (wa'a) Whether it be for deep sea sailing, canoe racing, canoe surfing or fishing, I have always been drawn to the beauty of canoes and their ability to allow ocean goers to experience so many different phenomena that nature has to offer. Canoes have taught me a great deal about accountability. We all learn how to lash a canoe when we are kids, but when the day came that I was out in big surf or raging wind and understood the responsibility I had in returning my crew back to shore safely, I learned what the responsibility (kuleana) truly was. If you can imagine, I take my lashing and canoe maintenance very seriously nowadays after some of the wild voyages me and some friends have experienced over the years.
Q: How did you get involved with Hōkūleʻa?
A: When I was in high school, there was a group of my classmates who were beginning to volunteer on weekends with Hōkūleʻa’s dry dock and lashing and I tagged along. Time spent with the Hōkūleʻa crew kept me coming back every weekend and, before I knew it, I had met my second family – a family of voyagers. Hōkūleʻa has changed my life, but more than all of the great lessons I have learned and places I have traveled, I am most fortunate to still have that same first group of crew members as probably my closest group of friends to this day, and I am extremely grateful for that bond.
Q: What were some of your most valuable, memorable moments on her?
A: In 2014 I had an opportunity to sail from Hawai‘i to Tahiti on the first leg of the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage. On this first leg, I was a part of a team of 5 apprentice navigators who spent a collective time of around 10 years training together to find Tahiti and sail in the wake of our ancestors. My most memorable moment was standing aboard Hōkūleʻa’s deck at Pale Kai in Hilo Bay fronting a crowd of hundreds of people. As a young navigation team, we were all feeling extremely nervous about the challenge ahead as none of us had ever sailed deep sea. Let alone, been in charge of finding an island that far away.
I will never forget that, as we were preparing to depart in front of all of these community members who love and consider Hōkūleʻa to be almost a member of their own families, we all had this great fear of letting down our people of Hawai‘i if we were to fail. Our teacher Nainoa Thompson, who was the first Hawaiian wayfinder to sail Hokulea to Tahiti in 700 years, got us into a tight little huddle and said, “I know you are scared and it would be so easy to go ahead and keep Hōkūleʻa tied to this dock and go back on the beach to enjoy seeing her sitting in this bay. But that is not what she was built for, she was built to sail. So if you are ready, I want you to trust in yourselves ,and let go of the fear when you let go of those dock lines because it's time to voyage.”
Q: Have you ever experienced fear on the canoe?
A: There was one evening near the doldrums, I believe it was as we were getting very close to passing the equator. The doldrums are known for extremely unpredictable weather patterns because with all of the heat being concentrated on that part of earth's latitude can generate large condensation and large storm systems. We had one night where we were sailing in and out of enormous rain squalls. Inside of the squalls the winds were upwards of 40-50 miles an hour and then as soon as we passed through them the winds would fall dead silent. It became an all-hands-on-deck situation, as throughout the entire night, we had to constantly open sails during the calm and quickly shut them so they did not get ripped down to the deck in the black rain squalls. I remember looking at the veteran crew members aboard who had made this passage many times and what kept me feeling safe was their demeanor. They say that a good captain's stories get funnier the worse the weather gets, as to keep the crew calm. Well, let’s just say we heard almost all of the best stories and funny jokes that night from our senior crew.
Q: Where did your sails on her take you?
A: 2014- Hawai‘i to Tahiti
2015- North Island of Aotearoa to the South Island of Aotearoa
2016- U.S. Virgin Islands - British Virgin Islands - Cuba - Florida Keys
2017- Rapa Nui - Pitcairn Island, Marqueasas, Tahiti
Q: Who inspired you to want to be an open ocean canoe sailor?
A: I grew up canoe paddling at Hui Nalu Canoe Club with Uncle Nainoa Thompson and Uncle Bruce Blankenfield. These two amazing watermen grew up in Niu Valley not far from me and grew up fishing and surfing the same as I did. But their deep love for the ocean and adventure led them to a lifelong dedication to deep sea voyaging and non- instrument Polynesian navigation. I was inspired hearing their stories as a young paddler and wanted to adventure like they did. I should mention that they hold the rank and responsibility of Master Navigator (PWO) alongside only a handful of others in all of Polynesia.
Q: How are you perpetuating canoe sailing today?
A: In 2014, as I was preparing for the first leg of Hōkūleʻa’s worldwide voyage, I got together with a friend to find a way to give back to our community where we could share all that we were learning from the voyage with kids in our neighborhood. The name of our organization is Huli the Movement (hulithemovement.com). After 6 years in operation, we continue to offer environmental education field days in Maunalua bay to students, community members and professional organizations. We achieve our mission through offering field days based in our mountain regions, traditional fishponds, and aboard our Hawaiian sailing canoe Uluwehi.
Q: What are you doing to help to keep our oceans and shorelines clean?
A: Our approach to keeping our shorelines and ocean clean is by taking groups to experience the entire ahupuaʻa (land division) region. Through a variety of outplanting and invasive removal field days, our program participants gain an understanding that whatever we do as stewards on the land will affect the health of our oceans. We are continuing to improve our approach to understand the best practices of how we can all live more sustainability as members of an island community.
Q: What is it that you look for when you seek an authentic aloha shirt?
A: For me, I really enjoy seeing the story through the print of an aloha shirt. It's impossible to describe in words the definition of good art, but I guess I would have to compare it a lot to how I feel when I think of the ocean. An authentic aloha shirt makes me think of a time or place where I have experienced a special moment at home in Hawai‘i.
Q: What does a favorite aloha shirt mean to you?
A: For me, a favorite aloha shirt is like a memory hanging up in my closet. When I look at one of my shirts, I can remember the specific baby lūʻau’s when I was wearing it and immediately think of the smell of the local flowers and the awesome Hawaiian music that was playing when I was making my plate of food. Thinking back now, it almost kind of feels like I was in an old fashioned movie when everyone was just happy and things were simpler. So when I put on that particular shirt, it's never to go and do something stressful or work related. That’s the shirt I wear when I'm invited to parties and want to bring that energy with me.
Q: Do you like to give an aloha shirt as a gift for birthdays, holidays, Christmas, and Father’s Day?
A: I do really think that a great aloha shirt will never be out of style so, in that sense, yes I do enjoy giving them as gifts, especially to family members because, now at 33 years in age, I still see my dad wearing on occasion an aloha shirt that I gave to him for his birthday over 10 years ago. When I see him still enjoying the gift, it makes me really happy.
Q: You remember your first aloha shirt?
A: Shucks, I do not remember my first aloha shirt. Recently, I had a close family member pass away and I was given some of his favorite aloha shirts that he wore back in the 1960-70’s. I can say that some of these pieces are my most meaningful possessions.