Master navigator Chad Kalepa Baybayan dies


  • Pwo master navigator and Hokule’a Captain Chad Kalepa Baybayan teaches Honokaa High School seniors about ancient Hawaiian navigation on Feb. 26, 2019, using ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center’s portable planetarium. (Hawaii Tribune-Herald/file photo)

Chad Kalepa Baybayan, master (pwo) navigator and a captain of the Hokule‘a, died late Thursday night Hawaii time while visiting family in Seattle.

Baybayan, 65, was a Kailua-Kona resident and resident navigator at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.


He was a crew member of the Hokule‘a since 1975, when he was 19, after the historic Polynesian Voyaging Society’s double-hulled canoe docked in his hometown, Lahaina, Maui.

“Mahalo nui loa to all of our ‘ohana, immediate and extended, for your comforting thoughts of aloha, pule and support from places near and far,” said a statement released by Baybayan’s family Friday morning. “Thank you also for allowing us this time and space to deal with the passing of our beloved husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, cousin, uncle and friend to so many. Me ke aloha nui no.”

Baybayan underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 2019, but that didn’t keep the outspoken proponent of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea from delivering scathing testimony to the County Council shortly thereafter in opposition to a resolution for a 60-day construction moratorium for the project.

“There currently is a self-imposed moratorium on construction access, and of any observatory activity, imposed by those blockading access to the summit in the name of kapu aloha,” Baybayan told council members at the time. “Their actions demonstrate anything but aloha.”

The resolution passed by a 6-3 vote, but the blockade of Maunakea Access Road — which was ended, or at least put on hold, by the coronavirus pandemic — made the moratorium moot. Baybayan received backlash from some in the Native Hawaiian community for his stance on the telescope.

Baybayan — who held a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies from Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian Language at UH-Hilo and a master’s in education from Heritage College — delivered outreach programs and coordinated projects with science center partners at ‘Imiloa.

“Kalepa’s passing leaves a significant hole in ‘Imiloa,” said Ka‘iu Kimura, the astronomy center’s director.

“Kalepa was an active part of planning for and building ‘Imiloa on our advisory board,” Kimura said. “… He connected ‘Imiloa with the voyaging community — not just the statewide voyaging community, but the Pacific and beyond voyaging community, which is such a … significant pillar to making ‘Imiloa what it is in the voyaging ‘ohana.

“Kalepa also created all of our navigation and outreach curriculum. He built up all of the navigational information in our planetarium, created lessons and teaching tools and activities to engage people, from the young to kupuna. And he never said no, whenever we asked him to do outreach, to visit a community or to be a part of a grant.”

Baybayan was mentored by the celebrated Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug, credited for reviving the art of non-instrument navigation in Hawaii. Piailug eventually bestowed Baybayan with the esteemed title of pwo navigator.

“I was challenged to preserve this art as a pwo navigator,” Baybayan once said. “It was really Mau passing on the stewardship of the art. But at the root of this is that you are an educator. You are a person who has to preserve the art. And the way to preserve the art is to share it.”

According to the Hokule‘a website, Baybayan served as captain and navigator for eight voyages.

He took part in the three-year Malama Honua worldwide voyage, which wrapped up in June 2017 after traveling 42,000 nautical miles, visiting 150 ports in more than 20 countries, and training a new generation of navigators, educators, scientists and community stewards.

Baybayan delivered the 2017 keynote address at UH-Hilo’s fall 2017 commencement, urging the graduates not to be observers, but to get into the race and paddle and be like the mariners who sailed into the Pacific and discovered the stars.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele of Hilo, who represents Hawaii’s second congressional district, said “it was with great sadness” he received news of Baybayan’s passing.

“Kalepa saw the Hokule‘a as a symbol of the accomplishments of the Native Hawaiian people in the face of great adversity, and a promise for all that is possible,” Kahele said. Kalepa’s legacy will live on through the thousands of children throughout Hawaii and the world that he inspired to look to the heavens and dream that anything is possible.”


Baybayan is survived by his wife, Audrey, his children Pa‘anaakala, Pukanala, and ‘Aukai, and grandchildren.

Email John Burnett at

  1. Ken Conklin April 10, 2021 3:36 am

    I am so sad about the death of Pwo navigator Chad Baybayan. He was the real thing. Unlike others whose names I will not mention, Mr. Baybayan did not come from a family of wealth, privilege, political connections, and sovereignty activism. He was truly interested in astronomy and navigation for their own sake, not for their usefulness as political weapons. He had courage not only when navigating the open ocean but also when standing up to support the 30-meter telescope project because of the enormous contributions that telescope will make to our understanding of our place in the universe as well as to the future of mankind as we navigate spacecraft among the stars. Me ke aloha pumehana.

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