RUSSELL AMIMOTO: HŌKŪLEʻA CAPTAIN | CONSERVATIONIST

Nicci:Where did you come from? What was your life before your work? What was your lifestyle like while you were growing up?

Russell:I was born on Kauai, moved away when I was a baby so I don’t really remember that but I do remember going back all the time after the fact and then grew up here on Oahu. So the family bounced around but ended up in Kalama Valley. Basically spent a lot of time at Sandy Beach. So everything from Irma’s to Alan Davis to Second Bathroom, that was our playground, that’s where we learned about the ocean, that’s our stomping grounds. That led into Hui Nalu and so forth. Kalama Valley, we just ride downhill straight to the beach and someone’s parents were always driving down there on their way to work or driving back from work so we’d just stay there all day and get picked up by somebody… hopefully. Long days at the beach.  

Nicci: When did you start in your interest [in sailing]?

Russell:It started basically through paddling. I never thought I was gonna Captain Hōkūleʻa. That was never even something I thought I could ever do. So paddling with Hui Nalu, Bruce was my coach, Nainoa was our other coach. It was like, come help out on dry dock. If you can fix your surfboard you can do fiberglass work.  

Nicci: How old were you?

Russell:The first time I went out I was taking the canoe from Aloha Tower where we used to be at the Maritime Center to Manaloa Bay and I think I was about 16 or something then.  

 

Nicci: Did you love it? Were you hooked?​Russell:​Bruce just said to do it, so I did it. At one point I remember Tava and Keffler behind me showing me how to steer. That was my introduction to the canoe and then I helped out with dry dock after that.  

Nicci: What does that mean help out with dry dock? When it comes into port and stuff?

Russell:So it was in the dry dock and I could do fiberglass work like I said so I said, “Oh yeah, I’ll come help out.” From there they hired me on to help out full time at dry dock. And then after that was done then I got hired on to start running dry docks. So it just became my job to do fiberglass work and anytime Hōkūleʻa was in dry dock to do that; lashing, fiberglass, woodwork. Which is good cause then I knew how everything worked and how everything got put together and if anything broke I would be the guy to fix it. So there was a great need for me to go along. That’s why I went on every voyage since ’99 and I was apart of every voyage. Not the whole entire thing, but apart of every voyage.  

 

Nicci: So when you are the Captain of the ship do you have to do all the preparations or is there like a system in place that does all the preparations?

Russell:There’s checklists and everything and as a Captain you assign everybody their duties. So you basically make sure it all gets done and you make sure that you trust the people who you assign to get those things done. So you have somebody doing all your logistics. They’re doing all the paperwork and clearance when you come into harbors and all that stuff. So Heidi did all that kinda stuff; prior and during. And then you have somebody doing fishing, you have somebody doing your safety stuff. You have somebody as a doctor, everybody has jobs and everybody has their responsibilities. Somebody’s doing documentation the whole time. Everybody has something to do.  

 

Nicci: Where were you starting from and ending at?

Russell:I started in Galapagos. So from Hawaii we flew to Ecuador and then Ecuador is like the jumping in point for Galapagos. So we went through customs in Ecuador. From Galapagos we sailed to Rapa Nui and then Rapa Nui, we stayed there for 11 days. We went to Pitcairn for five hours, four hours.  

Nicci: What was the craziest thing that happened to [you during your voyage]?

Russell:No 5 craziest things, 5 just unbelievable things… On the way to Pitcairn we came across Sperm Whales and of course nobody was ready for it. We’re all looking for this island that’s like 10 feet high, not very big at all.  

 

 

Nicci: Where were you? The Marquesas?

Russell:We left Rapa Nui, we were heading to Pitcairn. Pitcairn is a, it’s about the size of like Rabbit Island. A little bit bigger than Rabbit Island.  

Kai: How far from Rapa Nui to Pitcairn, about?It’s about 1,000 miles. 900 something miles. So we’re looking for that, and we come right across Sperm Whales and I’m like, “Oh Sperm Whales!” So everyone runs to the front and we don’t realize they’re right in front of us. Nobody has a camera ready so we’re like, people taking last minute photos with their cell phones and a couple with cameras. But we’re like so close already everybody’s just like, you can see it’s there but it’s… So anyway we came about this far, right over the top of one of them. It’s like whoa, everybody was like excited. So we saw that, that was cool. At nighttime we had, it was really weird there was like lightning storms all around us. It was all these storm systems  all around. So we had like really windy days, we had like dead calm days, like reflection on the water all the clouds, it kind of mirrored itself. But nighttime we had night rainbows. Moonbows. They’re from the moon being in the right position behind you or it like shines into the rain and it’s crazy. It’s like silvery rainbows; so it’s the same colors but they’re all silvery colors at nighttime.  

 

Nicci: The Hōkūleʻa in general, culturally there’s that connection and you feel like you’re reliving these steps that the ancients did and all of that; it’s pretty cool. And relearning all of that knowledge and sharing it with other people. Otherwise those knowledges will go extinct, right?

Russel:Totally and as much as we’ve learned, as much as we voyage and we just went around the world and sailed all this time, we still, well at least me, still when we voyage it’s like the people before us were so much stronger and knowledgable and just more amazing than us because this is what they were given, this is what they had and they made the most of it. They were at a whole other level than us even at our best. So we still have a lot more to learn we have a lot more to go which is good.  

Nicci: Has your experience with Hōkūleʻa affected what you do for work?

Russell:Yeah Hōkūleʻa has kind of been the driving force behind everything in my life so far from the point where I get involved in Hōkūleʻa dry dock I basically worked to make sure that I could do more voyages. Which ended up landing me doing fiberglass work and building canoes for 15 years of my life and running dry dock for Hōkūleʻa which allowed me to make Hōkūleʻa and cruise my life. Through all the experiences with voyaging that opened up my eyes to the world of conservation through going to different places in Hawaii and around the Pacific, showing me what Hawaii is supposed to be like, what our ocean resources are really supposed to be like. It’s not like Honolua Bay and Waikiki and these places where there’s no live coral anymore. The Papio we catch are only this big and it’s supposed to be better and the reason it’s better in these other places is because people take care of it and they take ownership of it and so fourth. So that landed me with the Nature Conservancy and that’s been my job ever since. 

Nicci: So what do you do now for the Nature Conservancy?

Russell:My focus is on re-monitoring so to bring monitoring around the state. But then my passion and my job is working with communities to do their own re-monitoring and to teach them how to monitor and the help them with their monitoring and to make sure that they understand the information that we gather from our monitoring and also make sure we understand information that they share with us. A lot of times the science and scientists with our organization, it doesn’t always line up so I’m the interpreter between the two.

 

Nicci: Do you think that’s been successful, communicating with the community, giving them knowledge help them possibly help sustain their coastline?

Russell:Yeah I think it’s been successful, I think there’s a long way to go. It’s interesting in the marine conservation field, conservation has turned from more of a scientific based and focused field to more of a community based focused field. For our Hawaii conservation conference every year, now more than 50% of our toxin presentations are community based and the people are more community and less science and the science is being done by communities and by local people and Hawaiian people. It’s what’s important to them in the long run they’re not going anywhere. It’s not just their PHD or their grad student project it’s what’s gonna benefit them and their families for future generations. They’ve also been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years here in Hawaii. It’s just a different form now and a different way of looking at it.  

Nicci: What inspires you to keep going back to doing these voyages with Hōkūleʻa?

 

Russell:Obviously things have changed overtime mainly with myself as far as who I am and what’s going on in my life. When I first started off it was this great big adventure and you’re learning so much the entire time, you’re meeting these amazing people, great experiences. Then realizing, wow I’m having these great experiences and I could share this with other people and get other people to have these great experiences, so it shifted into that. Now it’s a whole other shift with me being a father and seeing that even if my kids don’t do this same kind of thing it would be good to show them you can live out your dreams, you can do whatever you want. You should never hold yourself back to anything. So that’s one of the reasons why I do it but at the same time I also do it because I feel like I’ve been given a lot of opportunity and chances and through that I’ve learned a lot and I’m at the point where I can help make those opportunities for other people and hopefully inspire other people in the same way I’ve been inspired. Create opportunity and then maybe allow someone else to fulfill their dreams.  

Nicci: If you had a message for people what would that be?

Russell:I think the big thing for me is our mindset has to shift and it has to be something that just kind of shifts in everybody that there is a problem, we’re apart of the problem, and we all have to do something to make it better. We can’t keep doing what we’ve always been doing, we can’t expect things to change if we don’t do anything about it. Small things like even in Tahiti, when I was there in ’99 kids were just throwing rubbish out the back of the truck riding around it’s like, “What are you doing?!”… “Don’t worry, my uncle will pick it up, it’s all good. That’s his job.” … “Yeah but it’s not good, don’t throw rubbish out the back.” It’s way better now. They stopped doing that so Tahiti, it’s a whole different place there now. So much less rubbish on the side of the road, it makes a big difference and I’m sure that affects the ocean and so forth. Just understanding small things and also the big things. Small things are apart of the mindset and understanding that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. Of course that’s not just litter but it goes all the way up to the big things, the whole climate change thing and all of the other major things that are affecting maybe not us or not us immediately or quickly but future generations. How are we going to leave this better for our children or how are we setting it up, not just the house we leave our kids. What do we teach them? All we can do is what we can do.  

Nicci: So you’ll keep doing voyages?

Russell: Hope so! As long as they let me.​ Maybe the kids will start voyaging sometime but if they don’t want to, I don’t care. I’m about what they wanna do and I think that’s the most important thing that no matter what you wanna do, don’t limit yourself and go for it.


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