From remote Ulithi to Hawai‘i, Max Yarawamai has navigated his way through an extraordinary life
The first time I met Max Yarawamai, in the fall of 2015, we were halfway across the globe sailing with the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a in South Africa—he as a senior crew member and me as a Hana Hou! correspondent. Despite the cold weather, he had a freshly shaved head after succumbing to several bolo-head members of the crew who had pestered him to join their fictitious “Southern Ocean Bald Eagles Club”.
It seemed like every time I saw Max he was laughing, and so was everyone around him. Then one morning at crew meeting, chief navigator Nainoa Thompson made an announcement that if anyone were feeling stressed by the challenging voyage so far away from home, they should “go talk to Max.”
The more I heard about Max, the more I wanted to know: Born on the remote Micronesian atoll of Ulithi. Sent away in his early teens to attend one of Hawai‘i’s premier private schools. Stayed in Hawai‘i and became the adoptive son of master Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug, who helped Hawaiian voyagers rediscover the traditional Pacific art of sailing by the stars. Ace spotter of islands. Big-time landscape contractor. Philanthropist and champion of Micronesian communities, both here in Hawai‘i and back home.
“Max is real honest about stuff, and he’s got a good-natured attitude about him that makes him really helpful as a crew member,” says senior navigator Kālepa Baybayan. “He’s just someone you always know you can count on.”
When he was just 13, Maximus Yarawamai’s life was turned inside out. Until then he had been growing up as a chief’s son in Ulithi, a ring of islets surrounding a massive lagoon in Yap, Micronesia, about four thousand miles west of Hawai‘i. His home island of Fatherei—just over a mile long, two hundred yards wide and barely above sea level—had only about eighty residents when he was growing up, with no power or running water and mostly thatched homes. By chiefly decree, everyone in Ulithi wore traditional attire—men in thu (loincloths) and women topless in fiber skirts. With little access to outside goods, the islanders lived on what they harvested from the sea and were able to grow in the thin, sandy soil.
Then one day after English class at the high school run by Peace Corps volunteers on Ulithi’s main island, Max’s teachers started telling him he had a chance to go study at the exclusive Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy boarding school in Waimea on Hawai‘i Island. He had been sponsored to go to HPA by the couple he now calls his “haole (white) parents,” Will and Judy Hancock, who worked at the school and had become surrogate parents to a group of Micronesian students the year before. They wrote to the school in Ulithi and said they were interested in bringing a student to HPA. “We said, ‘We don’t necessarily need the brainiest kid in the school, just the most adaptable,” Judy recalls, “and they sent us Max. In the end he changed our lives and impacted our kids’ lives tremendously.”
So Max came—and was immediately overwhelmed by culture shock. For starters, at HPA he had to wear a coat and tie to dinner every night and learn formal place setting and serving. “The first year I was here, I cried every day, telling them to send me home,” he remembers. “I used to run away up in the hills because I just couldn’t handle all this stuff I had to go through.” But in those days Waimea was a small ranching town, with no traffic lights and just one restaurant. Everyone knew Max and looked out for him. “The whole town really helped me out,” he says.
After graduation Max wound up over in Honolulu, where he started a yard service company and went to night school to earn a contracting license. He remembers being part of a crowd in 1980 welcoming Hōkūle‘a back from a voyage and getting introduced to the master navigator Mau Piailug. Since Mau’s home island of Satawal is close enough to Ulithi that they were able to understand each other’s language, Max soon became Mau’s right-hand man in Hawai‘i. Over the years, Mau would often stay with Max and his family, and, in Pacific tradition, he deemed Max to be his hānai (adoptive) son. “He’d just call on me anytime,” Max says. “At that time I didn’t have a clue that I’m gonna be sailing on Hōkūle‘a someday. I’d just go over and help out.”
Around that same time, Max met his wife, Cindy, an art teacher from Michigan, when they were paddling together in the same canoe club. Then after Cindy became pregnant with their first daughter, they decided to move back to Waimea. For about a dozen years, the family lived on the HPA campus as dormitory parents, and later they took in numerous other children from Ulithi and many other Pacific islands.“It was like our house was everybody’s house, with kids coming in and out.” Max says. “We’ve raised a lot of hānai kids over the years.”
For more than a decade, Max stayed close with Mau without getting too involved in Hawai‘i’s burgeoning voyaging community, largely because of the demands of his landscaping business. But in Ulithi, Max had grown up paddling around the lagoon to fish, and his father was a skilled canoe sailor who could navigate easily between the atoll’s islands despite being functionally blind. In Hawai‘i, Max remained an avid diver and fisherman, and at one point a competitive ocean kayaker.
When he finally felt ready to ask Mau to teach him voyaging and navigation, Mau wasted little time putting him to the test, bringing him along on the first long-distance canoe voyage mounted by Māori from Aotearoa (New Zealand) in centuries. The nearly two-thousand-mile trip to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands for the 1992 Pacific Arts Festival proved to be especially brutal, as the first-time crew struggled through no less than five battering storms in bone-chilling temperatures. The weather got so bad that even their escort boat cut and ran. It got to the point, Max says, “where I was really figuring out, if the canoe flips over, how am I gonna come out from underneath? I remember I couldn’t sleep because every time I close my eyes, I’m looking at my kids and wife.”
Meanwhile back at home, Cindy and their two girls had not heard anything from Max in more than a month. “The canoe was so late coming in that they thought it was lost,” she remembers. “One of the Māori women was even told that her husband had died. Finally we were able to talk to them by satellite at UH, so we knew they were OK.”
Cindy flew down to Rarotonga to meet the overdue canoe, which finally arrived right at sunset. When the Māori crew’s families found out she and another Hawai‘i woman had husbands aboard, she says, “They took us down to the ocean by hand, and they were hugging and kissing us. Everybody was in the water holding hands and singing, and one lady next to me was just sobbing. I said, ‘Is your husband on the canoe?’ and she said, ‘No, that’s my country.’ From that point on we became part of them, and they took us everywhere.”
In the course of his half-dozen or so major overseas voyages, Max has gained something of a reputation as an eagle-eyed island spotter. In one often-told voyaging tale, he was the first to spot Rapa Nui (Easter Island) when Hōkūle‘a voyaged there in 1999 to reconnect with the far eastern corner of the Polynesian Triangle. Expected to be a hard, month-long sail against prevailing winds, instead the 1,450-mile trip took only nineteen days in ideal conditions. “The sailing was beautiful,” Max recalls. “We just boogied straight to the island.”
They had just started a zigzag search pattern to look for land when Max spotted a small hole in the nearly solid cloud cover they’d been sailing under for several days. “I saw this thing like somebody would draw with ink, just faintly on the horizon,” he remembers. “And I go, ‘That’s an island, right there,’ but nobody believed me.” He started climbing up the mast to see better, he says, “but Nainoa was yelling at me to get down ’cause I might get hurt. So I climbed down and he climbed up! And then I see the tears in his eyes, and I go, ‘That’s it.’”
In 2007 both Max and his daughter Ana, who had followed in his footsteps as a voyager, were aboard Hōkūle‘a when she sailed through Micronesia to Mau’s island of Satawal and beyond to Ulithi. “I never dreamt I would be coming home on this canoe,” Max says. “It was so special to experience my own history with the Hawaiians.”
At the first island they landed on, he says, “all of my aunties were together as we came in, and they were so proud. We did a lot of crying.” He remembers being in the men’s house on Fatherei and his dad thanking the Hawaiians for bringing back “a ‘driftwood’ that he threw out to sea a long time ago, and it’s been floating, floating so long. So he thanked them for bringing his driftwood back.”
When Max wasn’t off voyaging, he was busy building his business into a major landscaping contractor. His big break came when a golf resort developer he knew from a Bible study group, Sam Ainslie, was so impressed by Max that he brought him on to help at the Four Seasons Hualalai in Kona. Then when Sam became president of the planned high-luxury Kūki‘o golf community next door, he gave Max the chance to build the landscaping from the lava up.
“I just look for the quiet guy in the room who’s doing all the work—and that was Max,” says Sam, who has become a close friend. “You’ve got all these architects, drawings, plans, but who is the guy in the field who can actually make it happen? Max is one of those people who can just go and get it done.” To handle the project, Max started a new company, Resort Management Group, with business partner Reed Kishinami. Since then they’ve done landscaping for some of the biggest resort and residential developments in the Islands. Depending on what projects they’ve got going, the company employs about 150 workers at any given time, and Max regularly has to spend at least part of his workweek away from home on other islands.
Looking out at the expansive view of the pastured Waimea hills and the HPA campus from the spacious living room of the “dream home” the Hancocks built and later sold to them, Cindy muses that a lot of what Max does on a canoe voyage applies to his business, and vice versa. “I think becoming a manager—working with crews and learning how to talk to people—has given him a lot of experience and skills that he uses more and more in his business, in sailing and in his life,” she says. “Plus, he’s just a natural.”
Max, who’s 58, is standing by the basketball court in a park he built on agricultural land close to the Kona airport that he leases for his company’s nursery and base yard. The sign by the gate says Wow Wow Park because “that’s what all the kids said when we were building it,” Max chuckles. His business success has allowed him the resources to do what is most important to him: helping his fellow islanders.“In Kona there’s just no place for their kids to play,” he says, so he built the park and converted an office warehouse into a community event hall.
Each year, Max hosts a big graduation party at the park to recognize the Micronesian kids finishing high school. “What I’ve realized is that our community has to kind of do things on our own,” he says. “I’m trying to convince people that if we don’t educate our young generation and start voting and all that, nobody’s gonna listen to us. We have a lot of success stories—we’ve got doctors, lawyers, tech people who are doing so well—but we’re still always hearing all the negatives about our people.”
To help improve medical services in the remote island communities back home, Max and his “haole brother” Thane, a doctor who likes to say he “switched lives” with Max by moving to Yap and marrying a local woman there, started a nonprofit called Oceania Community Health. Several years ago they built a clinic on Fatherei to replace one that had been blown down in a typhoon. One of the doctors who volunteers for the foundation’s medical projects is Max’s younger daughter Mikela, who was in part inspired by Thane to become a physician and now practices family medicine in Honolulu.
Max is especially excited about his latest project: working with the Okeanos Foundation to get one of their high-tech canoes, which can desalinate water using solar power and has a motor that can run on coconut oil. In addition to providing reliable transportation to the outer islands in disasters and medical emergencies, the canoes can be used to train young sailors in traditional navigation.
Max says he’s always trying to teach young people Mau’s message of not forgetting the ways of the past, even when combining them with the best of what today’s world has to offer. “It’s like sailing for me,” Max says. “I always feel that when things are getting hard on the canoe, I gain strength as I go back into the past, and from my family back home. So the longer we’re out there and the rougher it gets, I’m like, ‘Bring it on, because this is what I’m out here for.’”
Story by Derek Ferrar for HanaHou! The Magazine of Hawaian Airlines, Issue June/July 2018