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Navigators honored in Micronesia

Jan 1, 2003

Fulfilling the wish of master star navigator Mau Piailug, who revived traditional Micronesian navigation techniques two decades ago, the open-ocean canoe Makali'i recently made a historic trip from Hawaii through the islands of Micronesia. Built in traditional Hawaiian style, Makali'i made a series of stops in the islands of the western Pacific. Its voyage celebrated what Piailug hopes will mark the continued growth of the incredible celestial navigation skills practiced for centuries by Micronesian mariners.

The voyage took many months and was a first in many ways. It marked the first visit of a Polynesian canoe to the region in centuries. It included a large group of pupils being introduced to the ways of using the stars, clouds, and waves to navigate. And it was the first time women were among the students and crew steering such a vessel, a major departure from tradition.

The 67-year-old Mau Piailug was honored with traditional drink, colorful dance, and overflowing crowds everywhere he went. Hailing from the tiny atoll island of Satawal in the Outer Caroline Islands, Piailug's skills are thought to be nothing short of magical by his fellow islanders and even his peers. This gives him the stature of a rock star and the respect of a king.

This reverence was evident as his peers listened to him address a crowd in Chuuk and ask that others share their traditional skills as well, lest the old ways die out. It was Piailug who started the revival of traditional navigation techniques more than 20 years ago. Celestial navigation skills had long disappeared in Hawaii. Worried that celestial navigation would die with him in Micronesia as well, Piailug accepted an offer from anthropologist Ben Finney in 1975 to navigate the first Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule'a. Piailug's unselfish sharing of his knowledge and skills have been the reason for the rebirth of these voyages. And these voyages have been credited with helping rejuvenate native Hawaiian culture and language use.

On this latest trip aboard Makali'i, the canoe started in early February in the Hawaiian Islands accompanied by an oceangoing catamaran that served as quarters for some of the students who took turns working on the traditional ship. It made stops in Majuro, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Satawal, Guam, and Saipan. At the islands, local sailors joined the canoe for a leg or two to experience the ways of the open ocean. Winds were high and seas rough for a good part of the journey, but this actually fed the enthusiasm of the crew.

This voyage was perhaps the greatest reminder of one of Piailug's sayings. It has always been his philosophy that the ocean does not divide people, it unites them.


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