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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 2, 2006

Navigator uses stars, patience

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Mau Piailug stands with a single-hull Micronesian canoe. He has been studying the stars for navigation since he was 4 years old

BOB KRAUSS | The Honolulu Advertiser

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KAWAIHAE, Hawai'i Papa Mau Piailug, master navigator, walks on crutches now and not very far without resting. If his body is wearing out, his mind is strong and he looks at life with pragmatic patience. After all, pragmatic patience has gotten him through many storms and disasters.

Twice his canoe was overwhelmed by the ocean, in 1950 and again in 1969. Towering waves smashed down on the fragile vessel held together with sennit, coconut fiber. Fragile or not, a Micronesian voyaging canoe, about 36 feet long, bends but won't break. It's carved of wood, so it swamps but it doesn't sink.

Mau said he and his crew sat in the water and waited for the storm to be over so they could hoist the sail and continue the voyage.

"What did you do while you sat?" I asked him.

"We made rope," he said.

Rope for rigging a Micronesian canoe is made of sennit. It's the fiber that protects the shell of the coconut inside the husk. To make rope, you have to shinny up a tree and get some coconuts. I asked Mau where he got coconuts on a canoe in the middle of a storm.

He said he normally carried up to 100 coconuts on the canoe, in addition to drinking nuts, and that making rope is a daily activity to keep the canoe in repair. And so another lesson in voyaging began. It's always an adventure.

Mau began voyaging at age 4 when his grandfather, a master navigator, took him in his canoe to West Fayu, about half a day from Satawal, Mau's home. Satawal is a mile long and half a mile wide; no cars or bicycles, no hotels or restaurants, but plenty of canoes.

Navigators on Satawal made regular trips to tiny West Fayu, where there are only coconut palms, birds and fish. Family members went along, so these expeditions were part shopping trips and part family picnics. Everybody camped while the men fished and the women cooked the fish that would feed families on Satawal.

Each canoe in the expedition carried back 10 huge baskets, each filled with 200 large fish. On Satawal, the chiefs distributed the fish to the population of the island, maybe 200 to 300 people. In the meantime, Mau's grandfather taught him the stars in the star compass. On each trip, he learned more.

A star compass is the primary tool in noninstrument navigation. But it is not a tool made of metal or glass or plastic. It is a concept that the navigator carries in his brain. In the compass Mau carries in his head are 32 stars that represent points around the horizon. Each star rises in the east at its same spot every night, crosses the sky in the same orbit and sets at its place in the west.

Mau can look at the sky and orient himself anywhere in the ocean without instruments by looking at the stars. He doesn't know exactly where he is but he knows where he's been and has a good idea where he's going. By the time he was 5, he had the star compass firmly fixed in his memory.

By the time he was 20, Mau was ready to be in charge of a canoe as navigator. Since then, he has sailed as far as Saipan in Micronesian canoes.

He said provisions for a nine-day voyage to Saipan included three baskets of breadfruit, four baskets of taro, 40 drinking coconuts, and water in two 10-gallon glass jugs. Fish augmented the food supply.

He said a single-hulled Micronesian voyaging canoe can carry enough provisions for about nine days for the crew. That's why he wants a double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe that can carry 30 days' provisions and permit Micronesian youth to make longer voyages.

Mau said he's been lost several times and almost starved before finding an island. He blamed himself for narrowly missing death on a simple voyage to West Fayu. He said he drank too much the night before and set out with only two bundles of food. The wind died and he lost his bearings. On the ninth day, out of food and water, he finally found West Fayu. In Hokule'a, he has navigated all over the Pacific, from Hawai'i to New Zealand.

What makes this unpretentious man unique is that he taught the art of noninstrument navigation to Hawaiians who had lost it. What he did violated a strong kapu placed on Micronesian navigators whose knowledge is a family secret, not to be given away.

"The chiefs (on Satawal) were mad to me for teaching Hawaiians," he said. "They ask me, 'Why you teach them?' "

His reason was that the art of ancient navigation was dying. Hawaiians had already lost it. In Micronesia, fewer and fewer young people wanted to learn. By teaching Hawaiians who wanted to learn, Mau could give the ancient art new life. And he succeeded. His teaching has been transmitted Pacific-wide primarily by his leading student, Nainoa Thompson, and others.

What Mau did required uncommon courage. Yet he jokes about it. Here's the story he told of how it happened.

Mau's friend Mike McCoy, a former Peace Corps worker in Micronesia, brought Mau to Hawai'i while members of the Hawai'i's Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1975 were planning the first voyage to Tahiti in Hokule'a.

They were looking for a navigator. McCoy brought Mau to a meeting where explorer David Lewis suggested they look to Micronesia, where ancient navigation has survived on remote islands. McCoy volunteered his friend Mau. The group voted him in.

I asked Mau why he didn't refuse. He shrugged and said, "I didn't know how. I couldn't speak English."

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.