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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New canoe a tribute to Piailug

Video: Hokule'a plans voyage to Micronesia, Japan

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Maritime Education Training Center students Bowe Lani, left, and Ryan Salmon apply anti-fouling paint to the hull of the Hokule'a. The voyaging canoe will embark on a journey early next year that will include the presentation of a new voyaging canoe to Mau Piailug, the teacher of a generation of Polynesian navigators in the nearly lost art of open-ocean sailing.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The voyaging canoe Hokule'a and its crews have criss-crossed the Pacific, finding pin-pricks of land on maps of expansive blue ocean for more than three decades and 110,000 miles. It was always high adventure, each trip an explorer's dream.

But when Hokule'a leaves Hawai'i early next year for Micronesia, it will embark on a true journey of the heart.

The canoe's fourth stop on its 4,400-mile Micronesian trip is the tiny atoll Satawal, home of the man who made every previous Hokule'a voyage a reality, the man who taught a new generation of Hawai'i navigators the art of their ancestors: Mau Piailug.

But the visit, announced yesterday by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, is about more than respect.

At Satawal, the crew of Hokule'a and representatives of Hawai'i's six voyaging organizations, will present Piailug with a gift as precious as the one he gave them: An open-ocean sailing canoe that Piailug can use to breathe life into a practice now fading among his own people.

The $300,000 voyaging canoe Alingano Maisu was built by a Big Island voyaging society, Na Kalai Wa'a Moku O Hawai'i. It was launched last month and its creators hope it will help create a Pacific-wide school of navigation.

"He is the constant mentor and leader and support system all these years in our quest to relearn who we are by knowing who we were," said Nainoa Thompson, Piailug's first student and the head of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The trip to Micronesia is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 6, 2007, with a 2,200-mile leg to Majuro. After five stops in Micronesia, the canoe will make its first voyage to Japan. That part of the trip will cover more than 2,600 miles and eight stops, ending May 25 in Yokohama.

The Japan portion of the trip will include a visit to Uwajima and the Ehime Maru Fisheries High School, home port of the ill-fated Ehime Maru. The Japanese training vessel was accidentally sunk off O'ahu in 2001 by a U.S. Navy submarine.

Afterward, Hokule'a will be shipped back to Hawai'i.

The voyage will cover more than 7,000 miles and 85 days of sailing time. There will be several major leadership changes as the voyaging society attempts to create a broader base of seasoned navigators, Thompson said.

The Aloha Medical Mission also will send doctors and nurses for stops in Micronesia to help isolated communities.

Much of the voyage is driven by a sense of obligation to Piailug. Not only is he central to the trip but central to the story of Hokule'a.

When the Polynesian Voyaging Society launched Hokule'a in 1975, it needed a navigator. But the last Polynesian navigator had died in 1969 and only six deep-sea navigators were known to exist.

Piailug was the youngest and answered the call for help. The canoe's 1976 voyage to Tahiti was guided by Piailug.

When Thompson and others later asked Piailug to teach them celestial navigation, he again answered their call. Today there are 13 navigators.

But with each trip to Hawai'i, Piailug would raise chilling concern. Traditional navigation was fading among his people, and fewer deep-sea voyaging canoes were being built.

Micronesian sailors preferred motor boats to canoes and modern navigational tools to the stars. By the 1990s, Piailug's concerns grew more urgent.

"It was as if there was more anxiety and frustration attached to his sensing that children didn't come and ask him about the stars, about the ways of the navigator," Thompson said. "It was depressing that we were growing and they were weakening."

In 2000, Piailug told his Hawai'i students that it was too late for his own people and that he was too old to teach them.

"They were words I did not want to hear," Thompson said. "He said it's OK because in Hawai'i, I planted a seed. He said, 'When my people want to learn, they can come and learn about me.' Much of this voyage is about that seed. It's about being responsive to our teacher."

The trip will include six students from Micronesia selected by Piailug and 18 students from Hawai'i.

Hokule'a will escort Maisu on what will be its maiden voyage, said Chadd Paishon, executive director of Na Kalai Wa'a Moku O Hawai'i.

"To give Mau a canoe is such a small thing," he said. "But it is very large in symbolism that we can give back to his culture a voyaging canoe that will allow them to continue their great seafaring knowledge."

Paishon hopes it will inspire a new generation of Micronesian navigators to remember what Piailug "helped us to remember again."

"It is really important that we get it to them," he said. "There are a few people who are trying to hold on, who realize what they have. But many of the young people are going full-on into Western ways."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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