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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 16, 2007

Canoes sail into history at Satawal

 •  Hokule'a 2007 voyages to Micronesia and Japan
Follow the Hokule'a as they sail to Micronesia and Japan in our special report.

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

Satawal, a tiny verdant Micronesian island behind a strong reef, is the focus of Hawai'i's voyaging community today as the Hawaiian voyaging canoes Ho-kule'a and Alingano Maisu lie at anchor in its lee.

The canoes have come to repay a debt to present master navigator Mau Piailug and his community the Alingano Maisu as thanks for his gift of teaching Hawaiians the art of non-instrument navigation.

The gift, Hawaiian voyagers are finding, is not an end but a next step in a relationship that is drawing the Pacific's diverse island peoples together.

Five Hawaiian navigators on the voyage Chad Baybayan, Shorty Bertelmann, Bruce Blankenfeld, Chadd Paishon and Nainoa Thompson will join at least one and perhaps several Micronesian navigators tomorrow in their induction into the society of master navigators of this region. The five all have guided Polynesian sailing canoes without instruments across long stretches of open ocean and made the landfalls they set out to make.

"This is a very, very high honor for these islanders, and they're going to bestow this for the very first time upon people who really are not residents of the island," Baybayan said in a posting on the Polynesian Voyaging Society Web site.

Hawaiian navigator Thompson said the significance of Satawal and its navigational system to the Hawaiian voyaging renaissance cannot be underestimated.

"It may be one of the smallest islands on the chart it is about one mile long and three-quarters of a mile wide but its significance to us is huge. This has been the genesis of all our voyaging tradition. We come to this tiny island as humble children," Thompson said by satellite phone yesterday.

PROVING A THEORY

When the voyaging canoe Hokule'a was built, its purpose was a single voyage to Tahiti, to be navigated by non-instrument means, to prove that it was possible for Polynesians to sail the Pacific, knowing where they were going.

At the time, a prominent theory was that the Pacific islands had been populated through accidental drift voyages, under the assumption that the Stone Age cultures of the Pacific could not have developed a sufficiently sophisticated navigational system to make repeated long-distance voyages to intended landfalls.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society had identified a Polynesian navigator named Tevake in an outlying island group of the Solomon Islands who it hoped would guide the canoe, but by the time Hokule'a was ready, he had died.

The society then learned of Mau Piailug of Satawal in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, who agreed to find Tahiti for them.

"For Hokule'a to be successful, we had to find Tahiti. Mau stepped forward to pull Tahiti out of the sea," Thompson said, using imagery designed to represent the appearance of an island on the wide horizon after a long voyage.

In the years following, Piailug taught Hawaiians navigation, and the next time Hokule'a sailed to Tahiti, it had a Hawaiian non-instrument navigator Thompson. Since then, a handful of other Hawaiians have learned the art of non-instrument navigation, and there are voyaging canoes sailing or under construction on each of the four largest Hawaiian Islands.

BATTERED BY WEATHER

The Hawaiian canoes arrived off Satawal Wednesday night, after sighting it about two hours before sunset, said Hawaiian navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, aboard Hokule'a.

The canoes left Kawaihae in late January, and for seven weeks have experienced contrary winds, storms, sweltering heat, incessant rains and all the other pleasures of deep-sea voyaging on open canoes. The crews yesterday morning were setting anchors to safely secure the vessels in the calm waters off Satawal's reef, in preparation to go ashore for three days of ceremonies.

Looking across the deck of Hokule'a to the reef 300 yards away, and to the island beyond, Blankenfeld described his view.

"It's a classic Pacific island. There is white sand, and at the edge, coconut trees and naupaka are ringing the whole island. Inside that are the big trees, huge 'ulu (breadfruit)," he said.

The canoes are anchoring outside because there is no significant lagoon or safe pass through the reef for vessels as big as these voyaging canoes. Alingano Maisu's hulls are 54 feet long and Hokule'a's are 63 feet long, and both are close to 20 feet in width.

"It would be sketchy" to try to pull inside the reef, Blankenfeld said.

Baybayan said he understands that the navigator investiture ceremony will be held entirely tomorrow, Hawai'i time, although other reports are that it could take as much as 48 hours to complete.

MASTER NAVIGATOR

Each of the Hawai'i navigators, along with Piailug's son, Sesario Sewralur and perhaps a few others, will be awarded the rank of master navigator, the term for which is "pwo," said Lambert Lokopwe, himself already pwo. He is from the nearby island of Pulap, which the canoes sailed past on their way to Satawal. These islands, with Ulithi and a few others, form a group that uses a system or school of traditional non-instrument navigation called Weriyeng.

Speaking by satellite phone from the deck of Hokule'a, Lokopwe said there are three levels of master navigator, pwo being the first. The next higher degree, representing something he likened to a doctorate in navigation, is rhepiniwok.

The highest rank in the system's navigational ranking is mwurhulap the rank held by Piailug and few others.

Lokopwe said mwurhulap represents a doctor emeritus a level at which the navigator understands everything the navigational system has to offer and is able to teach its details. That would include not only knowing navigation itself, but also seamanship skills such as recovering from being swamped and upended at sea, and the construction of voyaging canoes "That's the most important," he said.

The investiture ceremony on Satawal will have all available navigators in attendance, Lokopwe said.

"All of us will be present, but only two will be performing" the ceremony, he said.

Piailug will be one of those two. He did not know the identity of the other.

The Hawaiian navigators left Hawai'i without knowing of the proposed investiture.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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