The Navigators: The Story of Mau Piailug and the Hōkūle‘a
by Owen James Burke
On Satawal Island in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, there are three kinds of men, and two kinds of sailors: those who can navigate are called Palu; those who can navigate using magic, called Pwo (held in even higher regard than the village chief); and then there are the rest, the “men who cannot navigate, who are not looked up to, and don’t have a name,” the late master navigator and mentor Mau Piailug explained.
Micronesian navigators have traditionally used neither maps nor sextons, but the wind, the waves (of which there are considered to be eight kinds), the stars, the sun, the clouds, the birds and the fish to find their way between the tiny, far-flung islands of the South Pacific. Though some points of cultural pride take root in the Micronesian wayfinding, the ancient method of navigation really comes down to one virtue: survival.
Satawal has very little to offer in terms of subsistence. It’s only 1/2 of a square mile and its reef does not hold much life. In order for the village to stay fed, fishermen must go to another island to find their fish. Now the people of Satawal raise chickens and pigs, but in the past, if no one were able to navigate the 10-hour sail to the flourishing reef of West Fayu Atoll, they’d starve. In the film above, the fishermen were able to catch three times as many fish off Fayu than they were at home.
Mau Piailug (born Pius Piailug in 1932–Mau is a nickname from the Satawalese maumau, or “strong”) was chosen by his grandfather to become a Palu within the first few years of his life, and Mau was reluctantly began his training at the age of 4 or 5. This meant that instead of playing in the sand with the other children his age, he was awake at sunrise every day, performing chores and preparing to go fishing. His unique upbringing was something he probably couldn’t understand as a child, but right up until his death, valued greatly.
Mau Piailug was the last on Satawal to be initiated with a Pwo ceremony before the ritual was ceased until 2007, when Mau presided over the first in 56 years. Some believe the decision to stop the training was made by elders when Western missionaries began to appear on the island after WWII, and it was agreed that it would be best if their wayfinding secrets were kept from outsiders.
In 1973, Mau Piailug ventured to Hawaii when a Peace Corps volunteer offered to take him along. When he arrived, he was astonished to find that the last traditional Hawaiian navigator had just died in 1970. At the age of 41, Piailug was the only Palu alive in Hawaii at the time. He was recruited to join the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Hōkūle‘a project, which built a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel in 1976 and retraced the seaward travels of their ancestors.
After seeing what had happened in Hawaii, feared that the tradition of Micronesian wayfinding navigation would be lost on Satawal, too. He vowed to bring the teaching back to his own culture before it was too late, but this proved to be difficult, as the younger generations on Satawal were too preoccupied with school and Western culture to exclusively study navigation. He did attract the attention of modern-day master navigator Nainoa Thompson, whom he mentored and trained. The two went on to complete multiple long voyages throughout the Pacific together (the first of which being the Hōkūle‘a project).
Mau Piailug continued to teach and voyage well into his later years. He died on July 12, 2010 at home on Satawal after a long battle with diabetes.
Today, Nainoa Thompson, who is now president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, is graciously reviving the ancient art and tradition of master navigation and is currently heading a new Hōkūle‘a project.
Read more — OB
About the video:
The fascinating documentary The Navigators, was first shown in 1983 on PBS. The film chronicles the life of Mau Pilaug, and the inaugural mission, a successful attempt to sail Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti. The crew included legendary Hawaiian watermen like Boogie Kalama, Clifford Ah Mow and Buffalo Keaulana.