This very minute, a B.C. Ferries vessel blasts a warning at some wayfarer in the path of its impossibly wide-turning and slow-braking abilities. Through radar, a GPS, computer or perhaps a depth finder, a crew member responds to instrumentation signalling a safety concern. A low, determined drone of the horn warns a wayward vessel to change course.
Pius “Mau” Piailug had no such luxury. The tradition of his peoples’ oceanic trips was entirely without instrumentation.
Well before pubescence, this child of Satawal was designated to be trained as a Master Navigator for his people.
Satawal, a tiny atoll seemingly floating on the Pacific Ocean is one amongst a cluster of the Micronesian Caroline Islands. It is 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) long and up to 0.8 kilometres (0.50 mi) wide. An entire culture exists on 1.3 square kilometres (0.50 sq mi). Even today, Satawal is seldom visited by outsiders because the island is not able to provide anchorage for large vessels.
The Master Navigator skills had been used over the centuries by Mau’s ancestors. To a young boy, the training was grueling, boring and uninviting, but his father and grandfather persisted. Young Mau absorbed, practiced and polished skills that would otherwise have been lost to his people.
Little did he know, as a mature man, he would grieve over the possibility of his skills being lost to a modern world.
As a navigator-in-training, Mau sat countless hours, silent and watchful, on the stern of canoes with every sense fully open. As fellow islanders paddled and hoisted sails, he studied every minute detail of the surroundings. He smelled, felt, heard, saw and tasted:
- Colors – especially of clouds, water and the horizon
- Canoe movements
Everything in nature provided the data he needed. The key was to assimilate it. Assimilation needed practice and and confidence in intuitive communing and spiritual connecting.
In any weather, Mau would hold his Buddha-like position in the stern and advise, not lead, the crew safely to their destination with phenomenal accuracy. Some destinations were hundreds of miles away.
As modernization crept into life, a much older Mau became dismayed. Young people were more interested in motorized boats than canoes. It became more difficult to interest them in the rigors of being trained as a Master Navigator. The role was seemingly becoming less relevant, revered and respected.
After dedicating his life to a tradition so vital to the survival of his people, Mau worried that his position and knowledge would die with him.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, a Polynesian culture east of Satawal also wrestled with cultural concerns. Hawaiians were facing the need for a cultural revitalization. The young people needed to have their pride bolstered. Their oceanic navigational skills needed resurrection. They had no traditional canoe and no traditional navigational knowledge.
They gathered crude sketches and drawings and designed a canoe similar to those used by their ancestors. Next, they began an exhaustive search for a Polynesian navigator. No one could be found.
Fortunately they learned of a Micronesian navigator by the name of “Mau” Piailug. They invited him to be their teacher. Mau agreed and arrived in Hawaii. He began to train the crew for a trip from Hawaii to Tahiti using no instrumentation. The trip proved successful, but there was a wrinkle. The crew bickered with each other and fighting ensued. Mau declared his distaste over the lack of respect and flew home from Tahiti. In spite of Mau’s written instructions, the crew were not able to return to Hawaii without instruments. They knew they still needed their Master Navigator.
Mau’s disappointment in himself and the crew haunted him. The crew had missed the fundamental importance of being at one with the ocean, traveling in peace and harmony with nature and each other.
Thankfully the Hawaiians didn’t give up. They sent a delegate to Satawal and, with difficulty, lured Mau back to Hawaii. This time, they asked him to undertake a 6,000 mile trip to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian triangle.
This trip was not only successfully completed without instrumentation, it was also completed with appropriate respect and reverence for all involved. Mau was satisfied with the crew’s performance.
On a video produced by the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii, showing the trip to Easter Island, Mau admitted his reticence about traveling such a great distance in waters far outside his territory. Since a Master Navigator does not sleep and only catches short catnaps throughout the journey, he knew it would be a long and grueling trip. Different crew members took turns sitting quietly with him, but at one point he fell asleep and lost “the memory”. He explained that while sitting on the stern, the navigator has to remember everything encountered. Otherwise the canoe is lost. The teachings of his ancestors came back reassuringly: “When lost, remember where you came from. Then visualize the island.” He had to think their destination into existence.
He remembered being taught that the canoe was his island until he reached his destination. Imagine his relief when Easter Island, 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi), loomed in front of them on the horizon.
The respect, appreciation and love for this teacher was more than the crew knew how to express. The Hawaiians decided to build him a canoe to show their gratitude. However, Mau was diagnosed with severe diabetes and discovered his legs would not allow him to sail again. Instead of undergoing kidney dialysis in Hawaii, Mau chose to return home to live out his remaining life. The Hawaiians continued building the canoe. When it was finished, they sailed it to Satawal where it was presented to a joyful and appreciative teacher.
Mau was ready for them. He turned the tables. He had organized a Pwa – the ceremony to officially recognize and name Master Navigators. The Hawaiians who studied and practiced with Mau and several members of Mau’s people were rewarded with the official Micronesian ceremony giving full Master Navigator status.
Mau died in July of 2010 knowing his people would continue to be known and respected for their navigational knowledge. As much as his presence restored cultural pride for the Hawaiians, the Master Navigator role was back in its respectful position amongst the island peoples.
In 2009, an anthropologist, Wade Davis, who had learned of Mau’s triumph, shared it as part of the CBC’s Massey Lecture Series. His lecture titled “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” addresses the question “How had the Polynesians figured out how to navigate the Pacific centuries ago?”. (Click on the first lecture to access the topic of Polynesia)
Not bad, Papa Mau, for a young man from Satawal who didn’t even want to be a Master Navigator.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom with the world. May civilization now honour your memory by being like the crew who made it to Rapa Nui – able to understand the underlying revelations and the connectivity of all. May we intuit the whole universe and live in harmony with all we have been given so freely.
After all, that’s why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world! Right, Papa?