SEA PLASMA — T
he navigator lived intimately with the esoteric at one of Earth's outposts, a greeny-blue microcosm of magic running on maritime. Unshared, his sailing knowledge was worthless. It was secret and serious, prized more than breath. His father was a paluelap, a grandmaster navigator who, holding him in tide pools and gentle surf, let the pulse of the Pacific first frighten then awe then osmose his baby son who would become a palu (master navigator) at age 20. His mind initiated by chants, his body adorned with turmeric and fragrant leis. But this rite of passage — pwo — verged on extinction. By 1952, white missionaries were busy killing ancient customs in the Yap Islands, including tiny Satawal, a thickly forested coral scalene a mile long and a half mile wide where life centered on fishing and farming. Societally, forged with unique strength, wisdom, and ferocity, a palu ranked higher than any chief in Yap. It took a special mind to master the star compass, a fine-art puzzle of astronomy, plus soul and acute calm crucial for survival in this remote part of the world.
PHOTOS MICHAEL H. KEW For millennia, celestial navigation was used by the Lapita — the first seafarers to colonize the Pacific — with proxies of stars, waves, and flight paths of birds. After his pwo and now a palu, the navigator studied in his village's boathouse and out at sea, training under three paluelaps (elders). His final test saw him alighting alone from Satawal, mindful of incantations to appease ocean spirits as he sailed overnight to Pikelot, 60 miles to the northwest, an uninhabited "harvest island" full of fish and sea turtles. Into the trade wind he steered his singleoutrigger voyaging proa, surfing across the great deep blue between two chosen stars: one rising, one setting — departure star aft, destination star fore. He kept course assisted by the arc of the moon and sun and by studying swells and where they struck the hull. Marine subtleties — salinity, ocean temperature, floating plant debris, wind speed, wind direction — were used to judge his distance from land he was yet to see. Water colors revealed depth. Distant clouds, reflecting sunlight off lagoons, worked in concert with land-based birds winging their way home. For the palu, this was also home, his life anew. In the ensuing decades Mau became the bestknown of Micronesia's master navigators, employing no instruments, not even a sextant or compass, mentally drafting his routes from this elemental ag g r eg ate. The palu was Pius 'Mau' Piailug, nicknamed from the Satawalese word maumau, meaning "strong," and so highly regarded that, in 2016, three years after his death, Matson, Hawaii's biggest ocean cargo transport company, christened its newest ship — the Papa Mau — in his honor. Mau was a mentor at the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) in Hawaii, where he renewed interest in astronavigation, notably by captaining (or
"We were facing cultural extinction. We had no navigators left."
A Yapase sailor in "local attire" on Yap Day.
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navigating) the Hokule'a, a famed 62-ft, 12-ton, full-scale fiberglass replica of a double-hulled voyaging canoe, on her 1976 Hawaii-to-Tahiti journey that intended — and succeeded — to test and trump the theory stating Polynesians intentionally embarked on no-instrument transpacific trips. (The project nixed the long-standing hypothesis that Hawaii was settled by seafarers who "accidentally" drifted there from South America.) In 1969 Mau befriended Mike McCoy, a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to Satawal. McCoy sailed with Mau, and they tagged sea turtles. McCoy grew interested in Satawalese navigation and contacted American anthropologist Ben Finney, an expert on the history, culture and society of Hawaiian surfing. In Honolulu, Finney researched ancient Polynesian navigation. McCoy's Peace Corps assignment ended in 1973, the same year Finney co-founded the PVS. Before returning to Honolulu, McCoy asked Mau to join him. Finney felt the PVS should recruit Mau for the Hokule'a project since no Native Hawaiian traditional navigators remained. The Pacific's remaining few were elderly Micronesians, reluctant to give their sacred knowledge to outsiders. Mau was just 41, the youngest of the group. But, like it had in Hawaii, he feared traditional Micronesian navigation would die when those elders
The March 2019 issue of the West's premier sailing and marine magazine.