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Master navigator shared his secrets

Mau Piailug preserved the art of navigating vast stretches of open water without instruments

Mau Piailug.

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Mau Piailug was a master navigator who sparked a renaissance of voyaging using ancient Polynesian and Micronesian navigation methods. He was the navigator on Hokule'a - "Star of Joy" or Arcturus to modern astronomers - a 60-foot, twin-hulled sailing canoe that sailed 2,500 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976 without instruments or charts.

The voyage - undertaken by the Polynesian Voyaging Society - spurred a revival of long-distance Pacific voyaging using traditional navigation. It also provided grist to support oral traditions and archaeological evidence of ancient seafarers sailing between Tahiti and Hawaii and voyaging as far afield as South America and Alaska.

Piailug died July 12 on his native island of Satawal in Micronesia's Caroline Islands. He was 78.

A traditional voyaging canoe off Satawal in Micronesia.

"[Piailug] gave the Polynesians - the Hawaiians and others - he gave them back their mastery of the sea and navigation," says Ben Finney, professor emeritus in anthropology at the University of Hawaii and a founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS). "He helped them rediscover the ancient way of doing things. He was a beloved guru, to use a current metaphor."

Finney says the number of traditional navigators in Polynesia and Micronesia has grown, along with interest in "wayfinding," thanks to Piailug's willingness to share what once had been secret knowledge that navigators passed on to apprentices, starting in childhood.

Piailug navigated by the sun, the moon and the stars; by his reading of the winds, the clouds, the currents and ocean swells; and by the behavior of the birds and marine life. "You keep track of the relationship of all these objects that the natural world offers you," and let them guide you to a landfall, Finney says.

Piailug learned to navigate from his grandfather, who was a master navigator, according to Nainoa Thompson, director of the society, on the society's website (

Piailug's education began at age 1, when his grandfather would take him to tide pools around the island to give him a feel for waters and winds. Piailug started sailing with his grandfather at age 4 and was ceremonially initiated as a navigator at 18, but he wasn't designated a master until after the death of his grandfather - his teacher - says Thompson, who was a student of Piailug's and now teaches others.

The Micronesian school of navigation uses a star compass with 32 points that is based on the rising and setting points of the sun, moon, stars, planets and constellations in Micronesia's sky, Finney says. The masters teach their students by drawing a circle in the sand to represent the sky and using coral pebbles to show where the stars are and how they move, and where the islands are, relative to the stars and the compass points.

Piailug, with son, conducts a navigation class in 1983.

"They take them through didactic drills and have them recite where the stars are and where the islands are," Finney says. The students commit it all to memory. "They carry no instruments, no charts, nothing, nothing [when they go to sea], just the navigator's eye and his brain."

Finney says the ancient Polynesians - inhabitants of Hawaii and the other southeast island groups - also had a "compass" fixed in their minds, but this one was based on prevailing winds, although they also used the stars and other signposts from their natural surroundings to navigate.

In 1978, PVS attempted a second voyage to Tahiti on Hokule'a, but Piailug was not aboard this time as navigator. Six hours into the voyage, the canoe capsized, and one of the crewmembers was lost trying to paddle back to Hawaii on a surfboard to get help. The society decided it needed Piailug's help to train its navigators if it was to move forward safely in its efforts to revive long-distance voyaging.

Some of the elders from Piailug's home islands criticized him for revealing the secret knowledge of the Micronesian navigators to the Hawaiians. Finney says Piailug told them, "No. If we fight among ourselves, we'll lose our way of navigation, and everybody will lose."

Thompson, Piailug's star pupil and now a teacher of the traditional ways in his own right, was navigator on a second successful voyage to Tahiti, in 1980. Piailug was aboard but only as an observer.

In 2007, Piailug initiated five Hawaiians and 11 Micronesians into Pwo, which is the ninth of 15 degrees in the "Weriyeng" school of navigation in Micronesia. With the role of navigator come responsibilities not usually associated in Western minds with the job, according to information on the PVS website - light, love, kindness and compassion.

"If there are conflicts, the navigator must resolve them; if there is sickness, the navigator's responsibility is to heal; if there is damage, the navigator must repair it," Piailug told his graduates.

Piailug sailed 2,500 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976 without instruments or charts.

The society built a second twin-hull sailing canoe, the 57-foot Hawai'iloa, and has undertaken four more extended voyages - to Japan, New Zealand, the Marquesas and Easter Island. It is planning a nine-year circumnavigation, starting with a 42-port tour of the United States next year, all of which started with Mau Piailug sharing what he knew.

Finney describes the 60-foot Hokule'a as a "performance-accurate full-scale replica" of a traditional Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe. It's based on a 200-year-old design from the era of Capt. James Cook, the English explorer who "discovered" the Hawaiian islands, and is built of modern materials - plywood, fiberglass and resin. It has a beam of 15.5 feet, weighs 16,000 pounds and carries 540 square feet of sail on twin masts rigged either crab-claw or Marconi-style. Steering is with a long paddle. It sails at 4 to 6 knots.

"It's a design that we would like to think replicates an ancient canoe," Finney says.

The Smithsonian Institution recognized Piailug as one of the last surviving master navigators, and the University of Hawaii awarded him an honorary doctorate for helping to revive an important element of Hawaii's traditional culture.

Finney says Piailug's guiding principle was, "If we lost this, we would be lost because we wouldn't know who we are. Now we know we are canoe people."

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.