Saturday, February 6, 1999

By Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
Navigator Mau Piailug stands with his son Sesario
Sewralur in front of the voyaging canoe Makali’i.

6,220 miles
of tradition

Celestial navigation will
guide the man known as 'Turtle'
on a three-month journey
across the Pacific

By Rod Thompson


KAWAIHAE, Hawaii -- The man called "Turtle" is about to guide a voyage across 2,100 miles of open ocean.

"It's an easy one," says Pius Piailug, 66, known throughout the Pacific as Mau, meaning hawksbill turtle.

The turtle is known for its strong back, says Mau's son Sesario Sewralur.

In 23 years of teaching traditional navigation learned on his home island of Satawal, Mau has become the backbone of a rebirth of traditional navigation in the Pacific.

Now the 54-foot Big Island canoe Makali'i is about to carry Mau to Majuro, 2,100 miles west of here, and then on a series of voyages that will reach Satawal and other islands, and cover 6,220 miles. The whole journey will take three months.

Since Mau guided the then-new Hokule'a to Tahiti in 1976, other canoes have been built across Polynesia, including the Makali'i, launched in 1995.

"If it wasn't for him, the Makali'i wouldn't be sitting here today," said Clay Bertelmann, business manager for the $400,000 voyage, which is moving forward despite lacking half the needed money.

"He brought back something that at one time was the epitome of our culture. To take him home is really a small gift," Bertelmann said.

When Mau was born, in about 1933 (Satawal people didn't count birthdays then), Micronesia was a trust territory of Japan.

The Japanese, as the Germans before them, banned long distance navigation, Mau said.

The Japanese used the population of the small islands as slave labor, he said. They didn't want to arrive to find that the population had sailed away.

But Mau's grandfather insisted he learn navigation, starting with the names of stars. When his grandfather died, his father taught him.

The only thing he saw of World War II was American planes flying overhead, but the end of the war brought freedom to sail where he wanted.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Mau made voyages of 100 miles or so.

In the 1970s, a New Zealand yachtsman, skeptical of navigation without instruments, challenged Puluwat navigator Hippour to sail him 500 miles to Saipan.

After Hippour succeeded with the yacht, Mau repeated the voyage in 1974 using a traditional canoe.

Mau was in Honolulu in 1976 visiting friend Mike McCoy when Hokule'a builders were looking for a navigator.

At a meeting McCoy and Mau attended, the builders asked whom McCoy would recommend. "He's sitting right here," McCoy answered.

Mau studied the stars of the Hawaii-to-Tahiti route but the 3,000-mile voyage through unknown waters made even the strong-backed Turtle nervous.

After 31 days, the Hokule'a arrived at Mataiva, near Tahiti.

"Inside my body, nervous is run away. Scared is run away," Mau said. He was happy.

New navigation students followed, first Clay's brother Shorty, then Nainoa Thompson, who adapted the complicated Satawalese system to Hawaiian use.

It was a radical departure for Mau, coming from a culture where old navigators kept secrets almost to the moments of their deaths, Bertelmann said.

"He literally broke tradition by teaching somebody outside his island, outside Micronesia," he said.

When Makali'i sails from Hualalai Resort, possibly Monday, it will carry a crew of 16 -- four from Micronesia, the rest from Hawaii, male and female, the youngest 19 years old, most of them students, said Bertelmann.

They sail now because trade winds are expected to be strong, unlike summer when winds in Micronesia can disappear, said Makali'i captain Chadd Paishon.

They need to finish by the end of April when typhoons begin, he said.

Unlike the 1976 Tahiti trip, they will be in the North Pacific the whole time, able to see the North Star. "Having the North Star is like having one of your best friends," Paishon said.

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