Mau Piailug

Mau Piailug
from Hawai’iki Rising – a book by Sam Low

In 1975, just before Hokule’a was launched, Mau Piailug arrived from his home island in Satawal to guide the canoe to Tahiti.

Among the tall muscular Hawaiians at the launching ceremonies was a man smaller in stature with darker skin and cropped curly black hair. He was a newcomer, having flown in from Micronesia on the very day of the launching. But from the way the crew treated him, even a casual observer could perceive that he was regarded with a kind of awe. His name was Pius Mau Piailug. He would navigate Hokule’a to Tahiti in the ancient way – without chart, compass or sextant – finding land instead by a world of natural signs. Mau’s home is a tiny coral atoll – one of many that stretch like a string of pearls across the Pacific from Yap Island in the west to Ponape Island in the east – the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. His home island is Satawal, a tiny upthrust ring of coral and sand about a mile in diameter. Satawal sits alone in an empty part of the Pacific, five hundred miles south of Guam. Here Mau lives very much as his ancestors did. He harvests taro from a garden behind his house. He gathers breadfruit and coconut from his trees. He bathes every day in a freshwater pond, surrounded always by the beat of surf on the encircling reef. Life on Satawal is perhaps the nearest possible to a dream of South Pacific paradise.

Along Satawal’s sheltered shore, outrigger canoes are drawn up beneath lofty houses roofed with palm fronds and open on all sides. These vessels are called proa. Their design is the result of perhaps a thousand years of evolution, yet they are surprisingly modern – so much so that in 1980 a western sailor built one of modern materials and with it won the OSTAR single-handed race across the Atlantic. A proa’s narrow hulls are shaped like airfoils so that water flowing over them tends to lift them to windward, making them extremely efficient – and fast. They are fashioned with materials that Satawal provides – breadfruit planks for the hull, coconut husks and breadfruit sap to keep the water out and sennit rope fashioned from coconut to hold the planks together. Satawal’s isolation, and that of the other Caroline islands, has resulted in the preservation of a seafaring life that is unknown elsewhere. Mau and a handful of Micronesian sailors still follow an ancient way of navigating handed down by generations of their ancestors.

Mau’s grandfather was a famous pwo – a man who had learned the technical art of navigating, passed his initiation and mastered the spiritual arts – tools that are beyond western logic. It was an informal but rigorous course of study that took place on the beach where he watched for signs of weather with his master and learned the stars; and on a canoe where he learned to distinguish between large swells stirred by steady trade winds and evanescent ones motivated by brief storms. The teaching continued in a canoe house by lantern light where the master unrolled a woven pandanus mat and laid out thirty-two brilliant white lumps of coral in a circle to represent the rising and setting of stars. It was a world of words but no writing. All knowledge was conveyed orally by the “talk of navigation” or by the “talk of the sea.” Everything was committed to memory. Mau’s grandfather chanted as he pointed to the star houses, “Tana Mailap,” he began, due east – the rising of Mailap – a star western navigators call Altair. “Tana Paiiur,” he continued, “Tan Uliol, Tana Sarapul, Tana Tumur, Tana Mesaru, Talup, Machemeias, Wuliwiliup” pointing to stars equally spaced from east to south, one quadrant of a compass defined by stars. It was a beginning lesson called paafu – “numbering the stars” – and it conveyed a way of finding direction that Arabs crossing the great empty spaces of the Sahara might have found familiar and that Polynesians must have used in the great days of open ocean voyaging. As he spoke, the master’s voice blended with the beat of swells against the island’s reef and the clacking of palm fronds overhead. When his grandfather completed one quadrant of the compass, Mau would repeat the chant. Then on around the circle until each star house had been recalled. Then came aroom, reciting the reciprocals of the star houses; then wofanu, the sailing directions to hundreds of islands. Then came fu taur, the alignment of stars with island landmarks to find a passage through the encircling reef. Then he learned etak, how to dead reckon his position by imagining his canoe in the center of the star compass and islands sliding by on each side under star paths – a unique Micronesian mental system of triangulation. These are only a few of the lessons that were passed on verbally in a cycle of repetition that stretched back dozens of generations.

Anthropologists distinguish between the status a person receives by his birth and the kind that he earns by his individual talents. Most societies, even those rigidly divided into various ranks, provide some way of motivating and rewarding achievement. The Aztecs, Maya and the Pueblo dwellers of the American Southwest recognized the abilities of warriors. Pueblo dwellers also appreciated the ability to entertain and so they gave rank to clowns, and the ability to philosophize, so they provided yet another rank for those who thought and spoke well. On Satawal, three chiefs regulate the island’s affairs. They have the power of placing a kapu (as Hawaiians would call it) on various activities. They can ban fishing or harvesting breadfruit, for example, to preserve food stocks. The chiefs are born into their rank. They are the descendants of island dynasties. But their power ends at Satawal’s fringing reef where that of the navigator begins. “At sea, I am the chief,” Mau once explained. “To be a palu (navigator) you must have three qualities: pwerra, maumau and reipy (fierceness, strength and wisdom). …if you are not fierce, you are not a palu: you will be afraid of the sea, of storms, or reefs; afraid of whales, sharks; afraid of losing your way – you are not a navigator. With fierceness you will not die, for you will face all danger …that is a palu: a palu is a man. On the canoe I am above the chief. He has to do what I say.”

In Hawaii, Mau said little and accomplished much. When Hokule’a’s booms broke under the strain of sailing, he took out an adze and carved new ones. The booms were curved, so he fashioned graceful scarf joints and joined three pieces of hau with rope lashings. He did the same for the gaffs when they broke. When there was nothing to do, he sat quietly and carved a scale model of his proa complete with rigging and sails – a work of art so perfect it could have graced a museum display case.

Nainoa had heard so much about Mau that he had become endowed with the ability to do miracles. Nainoa watched his every movement and tried to make sense of a man who could navigate a canoe across thousands of miles of ocean without a chart or a compass. “No one really knew how it was done, so it kind of got into this mystical realm out of our own ignorance. That was what my perceptions were when I looked at him – you had someone here who could do things that none of us could.” Nainoa didn’t know what to say to Mau so he said nothing.

Another crewmember, Shorty Bertelmann, was equally mesmerized. “I watched Mau as he worked and how he used an adze with such precision and I had never seen that before.” Shorty was from the Big Island. He had been born into a paniolo (cowboy) family and he knew how to ride and rope cattle the way his forefathers had learned on the Parker Ranch. He was likewise a fisherman and a surfer. He is a lean man, graceful, almost delicate. His face is composed of angular planes. His glance is gentle yet intense. “There was something about Mau that I could see right away,” Shorty recalls. “He was not like a normal man – he knew things that no one else knew.” Shorty spent as much time as he could sitting next to Mau. Asking few questions, he tried to learn Mau’s skills by repeating them. “I just spent a day with him trying to help him when I could and another day and another and after a while it seemed like he welcomed me to be with him and I was kind of surprised because I never thought that a man like him would pay any attention to a person like me.” Shorty learned how to hold an adze and how to swing it gently but with sufficient force to reveal shapes hidden in wood. “The way that I learned from Mau was by watching what he did and trying to understand how he did it – by going out and figuring it out for myself and then asking him if that was the right way. You don’t just go up and ask him to teach you. It’s not a classroom with handouts and lectures.”

Mau watched the crew carefully and he judged them silently. He looked for the nascent qualities that would serve a man well at sea. He looked for pwerra, maumau and reipy. He respected stillness in a man, humility accompanied by knowledge. He looked for a willingness to learn. And he waited. In Satawal, a master does not proselytize. His students come to him, driven by their innate curiosity. Those who display talent and discipline become his apprentices. Among all the men and women who surrounded him, only two stood out in this way – Nainoa Thompson and Shorty Bertelmann. “When I look at them,” Mau recalls, “I’m thinking good guys because they like learn. I am not asking them. They come to me and they want to learn. They ask questions. I am strong for teaching them because their talk to me is good. That’s why I decided to teach them.”