Memories of Mau Piailug

Memories of Mau

Hokule’a crew talk story about their great teacher

…just his way of sensing things.

Dennis Chun: “I asked Mau, ‘How long it took you to learn to navigate?’ He said, ‘How long? One hundred fifty years.’ I looked at him and…. no way? He knew that I was puzzled. He looked at me seriously. ‘I learned from my great grandfather, my grandfather and my father, all of them teach me.’ He’s right, he’s the culmination of everything that came down to him. It made me think about it in another way.

And just his way of sensing things. He would be sitting down in his hole (compartment), writing in a notebook, or making one net or something, and I remember one time I was steering and I think I am doing okay and I feel this tug on my leg, and he goes, ‘Dennis, too high.’ I’m thinking, ‘how does he know?’ He just senses things.

We were sailing below the equator. It was weird. In 1985 we kind of hit two kinds of doldrum-like conditions, one in the normal place for it. We were stuck I think seven or ten days in the ITCZ area – we just got pounded and Nainoa got really tired. And we got out of that and – hey it’s downwind, downhill from there and then we hit this other section, a whole bunch of calms and the wind came out of all kinds of directions. It was between those two doldrums. It was really nice one evening, the whole day was nice, real mild but still fast, so we busted out the guitars. We were jamming, good fun. We were styling. Mau comes out of his hole and puts on his raincoat, a vinyl kind of raincoat, and pants the kind you buy at Costco. He puts this on and rubber bands on his ankles. We’re all having a good time. Good weather – and he puts on this stuff. Maybe a half an hour later the sky comes black and here we are, woah, put away our guitars, scramble to get on our foul weather gear. Rain for the next three days. How did he know? From there on – whatever he does – we follow him. That’s the time we came in on the tail end of a hurricane, Ignacio, three days. Within twenty-four hours we changed sails three or four times – busted ass – but we did it. He puts on his raincoat, doesn’t say anything. He feels these things even before we see them. Clay Bertelmann says, ‘Hey Mau, why you no tell us?’ He says, ‘you should know.’ It was a good lesson.”

…one hundred and one ways to use a coconut.

Billy Richards: “Mau is an incredible person. We were fortunate back then in learning from him. It was more than navigation. He taught us one hundred and one ways to use a coconut. Down at Snug Harbor he would teach us dances – in 1975 – because we were all living in the containers. Mau worked with us all day and at night we would have this star course – he would make you a star and then he would teach you this dance and as you move, the choreography of the dance is such that you understand the movement of the stars. Me – this star – in relation to you – your star – how we move together. He taught John (Kruse) how to make this Jew’s harp out of bamboo. He was our doctor. He was our mother. I went surfing at Queens one time and I crunched my knee. It got really huge. I came back to the container and he saw it. ‘You come.’ And he poured coconut oil on it and did this massage and the bruising went away. He was holistic. Navigation is just one part of him. There are so many others. For those of us who lived with him, or stayed with him down at the container we saw glimpses of it. And it is in my heart.”

…Plenty sons I have here.

Mau Piailug stepped out of his culture when he decided to pass on his navigational arts to Polynesians. He endured criticism at home. But no-one on Satawal came to ask him about navigation, and he was afraid his art would be lost….

Harry Ho: “Mau said to me, ‘But you know, Harry, I no like to lose sail. I no like to lose the stars. So I like to come to Hawaii because people like to learn about the stars. That’s why I come. More people come. We go to New Zealand – same thing – people come. No matter where we go, people come to ask me for help.’

That was his whole thing. He wanted to help. He wanted to keep navigation alive.

‘My sons they have families,’ Mau told me. ‘They have problems. My youngest son Seasario may be the only one that will follow me. Seasario – for me, my last hope. But I got many sons here. Plenty sons I have here. So I no worry now – I have more sons. I have sons in Cook Islands. I have sons in New Zealand. I have sons in Marquesas. For me I feel good inside. I feel happy.’

He talked about Honolulu. ‘Too many people busy. I go Big Island where people stay all the time.’ There were more people who focused on navigation there. On Oahu, people are all over the place. He was more comfortable there than he was here.

His whole idea was to expand his horizons by trying to teach more people so his art would not get lost. He said he didn’t care what happened when he went back to Satawal. ‘The chiefs want to take away this or that. It doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘they no can take away what happened over here (in Polynesia). They no can take away this. Everybody that comes inside here – in my heart – no can take. No can. It stays here with me (in my heart) – no can take.’”




…he talked to the stars…

Kimo Lyman: “Mau went to sea with an ancient wisdom that has been largely lost in modern Hawaii. In Hawaii today it is like the spirit and religion is separate from daily life and for him it is not. I remember that Mau, every morning before the sun came up he would be out there chanting. The 1986 voyage. I enjoyed the way he talked to the stars, talked to the winds, talked to the gods. Then he would say, ‘oh yeah, we get into this situation and I am going to make magic.’ I just loved it. Western man may call him a charlatan but he is not. He lived a life and he knew how to communicate. Inspiring.”