In the mid-1970s, a handful of visionaries built a twin-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe, with the plan to sail it to Tahiti and back without the aid of map, compass or modern instruments of any kind. The voyage would serve as living proof that Polynesian people had not populated the Pacific by accident, as many academics theorized at the time, but purposefully.
The canoe was ready, the crew prepared. They lacked only a navigator capable of guiding the craft 2,300 nautical miles from Hawaii to Tahiti. That knowledge, passed down through the generations for centuries, had been lost. The would-be voyagers scoured the Pacific for someone who carried the ancient knowledge. No one in Polynesia—a swath of ocean spanning 3,000 miles, from Hawaii to Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), with Tahiti roughly in the center—possessed the knowledge anymore to guide the canoe to Tahiti in the old way, without modern instruments.
The search eventually led them 4,000 miles west, to the tiny Micronesian island of Satawal and its most skilled navigator, Pius “Mau” Piailug. Born in 1932, Mau was chosen by his grandfather as an infant to become a traditional wayfinder. In the early 1950s, when Mau was about 20, he was initiated as a Pwo navigator, or Palu, a great honor that came with the solemn responsibility to provide for the village, and to preserve and hold close the wayfinding knowledge on which the entire community relied.
Some sources say he earned the name Mau, meaning strong or hard in the Satawalese language, because he was constantly at sea, even in bad weather. Others said the name came from his short and powerful physique, with ridges of muscle in his back that resembled the rough shell of a hawksbill turtle. As a young man he voyaged throughout the Caroline Islands and never lost his way, though the Economist reports a typhoon once left him shipwrecked on an uninhabited island for seven months. He was by all accounts tough, headstrong, and fearless. “Mau would never allow himself to doubt his decisions and navigational tactics,” recalled his nephew, Tom Raffipiy.
Satawal is a speck in the sea, a half-mile long and a mile wide. Its reef doesn’t produce enough fish to support the people who live there, so islanders must travel over the horizon to fish hidden reefs and uninhabited atolls. To trade or visit other islands—the nearest of any size is Chuuk, more than 300 miles away—requires longer voyages. In sailing canoes, without the benefit of compass or chart, let alone GPS, such travel requires great skill and knowledge. But when Mau was a young man, motorboats came to the island and began to fundamentally change the role of navigators. People began to lose interest in the art.
Mau was the youngest Palu in Micronesia, and by 1976 he seemed destined to be the last. He worried that the art of wayfinding would die with him. That’s when the Hawaiians came calling.
The voyage they envisioned from Hawaii to Tahiti was beyond even Mau’s vast knowledge, but he was confident he could make the journey. “If I have courage it is because I have faith in the knowledge of my ancestors,” he said, though if his forefathers ever sailed to Hawaii or Tahiti, they didn’t tell of it in their songs and stories. But those who knew Mau also say he loved a challenge.
Guiding the voyaging canoe Hokule’a to Tahiti was a bold act, not only as a test of navigation and seamanship, but it would eventually put Mau at odds with his own people. Much of the knowledge he passed to Hawaiians was closely held, to be shared only with a chosen few within the home islands. But Mau decided that preserving the navigational knowledge was a higher calling than keeping it in the family.
He guided Hokule’a on its month-long journey from Maui to Tahiti in 1976, almost always seated in the same spot on the canoe, aiming toward an image of the island he kept in his head. He seemed never to sleep, synthesizing hundreds of data points—not only the rising and setting of stars, but also the movement of the sun and clouds, wind and swell, fish and birds. Two thousand miles after leaving Maui, he watched a flight of terns wing past Hokule’a toward an unseen island. The next day Mataiva Atoll rose out of the sea to greet the canoe. When they reached Tahiti days later, 17,000 people—fully half the island’s population—greeted them.
The voyage sent a shock of pride through the Pacific. Mau was less impressed. On the voyage a schism had grown in the crew between those who viewed the journey as a kind of scientific experiment, and others who regarded it more as an adventure and cultural experience. The conflict led to a breakdown of discipline and an exchange of blows.
Mau was disgusted. As the celebrations continued in Tahiti, he tape-recorded instructions for how to sail back to Hawaii, vowed never to voyage again with Hawaiians, and slipped away. Hokule’a returned to Hawaii using modern instruments.
A second voyage in 1978, also without Mau, ended in tragedy. The canoe launched from Honolulu in 30-knot trades as an 8-10 foot Northeast swell funneled through the Kaiwi Channel between the islands of Oahu and Molokai. The canoe had sailed in such conditions before, but now it was heavily loaded with fresh water and provisions. The leeward hull filled with water and the canoe capsized just after sunset.
The 16 crewmembers gathered on the overturned hulls. With no working radio onboard, no one knew the canoe had met with disaster just 12 miles offshore. The next morning Eddie Aikau went to summon hope. Aikau was a legend in surfing circles, an archetypical Hawaiian waterman who in 10 years as a lifeguard on Oahu’s North Shore had participated in about 500 rescues. If anyone was capable of paddling a dozen miles to shore on a surfboard, it was Aikau. He paddled away in the direction of Lanai and was never seen again.
An airline pilot later spotted the overturned canoe, and the others were rescued after about 24 hours in the water. Hokule’a was recovered and repaired. A third voyage was planned for early 1980 with a man named Nainoa Thompson as navigator. But as the departure drew nearer the young Hawaiian was still unsure of his skills.
Working at the University of Hawaii, Nainoa had reconstructed a 32-point star compass. He knew where the stars rose and set, and, in theory, how to use that knowledge to navigate vast tracts of ocean as his Hawaiian ancestors had. But he’d joined the Hokule’a in Tahiti after Mau had left the canoe, and missed the opportunity to learn from him.
The solution was obvious. Nainoa had to find Mau and convince him to share his knowledge. He tracked the navigator down on the island of Saipan and flew there to make his pitch. Mau was noncommittal.
“Mau is a man of few words, and all he said in answer to my plea for help was, ‘We will see. I will let you know,’” Nainoa recalled. Months later Mau gave his answer. “He said, ‘I will train you to find Tahiti because I don’t want you to die,’” Nainoa said. “He had heard somehow that Eddie had been lost at sea.”
Thus began a partnership that ultimately revived traditional wayfinding traditions in Hawaii and across the Pacific.
“When Nainoa was able to work with Mau and saw his star compass, it just reconfirmed that Nainoa had basically reinvented that system,” said Chad Kalepa Baybayan, a master navigator who voyaged with both men. “Nainoa had the math and science, whereas Mau’s was a system that was passed down from generation to generation.”
When they began to work together, Nainoa asked Mau to teach him in the traditional way. The older man refused. “You get paper and pencil,” he said. There was too much to commit to memory, and the knowledge was encoded in songs and stories in the Satawalese language, which Nainoa doesn’t understand. Mau delivered his lessons in simple, effective English. Nainoa wrote them down.
“Mau’s greatness as a teacher was to recognize that I had to learn differently,” Nainoa said. Mau’s style of wayfinding combined deep knowledge of the sea and the heavens with a lifetime of practical experience. It was a holistic system, dead reckoning raised to a fine art.
Mau would draw a circle in the sand, and mark the stars with stones or shells. Palm fronds represented the canoe and swell direction. Bits of string marked the path of the stars across the sky. The models made intuitive sense to Nainoa, trained from his school days to read words, maps, and graphs. Other skills were more difficult to convey.
“The hardest for me was to learn to read the ocean swells the way he can,” Nainoa said. “Mau is able to tell so much from the swells—the direction we are traveling, the approach of an island. But this knowledge is hard to transmit. We don’t sense things in exactly the same way as the next person does.”
One day near the end of 1979, Nainoa went with Mau to the Lanai Lookout on Oahu. Mau asked Nainoa to point in the direction of Tahiti. Nainoa pointed. Then he asked, “Can you see the island?”
Tahiti was more than 2,200 miles away. Nainoa thought before answering.
“I cannot see the island but I can see an image of the island in my mind,” he said at last.
“Good,” said Mau. “Don’t ever lose that image or you will be lost.”
In 1980, Nainoa guided Hokule’a to Tahiti and back again, using the traditional wayfinding techniques he had helped to recover. Mau sailed as an observer.
From 1985-87 Hokule’a sailed 12,000 miles throughout Polynesia, traveling as far as New Zealand and inviting people from other Polynesian islands to join the crew for portions of the voyage. On a night passage to the island of Nomuka in Tonga, professional Tongan sea captain Sione Taupeamuhu expressed his doubts that Nainoa could find the island without the aid of instruments. When the island appeared on the horizon at dawn, Taupeamuhu said, “Now I can believe the stories of my ancestors.”
Mau, sailing again as an observer, looked on.
Thanks in no small part to Mau, Hokule’a and the Polynesian Voyaging Society sparked a resurgence of interest in traditional navigation throughout the Pacific. When Hokule’a and two other Hawaiian canoes returned to Tahitian waters in 1995 they were joined by voyaging canoes from other Polynesian islands. This time Nainoa was the observer. His apprentices guided the canoes from Hawaii, and their apprentices navigated the last leg from the Tuamotus to Tahiti.
Soon enough, the revival led back to Satawal. In 2007 a group of friends spearheaded by navigator Shorty Bertelmann built a Hawaiian-style voyaging canoe and sailed it 4,000 miles to Satawal to present to Mau. The canoe is called Maisu, a Satawalese word for breadfruit that has fallen to the ground in a storm, and is thus free for anyone to take. The name is a metaphor for the voyaging knowledge that Mau shared so freely. The canoe now resides on the island of Yap where it serves as a floating classroom for Micronesian navigators.
On that visit, Mau inducted 16 people into the Pwo brotherhood. The honorees, anointed with yellow turmeric and adorned with garlands of flowers, included five Hawaiians, among them Nainoa, Baybayan, and Bertelmann. The ceremony was the first on Satawal since Mau’s own induction 56 years before.
Mau died three years later, in 2010, but the wayfinding tradition he vowed to protect lives on.