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[Vol. 21, no. 1]
February/March 2018


Mau's Canoe 

story by Kathryn Wilder
photos by Monte Costa

Mau Piailug

I have been awake for some time, listening to the wind howling down off the mountain; to the wind-churned waters of the harbor bumping up against the huge tractor tires that line the pier and the multiple birdcalls of the coming dawn. Land sounds. Machinery starts—forklifts, a bulldozer. It’s 6 a.m. when the first one rolls his cot clattering across the blacktop to the storage container—the official alarm clock. I scrunch deeper into my sleeping bag, wait for the next cot.

I’ve been in Kawaihae for five days now, sleeping in the shadow of dry-docked voyaging canoes, my cot placed to the lee of my blue Neon rental car as I try to avoid the constant, shifting winds. Lying here each night, I’ve watched the paths of stars and moon, of clouds heading to the horizon far out at sea. I’ve previously had the pleasure of sailing inter-island on the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a, but not out into the boundless Pacific. From my cot I try to envision a horizon of sea and sky wrapping all the way around me, to envision how it feels to sail on the open sea, no land in sight.

But I cannot imagine it.

Grandmaster navigator Mau Piailug has lived it. Ever since he navigated the Hokule‘a on her maiden journey to Tahiti in 1976, his voyages and fame have rippled across the Pacific from his home on the tiny Micronesian atoll of Satawal. That monumental passage marked the first time in hundreds of years that a double-hulled sailing canoe of traditional design had traveled the pathway from Hawai‘i to Tahiti, guided only by stars, swells, seabirds and wind. The voyage, conceived and captained by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, not only settled a longstanding debate over whether such journeys had been possible in ancient times, but helped to reawaken the long dormant art of traditional wayfinding—an art which, thirty years later, has grown into a full-fledged, Pacific-wide movement.

In a gesture of gratitude for all that he has given, Hawai‘i’s voyaging community is building “Papa Mau” a canoe. While the canoe’s construction began several years ago, the push to get the canoe finished has been ongoing since last fall, drawing volunteers from across the Pacific and as far away as Japan. This is why I’m currently living out of my rental car. Papa Mau wants to sail his canoe home.

On this particular morning Micronesian, Maori, Hawaiian, and haole bodies fill the cots scattered around the Kawaihae Harbor warehouse: I flew in from Maui last week; Kanani Kahalehoe, a crewmember on the 1999 Makali‘i voyage that sailed Mau home to Satawal, came over from Hana last summer, shipping her car, bringing her granddaughter; the Micronesians (or Micronauts as everyone calls them) arrived with Papa Mau last November. Nick landed from Aotearoa in January, Kaipo lives on Kaua‘i, Pinto is from Argentina by way of O‘ahu. Uncle Boogie Kalama, who was on that first voyage to Tahiti, drove over from Hilo yesterday.