Issue 9.4: August/September 2006

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.



Frank Kawe

The plan for the canoe began in 2001, following the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Hokule‘a’s first Tahiti sail, when several members of Hawai‘i’s navigating ‘ohana gathered for a meeting with Papa Mau: From the Big Island’s Na Kalai Wa‘a Moku O Hawai‘i (The Canoe Builders of the Island of Hawai‘i) came Makali‘i navigator Shorty Bertelmann, another veteran of that first trip, along with his elder brother Clay and Clay’s son-in-law Chadd Paishon; from the Polynesian Voyaging Society came Hokule‘a navigator Nainoa Thompson, who was on the return leg of the first voyage and, like Shorty, is among Mau’s most influential students; from the O‘ahu-based canoe builders’ collective Friends of Hokule‘a and Hawai‘iloa came Billy Richards, who was also on that first trip south. People often say Mau is the father and Hokule‘a the mother—these then are the sons, the navigators, captains and crewmembers taught by Mau.

In an interview years ago Mau was asked the difference between Micronesia and Polynesia. “The haole drew a line,” he said—in other words, the divisions come from without, not within. At that meeting five years ago, he asked for two things: That the voyagers, scattered as they were across the Hawaiian islands, stay together as one canoe family, and that they work together to build a Polynesian voyaging canoe for Micronesia, with the participation of his own sons and extended Satawal family.

Mau had helped to restore a fundamental component of Polynesian consciousness, and he was now asking for Hawai‘i’s help in restoring Micronesian traditions, which had slid into decline during Japan’s pre-World War II occupation of the region and then were nearly destroyed by the United States’ post-war nuclear testing and the arrival of American consumer culture. It was an era in which Mau watched his people “following the haole way,” replacing handmade canoes with motorboats, raw human power with gasoline. He saw the art of traditional sailing and navigation dying.

It was decided that the Friends of Hokule‘a and Hawai‘iloa would fabricate the canoe’s twin hulls on O‘ahu and then ship them to Kawaihae, where Na Kalai Wa‘a would finish the job. For its part, the Polynesian Voyaging Society would provide funds and an escort boat to sail the canoe home. Clay Bertelmann, who in the mid-1990s had overseen construction of Makali‘i, the Big Island’s first modern-era voyaging canoe, would take the lead on the project. The labor would be volunteer, from everywhere.

In Micronesian, the word “maisu” has multiple meanings, from the wind that causes a breadfruit to fall from the tree, to the fallen breadfruit itself and the food that breadfruit will become. This is the name Mau chose for his canoe, which when finished will travel to the many islands of Micronesia, teaching children not only how to sail by star and swell but also what it means to be connected to cultures throughout the Pacific—to understand the shared ancestry and voyaging heritage common to Pacific cultures.


Chadd Paishon

In September 2003 Young Brothers shipped Maisu’s hulls to Kawaihae free of charge. Since then, the canoe has grown here, largely under the creative direction of Steve Garrett. A construction, mechanical and electrical wizard from Washington State, Steve has worked on boats in Scandinavia, Alaska and elsewhere. This, however, is the first canoe he has helped to build. Like everyone else on the job, he is here to fulfill a promise … though in his case the commitment was made not to Mau Piailug but to Clay Bertelmann.

“Clay was a man who, if he liked you, would crawl across glass to give you a cup of cold water,” says Steve, who first met Clay on O‘ahu several years ago. When Clay fell ill in 2003, Steve came to the Big Island to visit him in the hospital. He promised to work on the canoe until it was finished, a commitment he has continued to honor since Clay passed away in January 2004, a passing that left a gaping hole in the voyaging community.

Maisu has no blueprints—the closest things to them are drawings on beer-stained cocktail napkins. Instead, the canoe has evolved over time, and on its own terms. “The canoe tells you how it’s going to be built,” says Patti Ann Solomon, who has been with Na Kalai Wa‘a since Makali‘i was conceived in 1993. “This one turned into a bird.” When Steve installed the curved spreader at the front of the canoe, which holds the twin hulls steady, he saw the wings. Now a noio, a Hawaiian noddy tern, flies just forward of the hulls.

Most nights Patti Ann sleeps on a cot in the warehouse. She oversees the food—shopping, organizing the countless contributions made by the community, making sure the Micronauts and helpers are fed—and devotes every spare moment to lashing or fiberglassing, sanding or painting. This sort of multi-tasking is not unusual here: Kanani Kahalehoe, the voyager from Hana, has taken responsibility for seeing to Mau’s personal needs, driving him between the warehouse and a nearby home donated for their use; taking him to the doctor, feeding him, watching that he doesn’t sneak a beer or too many cigarettes.


Patty Ann Solomon

During the week, Kanani’s granddaughter Tyris lives with Chadd Paishon and his wife Pomai Bertelmann, who together run Na Kalai Wa‘a. Tyris attends Kanu o Ka ‘aina, the charter school where Pomai also works. On the weekends Tyris is at this other school, the halau wa‘a, where all are learning the nuances of putting a canoe and a culture together.

“‘He wa‘a he moku, he moku he wa‘a,’” says Chadd, quoting an ‘olelo no‘eau, a saying from before. It translates literally as, “The canoe is an island, an island a canoe.” Metaphorically, it means that everything you must do to survive on a voyaging canoe—the values you must have, the respect and compassion for others, the supplies and work ethic necessary for survival—are also essential to living on an island. Building Maisu isn’t just about the canoe, says Chadd. “It’s about us as a people, what we value: connection—to each other, this place, the community.”

It’s a little after 7 a.m. The last cot has been rolled to the container. Even though it’s Sunday and the Micronauts are headed for a day at the beach, Steve is already lining up his day’s work in his head as he smokes a morning cigarette.

Papa Mau arrives shortly after I start working. I go over to him and together we begin a new project. He tells me that when Maisu is finished, the first stop will be Kaho‘olawe, where he will build a star compass at Kealaikahiki, the island’s westernmost tip and the spot where voyagers of old left the Islands for points south … and to which they returned.

Star compasses are integral to traditional voyaging—a means of orienting oneself at sea by using the rising and setting points of various stars on the horizon. In the warehouse, a star compass has been drawn on a white dry-erase board. Assuming when I first saw it that it was a Hawaiian compass rendered in Micronesian, I searched for something familiar, Hawaiian or English words. Finally I saw one: “Rise.” Following a line down the board I found another: “Set.” Slowly, it made sense: Mau’s star compass has east at the top, because that is the orientation of his world. Not north-south but east-west, because the stars, like the sun, follow this path across the sky.

Papa Mau’s voice draws me back. His eyes shine with an intensity that I can only think to call cosmic—multi-colored, brilliant. Yet after seventy-four years of life on the ocean, his health is fluctuating. He wants to get his canoe home, to sail long-distance one more time.

“The spirits are waiting,” he says of Kaho‘olawe. “Waiting for the canoes to come; to go.” HH