Spotlight on Alumni: EWC Pays Tribute to Alumnus Mau Piailug, Master Navigator of the Pacific

EWC Alumnus Mau Piailug (photo by Monte Costa).

The East-West Center expresses its deep sympathy to the family and friends of Mau Piailug as we mourn his recent passing. Piailug, a humble, traditional navigator from the Micronesian island of Satawal in Yap, is hailed as the catalyst for launching the cultural renaissance in the Pacific.   


In 1976, Piailug sat at the helm of the replica ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe, the Hokule‘a, as it completed a historic journey, sailing 2,300 miles between Hawai‘i and Tahiti without modern-day navigational instruments.


It had been more than 600 years since canoes had made the journey along the ancestral Polynesian sea route—and the Hokule‘a launched a renaissance of voyaging, canoe building and non-instrument navigation that began in Hawai‘i and now extends across Polynesia.


None of this could have happened if the unassuming Piailug had not agreed to share the traditional seafaring knowledge passed on to him by his grandfather. In 1976, the East-West Center was asked by University of Hawai‘i anthropologist Ben Finney, also of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, to help find a navigator from Micronesia.


In that corner of the Pacific, a handful of Micronesians were still sailing between remote islands using traditional methods. Piailug accepted an invitation from the East-West Center to come to Hawai‘i as a special fellow.


Born in 1932, he was tapped by his master navigator grandfather to carry on a tradition essential to survival in Satawal. At the age of four, he began to sail with his grandfather. Through these experiences came an inherent connection with the heavens and the ocean— the ancient mariner’s skills.


In 1979 Piailug agreed to teach a young Native Hawaiian, Nainoa Thompson, the traditional ways —how to steer by stars, wind, waves, current, the flight of birds. With Thompson as navigator, the Hokule‘a has voyaged throughout the Pacific, most recently to Japan, and is planning to sail around the world in 2012.


Historic sea voyages across vast stretches of ocean were made possible through the generosity of Piailug, who found in Hawai‘i an interest in a 3,000-year-old tradition not shared by the young people of his island. Before Thompson began his first voyage as a navigator, he recalled Piailug advising him to keep in mind an image of the island that was his destination. “Don’t ever lose that image or you will be lost,” Piailug told him.


It’s a lesson, Thompson realized, that applies to any journey: Trust yourself, hold steady to your vision, and you will arrive at your destination.


Posted on July 15, 2010