Mau Piailug, 78

Mau Piailug, Micronesian who sailed by navigating sun and stars, dies at 78

Mau Piailug, 78, sailor who navigated the oceans without the help of technology dies
Mau Piailug, a master navigator from Micronesia whose ability to find his way across the seas without the aid of modern equipment led to a resurgence in cultural pride in the Pacific islands, died July 12 on his home island of Satawal. He was 78. (Photo by Steve Thomas)
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mau Piailug, who died July 12 at 78 on the western Pacific island of Satawal, was one of the last masters of the nearly lost traditional art of using stars, sun and wind to find safe passage across the ocean.

In 1976, Mr. Piailug made international headlines when -- using nothing but nature's clues and the lessons he'd learned from his grandfather, a master navigator schooled in traditional Micronesian wayfaring -- he steered a traditional sailing canoe more than 3,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti.

The journey was a project of the Honolulu-based Polynesian Voyaging Society, co-founded by anthropologists interested in the enduring mystery of how the Pacific's scattered islands, often separated by hundreds of miles of water, had become populated by peoples who lacked nautical technologies such as the compass and sextant.

Many scientists had believed that Polynesians, unable to navigate across vast seas, had arrived on various islands by accident when their boats had floated off course. Mr. Piailug's feat showed instead that indigenous peoples could indeed have deliberately explored and colonized Pacific islands.

Featured in a National Geographic special, the journey also showed the world that traditional navigation was rooted in profound skill. Among Pacific peoples, who were fast becoming westernized, it led to a resurgence of cultural pride and a renewed interest in ancient wayfaring skills.

"The rebirth of non-instrument navigation came about largely due to this man, Mau Piailug," said former Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small at a 2000 ceremony in Washington honoring Mr. Piailug (pronounced Pee-EYE-lug).

He became an eager teacher, breaking with tradition to share among cultures his closely guarded navigation secrets that had traditionally been passed down only within families.

Among his students were Nainoa Thompson, a Hawaiian who became a master navigator, has many students and has completed long ocean-crossings; and Steve Thomas, a California native who made a documentary and wrote a 1987 book ("The Last Navigator") about the months he spent learning from Mr. Piailug in Micronesia.

Mr. Piailug feared that the powerful pull of Western culture on young Pacific Islanders would eventually lead to the extinction of traditional wayfaring, Thomas said Monday.

"He understood that he had to teach without restriction and without hesitation and spread as many seeds of interest as possible," Thomas said. "He taught me without holding back."

Mau Piailug was born in 1932 on Satawal, a low-lying island that stretched a mile from end to end and is now part of the Federated States of Micronesia in the western Pacific. His grandfather was a palu, a master navigator, and he chose Mau to follow in his footsteps.

Mr. Piailug's lessons began when he was a child. His grandfather had him sit in tide pools to learn the ocean's tug. Later, when Mr. Piailug begin traveling on the Pacific's wide swells and became seasick, his grandfather tied him to the stern of a canoe and dragged him through the water to cure him.

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