For many traditional voyagers across the Pacific, the remote Caroline island of Satawal is often revered as a mecca for Wayfinding, a sacred cultural practice that allows mariners to navigate the open ocean using only the stars, clouds, waves and other signs of nature.
Over the last forty years, Satawal has been popularized as the birthplace and stomping grounds of Pwo Master Navigator Mau Piailug, who famously brought Wayfinding out of Micronesia and taught it to many of today’s Hawaiian master navigators, ensuring the success of Hokulea’s early voyages in the 70’s as the first Polynesian canoe to sail the open ocean in centuries.
Papa Mau’s legacy inspired generations of navigators and motivated the creation of more traditional sailing canoes across the Pacific, including Okeanos’ very own vaka motus like Okeanos Marianas.
“I really have a lot of thanks and appreciation to those people of Satawal, and, of course, to Papa Mau, for his openness to be able to spread what he knows all the way to Hawaii so that voyaging is not lost. I feel that’s one of the reasons why we’re here on this canoe, and that’s the reason why Okeanos Marianas exists,” said Okeanos crewmember Andrea Carr.
For Okeanos Marianas captain Cecilio Raikiulipiy, who brought his crew to the island of West Fayu before heading to their highly anticipated destination, Satawal carries the same sentiment, but first and foremost, it’s home.
“We’re just 50 miles now from Satawal and it’s really exciting to come here and see the places that have been my playground growing up,” said Captain Cecilio at West Fayu, a typical rest stop for voyagers to gather provisions before trekking onward to Satawal.
West Fayu, known as Piagailoe by locals, is a small, uninhabited island teeming with life. Okeanos Marianas crew members Tehani and Jerry caught lobsters and crab for the rest of the team, who surveyed the beach and admired the blacktip reef sharks casually swimming through the shallows. Highly protected by the chiefs of Satawal, Piagailoe is considered the breadbasket for the Satawal community.
“This is where we come and catch fish, turtle, giant clams, and coconut crabs to bring back for the entire community in Satawal,” explained Captain Cecilio. “The chiefs of Satawal are really preserving it because this is their warehouse, their source of food.”
Despite the community’s preservation efforts, Captain Cecilio was quick to point out the visible changes to Piagailoe since his last visit.
“The island is getting smaller,” said the Satawal native, pointing to Piagailoe’s white sand beaches. “Since the 1970’s, about 200 feet of sand has already eroded away. A lot of coconut trees have gone underwater.” Like most low-lying outer islands of Micronesia, Piagailoe and Satawal are one of the world’s most vulnerable places to sea level rise.
When Okeanos Marianas arrived to Satawal a day later, the crew was quick to learn about the community’s challenges living on the forefront of climate change.
“The swamps where they plant the taro used to be freshwater, but today its already brackish and very salty” said Captain Cecilio, who lead Okeanos Marianas crew through the thickly wooded pathways of Satwal’s coconut and taro plantations. “It’s damaging the root crops, the taro, the potatoes, the tapioca, even the coconut trees. It’s rotten.”
While the Okeanos Marianas crew was eager to visit the grave of Papa Mau, it was disheartening for them to learn that the canoe house where Mau spent years teaching traditional navigation to students like his nephew Cecilio and his grandson, Okeanos Marianas watch captain Jerry Joseph, had been swept away during a typhoon in the 90’s.
“There is no more sand. All the coconut trees are gone. The canoe house is gone. It’s sad,” said Captain Cecilio.
There is a tragic irony behind the challenges facing Satawal: the remote Micronesian island that kept wayfinding culture from going extinct throughout most of the Pacific is now going underwater. But for Captain Cecilio and the crew of Okeanos Marianas, their Polynesian-designed sailing canoe isn’t just a reminder of Mau’s legacy — it’s a vehicle that can offer solutions to Satawal and other communities.
As a part of Okeanos Foundation’s mission to support outer island communities with sustainable sea transportation, Okeanos Marianas brought food and other goods to the Satawal community, which only receives deliveries from diesel-powered cargo ships once every few months.
With the recent launch of Okeanos Waa’qab, one of Okeanos’ newest vaka motu models that will be sailing from Auckland to its resident country of Yap in the ensuing months, Okeanos Foundation hopes to have a network of canoes readily available to service Satawal and other outer islands in FSM.
Yapese voyager Max Yarawamai, who trained with Papa Mau aboard Hokulea and now runs a non-profit dedicated to improving the health of Pacific islanders, stressed the importance of Okeanos canoes in communities like Satawal.
“This canoe has a lot of the answers that I’ve been dreaming of,” said Max. “How we could connect all of these islands so, in that way, we could improve the health services here. I’m so blessed to be a part of this trip. ”
Satawal’s Paramount Chief Leo Rcheilug, who sailed with Okeanos Marianas from Saipan, already plans to sign an MOU to utilize Okeanos Marianas and other vaka motus of its design for disaster relief in the future.
As for Captain Cecilio, he hopes that this trip to Satawal becomes the first of many for the Okeanos Marianas crew: “For the future, I want to bring different plants that they can grow. Maybe different variety of bananas, mangoes, avocado, and different kind of taros that maybe can grow in brackish water.”
Author: Steve Holloway, Okeanos Foundation US