The revival of Pacific traditional canoes promises a ‘fossil-free’ future to the region
It was a pretty typical November morning at Guam’s Hagatna boat basin. There were intermittent blue and gray skies with light breezes. A few late rising fishermen motored out to sea through the channel.
What was different was the crowd gathering at the traditional canoe house along the rock lined channel. There were heavily tattooed traditional canoe navigators and younger persons being trained in the ancient art of ocean navigation without what is now the polluting engine norm at sea. There were a variety of canoe aficionados as well as a local media contingent.
The occasion was the imminent arrival of the Okeanos Marianas, that morning making its way from Rota to Guam, only the latest leg in its vast journey to the Marianas from New Zealand, where it was built.
Publicity for the event had pegged its time of arrival for 8:30 a.m., but few in the crowd would have held the sailors to a strict schedule, time, tides and wind being much more important to this sort of vessel. But in fact, the Okeanos was on schedule, holding off-shore near Two Lover’s Point. It wasn’t the fault of the sailors, but of government bureaucracy, as arrangements were being made for customs and immigration clearance of the voyagers.
As they awaited a sighting of the Okeanos Marianas’ sails, Navigator Ignacio ‘Nash’ Camacho was standing by with his canoe contingent. Camacho is a board member and Navigator of the Guam-based Tasi, Traditions About Seafaring. It’s the oldest canoe house on Guam, but there are three other canoe organizations on Guam.
“This is about bringing back of our traditions, the canoe and seagoing traditions and also to provide fossil-free travel between our islands because we have very little travel between our islands themselves,” Camacho said. “And we have always dreamed about doing this with our traditional canoes. The Vaka Motus Okeanos Marianas is not a traditional canoe in that she’s made of composite materials, but is modeled after the double-hulled Polynesian canoes and it’s an ideal vessel for inter-island trade right off the start, because they’re already certified for transport. The two things they use are the traditional sails and also motors that are configured to use coconut oil versus fossil, diesel fuel and that sort of thing. So there’s the sustainability of it. We can travel from island to island, collect coconut copra, coconut oil and continue the trip.”
Although this traditional canoe ‘revival’ may be new to many living in the Pacific, it’s been ongoing for decades and has become a truly international enterprise with the recognition that the abandoned canoe culture had the potential to serve overlooked needs to transport people and freight.
Navigator Camacho: “The demand itself [for inter-island transport by canoe] hasn’t been very vocal because the ability was never there, so people didn’t envision that. You couldn’t get to Pagan or to Alamagan, you could barely get to Saipan or Luta (Rota) without an aircraft. And as you go further, riding on an engine boat is just economically unfeasible. We don’t have the market for it, but with traditional canoes, the wind is free and it also enhances its cultural heritage and provides much needed transportation and habitation of our islands. Many of our islands are designated uninhabited because not many people go there. But we know for a fact there are people there and more people will go given the opportunity. And this is a great opportunity.”
Just after 9 a.m. the crowd spotted the sails heading into the channel.
A major figure in the canoe revival was Grand Master Navigator Mau Piailug of Satawal. Before his death in 2010 Piailug captained many voyages north to the Marianas over the decades. His presence is being felt in the current effort through his descendants and the many he trained in traditional navigation.The canoe started its journey from New Zealand on September 20th, stopping briefly at New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and Chuuk. It arrived on Saipan, which will be its home, on October 30th. Of the eight crew that were on board for the New Zealand-Saipan voyage, there were three Saipan residents, including Andrea Carr, Devin Noisom and John M. Sablan. Also included were voyagers from Fiji, France, and Tahiti.
The captain of the New Zealand-Saipan voyage was Master Navigator Peia Petai of the Cook Islands, one of Mau Piailug’s students.
The captain of the Saipan-Rota-Guam voyage was Cecilio Raikiulipiy, a nephew of Grand Master Navigator Mau Piailug.
Captan Raikiulipiy said, “This is the start of connecting the islands, to one Marianas, so we can sail all the way up to the last island, which is Maug.” He said the arrival of the Okeanos Marianas was an eye-opener for many. “A lot of people really supported this, especially the people in Rota and Tinian. Many times they have a hard time bringing cargo to their islands. So they’re really excited. We took people out and they really enjoyed it. Said it was the first time they seen their island from the ocean. They really liked the boat. They want to learn and they want to be part of it.”
Raikiulipiy said people on Rota are already reviving a past island industry. They are starting to produce coconut oil fuel, the cost of which could be used to off-set the cost of shipping cargo. Meanwhile, he said, other future captains are in training.
Commercializing this effort is a goal of the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea through creation of a commercial entity - Okeanos Sustainable Sea Transport. The foundation lays this out in a news release, “In addition to the vessels, Okeanos provides wages, crew training, operations, insurance and other services foundational to establishing a local, community-led business model that generates revenue for the people of the CNMI while restoring indigenous maritime traditions.”
But as Navigator Camacho makes clear, he and his fellow traditional sailors are free spirits, unbound by commercial considerations.
“The financial part of it we have never really worked out because we sail for free. We subsidize ourselves… The financial cost is nothing, if the boat is already built and people provide their provisions and the wind is free. In terms of time now, that’s the real cost. We have to understand these aren’t motor-powered vessels. They go with the currents, the tides and the wind. So it could take days, it could take weeks to get to a given location, because one of the things we don’t monetize is our time. To get there safely and come back is all we need. We’re not on a schedule that says you have to get there at a certain time. If you [want that] you’re subject to disappointment.”