- Star Power
When European explorers ventured into the Pacific in the early 1500s, they found people spread across the Society and Cook Islands, the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, Samoa, New Zealand, the Solomons, and French Polynesia. Hundreds of years later, the question that continues to baffle scientists is how, without the aid of sextant, map, or telescope, did people colonize these scattered archipelagos? Some anthropologists claim that the Pacific's early settlers had neither the sailing nor the navigational skills to make deliberate and daring blue-water migrations. Blown by El Nino winds, or drifting with currents, they arrived "accidentally."
Mau Piailug staked his life on proving the naysayers wrong. As a boy, studying the ancient art of "wayfinding," he began an education that would open up to him the wide-open world of the Pacific. He learned the paths of nearly 100 stars. He set a sailing course by observing the changing color of the sea and by listening to the sound of waves slapping against the hull of his grandfather's canoe. He tested the air and scanned the horizon for seabirds and cloudbanks. He learned to tack by moving the canoe's mast and boom. Sixteen years later, he became a "palu," a master navigator.
In 1976, Mau put all his knowledge to the test, guiding a sailing canoe on a dangerous 2,300-mile voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. He defied nature. For 33 days, he barely slept. Without the aid of instruments, he completed the longest open water voyage in over 600 years.
If Mau believed that he had turned the tide against the hypothesis of accidental voyaging, he was wrong. Many, including Atholl Anderson, a prominent professor of prehistory at the Australian National University, and an accomplished yachtsman, continue to insist that Mau's people -- the Carolinians -- were accidental colonizers. When Mau died, just two months ago, he entrusted his first-born son, Sesario Sewalur with proving to the world that his Carolinian ancestors -- the Lapita -- had deliberately and skillfully populated the Pacific frontier, spreading their language and customs throughout the new world.
In March 2011, James Campbell (Writer Outside Magazine) and me joined Sesario on a 1,5 month-long, "passing-of-the torch" journey. In a traditional, hand-carved wayfaring canoe, we sailed from Palau in the western Caroline Islands to Satawal in the east, and back to Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia, using the rising points of the stars, the sun, the moon, and ocean swells as our guides.