For centuries, the islanders of Yap were renowned in the Pacific for their navigational skills. They could travel hundreds of miles in open sailing canoes, charting their course by the stars, the winds, and the pattern of the waves. That knowledge became endangered as Yap came under the control first of the Spanish, then of the Japanese, and especially the US after World War II. But in recent years, there's been a resurgence of interest among young Yapese in learning this ancient skill, and keeping it alive. The World's Mary Kay Magistad went sailing with some of them.
MARCO WERMAN: For centuries, the islanders of Yap were renowned in the Pacific for their navigational skills. They could travel hundreds of miles in open sailing canoes, and they charted their course by the stars, the winds, and the pattern of the waves. That knowledge became endangered as Yap, which is part of Micronesia ? came under the control of various outsiders. First, the Spanish; then the Japanese; and after World War II, the United States. But in recent years there's been a resurgence of interest in this ancient skill among some Yapese. The World's Mary Kay Magistad went sailing with some of them.
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: A crew of aspiring navigators is hoisting a mahogany canoe into a turquoise lagoon for a morning sail. They've positioned the outrigger, made from a breadfruit tree, and the mast, made of bamboo. In this case, the sail is made from a used parachute. But traditionally it would have been made of woven fiber from a pandanus tree. The canoe glides through the water, with occasional adjustments to the sail. The art of navigation used to be passed down from father to son, but these days very few master navigators remain. One is Ali Haleyalur, a corpulent, 53-year-old former policeman. Now he teaches the skills passed down to him by his forefathers, to younger Yapese. I caught up with him just outside his village home.
ALI HALEYALUR: In traditional ways, we navigate by the stars at night. And in the daytime, we connect the waves. We learn how to observe the waves, because there are certain waves that we watch. So you have to be good in observing, so you know how to connect them. And then you know where your canoe is pointing. But it all takes your head ? calculate and memorize.
MAGISTAD: Ali Haleyalur says he's memorized all the important stars ? when they rise and set. But he says he can also find his way on a stormy night, when there are no stars in sight. Then, he listens to how the waves are hitting the canoe. As a navigator on long trips, he says, that can mean getting little or no sleep.
HALEYALUR: We get used to that. But you make sure that your crew have good rest so they can work very hard and do their work right, make sure that they don't fall overboard.
MAGISTAD: Haleyalur has traveled by canoe as far as Guam, some 470 miles away. It's a five to seven day voyage. He and a crew at the Traditional Navigation School are planning another trip there in April. They're in the process of preparing the boat. But equally important, Haleyalur says, is preparing spiritually for the journey. And here's where Yap's overlaying Christian culture, brought by Spanish colonizers centuries ago, bumps up against traditional island beliefs. Haleyalur says he has his crew say the ?Our Father' but he also has them take special herbal medicine, to ward off black magic from rival master navigators.
HALEYALUR: If somebody's jealous of you, then they make storm come to you, the tornadoes, or they even send sharks to attack the canoe.
MAGISTAD: Once, he says, his canoe on the open seas was boxed in by three whales. One got underneath the canoe.
HALEYALUR: We were above the water. (laughs) We were really scared, to be very true with you. I remember telling one guy who was inside bailing ? because there is two holy water bottles that are hanging under the platform. And so I told him, ?Pour some of the holy water and let's pray.? And then we started out with the ?Our Father'. We know that all of us say, ?Our Father who art in Heaven.? Yeah, I think we're what, scared and excited and all those, so we're saying something that it's not part of the prayer. But it did manage to let us go.
MAGISTAD: There are other ways to appeal to the spirits of the sea. Haleyalur says there are chants known only to master navigators, like this one, to help the canoe find its way.
MAGISTAD: Haleyalur says he's Catholic but he also believes in this magic ? and in black magic ? although he chuckles and demurs when I ask if he knows black magic.
HALEYALUR: I don't do black magic. I'm a very devoted Catholic Christian. And so I don't want to get involved in something like that, something that's to do bad things to others.
MAGISTAD: But some here in Yap say Haleyalur has been known to summon thunder on a clear day, if he has a message to spread. Traditional beliefs still live in Yap, and if Haleyalur has his way, Yap's traditional art of navigation will have a long life ahead of it, too. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Yap.
WERMAN: To see pictures of those traditional open sailing canoes in Yap, and their present day navigators, go to theworld.org.