YAP, Micronesia — A fleet of handcrafted sailing canoes navigated by chanting men in loincloths raced toward Yap’s palm-lined coast.

Chief Bruno Tharngan stepped ashore, along with Ali Haleyalur, one of the last master navigators in the Pacific. A crowd that included VIPs from Guam and the president of Palau erupted in cheers.

This remote Pacific island’s first-ever outrigger sailing canoe festival, which occurred two weeks ago, had begun, marking the revival of an ancient craft that motor boats nearly eliminated.

“We forgot about canoes when the fiberglass boat was introduced,” said Haleyalur. “But then we found out it leads us into a miserable life. If you don’t have money, you can’t get gas. If your motor stops, you idle and drift away.”

Yap is the most traditional of the four states that compose the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a nation of more than 600 tropical islands scattered across the western Pacific. Stone discs weighing several thousand pounds served as currency for hundreds of years and still have value and most village women go topless, but cars, cell phones and Budweiser are common too. Modernity brings modern troubles. Last year, gas prices spiked at nearly $6 a gallon on the hilly main island of Yap and climate change threatens the very survival of an arc of isolated atolls known collectively as the Outer Islands of Yap.

“We’re at a crossroads where we look to the West and still hold the traditions of the past,” said Larry Raigetal, Yap’s director of youth and civic services, who served as the emcee for the festival, wearing a traditional white loin cloth called a thu and a garland of ginger flowers. “People are beginning to see that canoe sailing is something very valuable.”

outrigger sailing canoe
Chief Bruno Tharngnan and a crew of navigators sail one of his newly carved canoes into town to kick off the festival.
(Justin Nobel/GlobalPost)

Outrigger sailing canoes are how early Pacific mariners crisscrossed the world’s greatest ocean three-thousand years before Magellan and Columbus ever set sail. In the 1970s, a group of academics wanted to prove such a crossing was possible but could find no Polynesians who remembered traditional navigation. The group found their man in a master navigator from the Yap Outer Island of Satawal named Mau Paialug, an uncle of Haleyalur. Relying on the stars, magic and an uncanny ability to detect the distance to land from wave movement, Paialug navigated their craft, called the Hokule’a, from Hawaii to Tahiti and back, some 5,400 miles.

After Paialug's epic crossing, canoe sailing took off across the Pacific. The Marshall Islands hold a yearly race sponsored in part by Mobil Oil and Palau Community College offers a canoe sailing course; Palau President Johnson Toribiong’s brother was a student, as President Toribiong pointed out in a speech the first day of the festival.

You can learn to sail a canoe in a classroom, said Haleyalur, as he smoked a Winston under a hibiscus tree beside his humble, tin-roof home a few weeks before the festival, but you can only become a master navigator through years of training and induction in a four day-long ceremony called a pwo.

Students memorize stars on a map of stones and learn chants for opening channels, parting storm clouds and warding off rival navigators. They ingest medicinal plants that aid memory retention, bathe with salt water and drink nothing but coconut milk. A pwo ceremony must be led by a master navigator, and one can only become a master navigator by going through a pwo.

No master navigators remain on the main island of Yap. “I am the only one left,” said Haleyalur. “If no one gets it from me I am very sorry, because then they will never get it.”

Thanks to Paul Lane, a young man from the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, the youth of Yap have a chance to become masters again. Lane came to Yap in 2005, as a Peace Corps volunteer; he had never even been on a sailboat. During nightly story sessions that involved drinking a coconut wine called tuba he learned about outrigger canoe sailing from Chief Tharngan, who along with his near-blind teacher were the last two canoe carvers on the island.

“I was like, that’s crazy man,” said Lane. “We knew right away we had to do something, because if he dies an entire cultural knowledge is gone.”

Lane, Tharngan and several others interested in reviving canoe sailing formed Yap’s Traditional Navigation Society, in 2007. Through a grant from the Asian Development Bank they established a canoe carving and sailing school on the edge of a mangrove forest. Tharngan and his students have crafted more than half a dozen sailing canoes, aided by Haleyalur, who is the school’s navigation instructor. Their tools are hack saws and adzes with blades crafted from pickup truck shocks and century-old German artillery. The canoe bodies are stitched together with wood from mahogany and breadfruit trees and the mast and platform connecting the hull to the outrigger are made of bamboo.

Sailing the canoes is complicated; rather than tacking, the sail is carried from bow to stern and the outrigger, which stabilizes the craft, must be kept to windward in order to avoid a capsize. But the canoes are seaworthy, swift and in a good wind, sublime.

“When I joined this crew I don’t want to go in a speed boat again,” said Spencer Tafileluo, Haleyalur’s 21 year-old nephew and one of 12 new students at the navigation school. “I know the canoe is better.”

But as many canoe festival-goers admitted, they took planes to get to Yap not canoes, and servicing the remote Outer Islands where Haleyalur hales from by sailing canoe, rather than the diesel-chugging ship that does the run now, would be all but impossible.

“Mobility is necessary,” explained Masao Nakayama, FSM’s permanent U.N. representative and a key climate policy player, who come December will fly to Copenhagen to fight for greenhouse emission cuts at the U.N. Climate Conference. But he’ll bring with him the knowledge of his youth, which was spent on an atoll in the FSM state of Chuuk, fishing and voyaging on outrigger sailing canoes.

“It’s not the right policy to throw away our traditions,” said Nakayama.

On the final evening of the festival a troupe of topless men decorated with bands of coconut fronds performed a mesmerizing dance that involved pelvic thrusts, chanting and ear-splitting shrieks.

Haleyalur watched from the back of the crowd. He smoked a Winston and reflected upon the canoe festival. “Next year will be even better,” he said.

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