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molera rock
[photo by julia stotz] 

I was flipping through an old issue of The Economist we had laying around and came across this obituary for the master-navigator Mau Piailug who died on July 12 at age 78. I’d never heard of him before, but something about this story I love. Below is the first part of the obituary, and here is a link to the full piece on the Economist’s website. 

“In the spring of 1976 Mau Piailug offered to sail a boat from Hawaii to Tahiti. The expedition, covering 2,500 miles, was organised by the Polynesian Voyaging Society to see if ancient seafarers coul dhave gone that way, through open ocean. The boat was beautiful, a double-hulled canoe named Hokule’a, or “Star of Gladness” (Arcturus to Western science). But there was no one to captain her. At that time, Mau was the only man who knew the ancient Polynesian art of sailing by the stars, the feel of the wind and the look of the sea. So he stepped forward.

As a Micronesian he did not know the waters or the winds round Tahiti, far south-east. But he had an image of Tahiti in his head. He know that if he aimed for that image, he would not get lost. And he never did. more than 2,000 miles out, a flock of small white terns skimmed past the Hokule’a heading for the still invisible Matavia Atoll, next to Tahiti. Mau knew then that the voyage was almost over.

On that month-long trip he carried no compass, sextant or charts. He was not against modern instruments on principal. A compass could occasionally be useful in daylight; and, at least in old age, he wore a chunky watch. But Mau did not operate on latitude, longitude, angles, or mathmatical calculations of any kind. He walked, and sailed, under an arching web of stars moving slowly east to west from their rising to their setting points, and knew them so well-more than 100 of them by name, and their associated stars by colour, light and habit-that he seemed to hold a whole cosmos in his head, with himself, determined, stocky and unassuming, at the nub of the celestial action.”

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