On a gently rocking double-hulled canoe, floating in the heavenly blue waters of Palau, I began to realize just how hopeless our journey here would be. We were filming a conversation with the son of one of the late, great South Pacific sea voyagers, a man who, we believed, was keeping the sailing tradition alive in its Micronesian home. I will call him the Navigator. Around us lolled a listless crew of young Paluan men, dressed pitch-perfect in the style of East Watts, LA. The Navigator and his East Watts Crew.
Meeting the 'Navigator'
“Why is it important to take young men on these long voyages across the Pacific?” I asked.
“I take them to other places, where it’s different than here. They see there are islands where when you get drunk, they carry you off the street and cover you with a sheet.”
The Navigator then turned his head 90 degrees and expectorated an honest half-liter of red betel juice into the sea. But I wasn’t panicking. To be honest, our heart wasn’t really in this interview. The props had been popping out from under our plans in Palau for three days already.
Discovering how humans crossed the pacific
Stepping back for a moment, let me tell you why we were filming on a tiny island archipelago in the west Pacific region of Micronesia. Once, many Pacific Islanders possessed incredible skills of non-instrumental sea navigation; we literally could not credit their stories of voyaging and settling, and in the 20th century, archeologists believed the remote islands of the Pacific must have been settled by accidental drifting. But earlier, when Western sailors first met Polynesians, they found it easier to believe the stories. In the 18th century, Captain Cook met a man from the Society Islands called Tupaia who drew him an accurate map of all 130 islands within a 3000km radius of his home. He then helped navigate the Endeavour to New Zealand, a place he had never visited.
In recent years, archeologists have finally begun to accept that when humans expanded across the South Pacific, starting 4000 years ago, it was as a result of a series of rapid, deliberate, and highly skilled sailing explorations. Polynesian settlers knew exactly what they were doing when they set out east to discover new lands, and their sailing canoes were perfectly suited to the voyages. They navigated by the stars, by mental maps of the known islands, by sea currents and swell patterns, and most importantly, by sailing into the prevailing winds, so they could always return home.
In the age of engine-powered sea travel and modern navigation, we lost track of the tradition of non-instrumental sea voyaging. But in the most remote islands of Micronesia, it lived on. Since the 1970s, groups like Hawaii’s Polynesian Voyaging Society have worked to revive traditional sailing skills, with the help of some remarkable Micronesian navigators.
in search of a traditional double-hulled canoe
It was with one of these that we intended to film in Palau, on the eve of the departure of a true double-hulled canoe, the Miasu, on a two-month voyage across Micronesia. I visited one year in advance to meet the Navigator, see the canoe, and make our plans. “The 15th of February, 2014, will be when we depart! Come then, and you will film the celebrations, and see us sail for Yap and farther!”
So, our four-person film crew arrived a few days before the planned departure, ready to film the final preparations of the Miasu. This promised to be a visual spectacle, so we had with us our remote-controlled helicopter for filming aerials of the canoe under sail. This is what happened.
Day I, preparations
Rain and wind. We go down to the port to meet the Navigator. The Miasu is in the water, but curiously, it has no mast.
“Where is the mast?”
“We lost it when we almost sank at sea, two years ago.”
“But you must have a new mast by now?”
“Of course – final prep, ready to go first thing tomorrow.”
“But aren’t you leaving on your voyage in two days?”
“Maybe in two months.”
Day II, first shoot day
Rain, but no wind. None. The crew stays in their rooms, while I go to find the Navigator at first light. He is nowhere. The Miasu has no mast. I find someone who looks like he might know something, and he turns out to be a crewmember. I can’t really understand what he says, because the wad of betel in his mouth is too big. But he knows I’m all about the mast.
“This is the mast” (more a gesture than a set of words).
“This!” (again, a gesture).
In the mud of a vacant field near the water lies a very long I-beam of fabricated aluminum. I am no sailor, but this does not look like a mast. It looks like scaffolding. And it is nowhere near the deck of the Miasu.
Day III, second shoot day
Glorious blue skies, gentle breeze. When we reach the harbor at first light, the Navigator is there, proudly looking up at the piece of scaffolding thrusting off the deck of the Miasu. There are many ropes holding it in place, so we assume he knows what he is doing.
Time to sail. We agree to travel out in our own speedboat a few kilometers to the Rock Islands, a beautiful area of limestone pod islands and blue waters. We will prepare the remote-controlled helicopter camera and wait for the Miasu.
Two hours later, we are still waiting. Finally, we return toward the harbor, to look for the Navigator and his canoe. Far back, we find them. The Miasu’s mainsail is not up. Instead, the Navigator has a small storm jib up; the canoe does not appear to be moving.
“We’re making one knot!” (Is it pride in his voice?)
“Where is your mainsail?”
“Having some trouble. We’ll put it up now.”
The East Watts Crew springs into action, large packets of red spit shooting to port and starboard as they emptied their mouths. Up went the sail in a mild breeze. We rolled cameras.
Then mast began to bend. It flexed deeply away from the wind. On our own boat, we all held out breath, afraid the metal would snap under tension and impale a sailor. Sensibly, the Navigator called his boys to drop the sail.
The mast, however, kept its new shape, rather like a pulled bow. This was, apparently, the maiden voyage of the Navigator’s new mast. And it was performing about as well as a piece of scaffolding.
Day IV, last shoot day
Blue skies. In a crisis meeting, we have decided to shoot whatever happens, and hope to develop the story as an heroic account of one man, struggling to bring back a sailing tradition against ALL ODDS. Certainly, the odds do look to be against our Navigator.
Back at the harbor, the Navigator and the East Watts Crew have been busy. The scaffolding/mast is now three meters shorter, and tied to the Miasu with every rope they can find. The deck is a spider’s web of guy lines. There are smiles, and back patting.
The Navigator starts his dirty trick – a 200 horsepower engine tucked against one of the Miasu’s hulls, and the only reason the canoe can get out of the harbor. Once we reach the Rock Islands, the main sail goes up, fills with a polite wind, and the canoe begins to made headway. We finally, at the 11th hour, have a story to film.
This is when we go on board to explore the meaning of traditional sea voyaging for the next generation. And find out that, in the Navigator’s opinion, the essence of the non-instrumental navigation program and its expeditions is a search for better drinking cultures. Let’s be kind – a search for new standards in hospitality. Places where you don’t sleep it off on the road, but rather, on the side of the road.
Denouement, End of Day IV
“So what will you do when we leave? You must be busy getting ready for your next departure, which we were very sorry to have missed.”
“No. We will just throw this mast away.”
“They just made it for your filming, to make it look like we can sail. It’s silly.”
To quote O. Henry, “It was beautiful and simple, as all great swindles are.”