Pius Mau Piailug and the Rebirth of Ancient Sailing Techniques

By Rina Izzi, Public History Center Fellow, Christopher Newport University, Class of 2018
Editor: Dr. Sheri Shuck-Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director, Public History Center

Pius “Mau” Piailug was born on the island of Satawal, a part of the Caroline Islands in Micronesia. Mau actually means “turtle” in Satawalese, a nickname given to Piailug by his close friends and family.[1] On this small island and its neighboring Puluwat, the art of wayfinding—or traditional navigation without instruments—has been passed down from father to son through generations. Wayfinding allowed peoples from speakers of Austronesian languages to settle Micronesia as early as 1000 BCE, without the assistance of compasses, sextants, and other modern navigational tools; instead they relied on the stars, winds, ocean swells, and bird migrations.

This art has been kept alive since the times of the original migration. In these communities, a master navigator, or pwo, has nearly the same status as the island chiefs when on land, and has full command while at sea. The wayfinders of these islands regularly competed to see which island is more skilled in the art with sailing races and explorative trips to islands far away from their own. Yet beginning in the 1950s, the younger generations became less interested in the rigorous training regime necessary for learning wayfinding when they could simply use Western instruments for navigation instead. With many unwilling to learn, the tradition nearly died out and Piailug was the last on his island to be recognized as a pwo in 1951.[2] Piailug achieved the rank of master navigator at age 19, after fifteen years of training. There were only six wayfinders left on earth in 1970, and they lived on either Satawal or Puluwat.[3] Piailug took this to mean that his biggest responsibility was to pass on his skills in wayfinding to whoever was determined to learn. He wanted to share his knowledge before he died so that the art of wayfinding would not be forgotten with his generation. This mission took him to places he never imagined he would go, and introduced him to people he never imagined he would meet. It led to the rebirth of traditional sailing around the world.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society was the first to discover Mau Piailug. At first it seemed that this meeting would come to nothing, but with effort they were able to achieve more than they had ever dreamed with his help. Traditional Hawaiian culture is famous around the world today for its unique beauty and attracts millions of tourists to the islands every year. It might be hard to imagine that the very same culture was on the verge of extinction only 40 years ago. In the 1950s and 60s, just like on Satawal, many Hawaiians lost touch with their unique culture while they were modernizing to become a part of the United States.[4] By the 1970s, nearly all of Hawaiian traditional culture was no longer practiced and Hawaiian youths were no longer familiarized with their heritage. A small group of men saw this as a tragedy and decided they would no longer sit back and watch. At the same time, a couple of scientists were trying to find a way to prove that the ancient Polynesians had actually been able sail from thousands of miles away in order to settle the Pacific islands intentionally, to support the anthropological theory of Polynesian migration. These men teamed up with the ambitious plan to revive the dying Hawaiian culture in the most dramatic way they possibly could—by proving the skills and feats of their ancestors. Thus began the Polynesian Voyaging Society and their mission to revive the arts of their ancestors. Once they found Piailug, they knew they could not achieve their goal without him.[5]

The Polynesian Voyaging Society decided to celebrate the disappearing culture of Polynesia by recreating an ancient canoe that would navigate using only the traditional method instead of modern technology. The Hokule’a, named after a star due to the stars’ role in traditional navigation, is an ancient double-hulled voyaging canoe built by Hawaiian natives who volunteered to learn and participate in the revival. The art of making a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, called a wa’a kaulua, had been almost completely lost by 1975 when the project started, just like the art of wayfinding. After finding one of the last people in the world trained in the art of wayfinding—Piailug—and using old records to recreate a wa’a kaulua, the Hokule’a was completed in 1976 with a mix of traditional and modern materials.[6]

From the initial voyage in 1976 until 2000, they sailed it throughout Polynesia to many of the islands including Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The crew of the Hokule’a reconnected peoples who had been separated for hundreds of years and who shared in the unique cultures and native mythology of the Polynesian Islands. They then decided to use this powerful cultural symbol to unite the cultures of the entire world under one idea: Malama Honua, or ‘to care for our Earth.’ The trip began in 2013 and ended in mid-2017. The Hokule’a has been very successful in spreading the traditional culture of the Polynesian islands around the world and uniting the islands themselves in the culture they had forgotten they shared, all of which would never have been possible without the help of Piailug, and his determination to preserve their cultural heritage.[7] You can find out more about the Malama Honua Project and ways to get involved here.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society asked Piailug to be their navigator on the Hokule’a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976. Mau agreed, seeing this as an opportunity to both prove his skill and share his knowledge of wayfinding tradition with his fellow crew members.[8] He arrived a few weeks early to assist in building the boat. However, there was a division among the participants in the project. Many Hawaiians wanted to take over the project completely, removing all non-Hawaiians from the picture and abandoning the initial goals of the Hokule’a. They wanted to make it solely a celebration of Hawaiian culture, despite needing to sail using modern methods and navigation because the Hawaiians consisted mostly of untrained sailors. This dissention was resolved before the boat set off for Tahiti, but reared its head again during the journey. Before the end of the trip a fight broke out between crew members that left blood on the deck. Piailug, after achieving the amazing feat of sailing 2,700 miles in an area of the ocean he had never seen before, was disgusted by the crew’s disrespectful attitude and behavior on the voyage. Upon arrival in Tahiti he immediately and unapologetically flew home to Satawal, leaving the crew to navigate back to Hawaii using modern instruments. He had had an idealistic view of what was going to happen and felt let down when he made the actual journey. Instead of being a point of pride for him, the Hokule’a voyage became a major disappointment to him and it was the reason Piailug refused to visit Hawaii or to sail on any more Polynesian Voyaging Society trips.[9]

Because the trip was to be made in two shifts, half of the crew met up with the boat in Tahiti and sailed back to Hawaii. Among those in this second shift was a young man who was extremely excited to meet Piailug. Nainoa Thompson, a Hawaiian, had planned to observe Piailug on the return sail and ask the old wayfinder to become his mentor. He was absolutely fascinated by wayfinding, and Piailug’s presence on the Hokule’a seemed to present the perfect opportunity to Nainoa. However, because of Piailug’s abrupt departure, Nainoa did not even get the chance to meet him. He and the rest of the crew sailed the Hokule’a back to Hawaii thinking they would never see the great navigator again, and Nainoa spent much of his time wondering how Piailug was even capable of navigating by the stars. On the voyage home, he carefully studied the stars to see if he could figure out Piailug’s methods.[10]

With Piailug’s departure from the project, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was left in need of a traditional navigator for their future undertakings. Nainoa requested that they use him as their navigator, right after they send him to Satawal to ask Piailug about learning wayfinding from him of course. Piailug agreed to become his teacher, and while living with him on Satawal, Nainoa received rigorous, tiring training as Piailug tried to teach him everything that he knew. Most times it required staying up all night to study the stars. Their all-nighters would be followed with more instruction in the daytime. It was so difficult because Piailug had begun his training at an early age, likely around 4 or 5 years old, and continued to learn for almost ten years. Nainoa, on the other hand, did not have ten years. Luckily, he was an attentive, dedicated, and quick learner and Piailug considered his necessary basic training complete after only two years. That meant that he was a fledgling navigator until his mentor decided he had gained enough knowledge and experience to become pwo. When the Voyaging Society prepared to go on their second trip from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1980, Nainoa took up the position of navigator. Following the path of his mentor, he used the art of wayfinding to safely sail the Hokule’a to Tahiti and back. Looking back on this time spent with Piailug, Nainoa called him “a man of magic.”[11] Even after learning so much from Piailug and managing to sail the same amazing distance, it still seemed like magic to Nainoa.[12]

Nainoa was not the only foreign student that Piailug trained.  Stephen Thomas, an American sailor from California, made his way to Satawal after hearing rumors of the Polynesians’ traditional navigation methods. There he met with Piailug and again moved to Satawal in order to learn directly from him. He kept a journal of his time there, and upon his return he published a book about what his life in Satawal was like. He learned the language of the island, got caught up in tribal disputes, and discovered the art of wayfinding, as well the life of his mentor and teacher, Mau Piailug. This book is recognized as the best attempt to describe wayfinding in writing.[13]

While wayfinding is often described as navigating by the stars, it is not nearly that simple. A wayfinder relies upon countless signs to keep course on the seemingly unchanging ocean. Ben Finney, one of the crew on the first Hokule’a voyage and a founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, describes how Piailug could track their progress even on a cloudy week by using the trade winds and ocean swells.[14] Thomas reports that he also encouraged using local fauna as navigation, because the birds returned to the same hunting grounds every year, and likewise with the fish.[15] The main idea behind wayfinding is understanding the nature around you, and using it as a way to know your own location in relation to others. Because of these influences and its success, the art of wayfinding has encouraged speculation about human magnetoreception, which essentially means that humans have an inner compass that helps them track their location when completely lost.[16] Nothing has been scientifically proven, but it seems like a likely way to understand Nainoa’s description of wayfinding as “a separation between knowledge and understanding… I know but I don’t know how I know.”[17]

The Disney movie Moana has done an amazing job of not only portraying ancient Polynesian tradition, but also of portraying wayfinding. The song We Know the Way explains wayfinding and demonstrates what wayfinding looks like. Listen to the song and watch the clip here. Notice that the chief is carefully keeping track of the stars, the ocean, the winds, and the birds to keep track of their boats’ location; this way he can sail back to the last island whenever he wants or needs to and he is never lost.


To show just how much Piailug and his teachings meant to them, the Polynesian Voyaging Society teamed up with his students to craft a traditional canoe for him named Alingano Maisu.  Nainoa, a few of Piailug’s sons, and some other students and friends finished work on it in 2007. Tradition asked that Piailug journey on that maiden voyage of his new vessel; however, he was incapable of making the trip because he had been recently diagnosed diabetes. Instead, Nainoa and the others made the maiden voyage from Hawaii to Satawal using the skills they had learned from Piailug as a tribute to their teacher. When they greeted Piailug on the beaches of Satawal, he revealed that he had an even greater surprise prepared for them.[18]

That day, Satawal celebrated its first pwo ceremony in 56 years. Piailug bestowed the title onto nearly all of those who had studied under him, and he said that building and sailing home the Alingano Maisu served as the final test of their knowledge and experience. This was a major event not only because the island had not held one or named a new pwo in so long, but also that he was awarding people from another island the title of pwo, which had never occurred before. Yet he was not one to let that stop him from sharing his knowledge before it was lost to the world, which he now saw as an immediate danger after his diagnosis. To this end he named his students pwo, knowing they would carry out his wishes and act as the title demands. To be a pwo means being a recognized master navigator, but it also means being the master of your knowledge and ensuring that your knowledge of wayfinding does not end with you. Thus, Piailug ensured that his students would pass on the knowledge he taught them over so many years, what his grandfather taught him—the knowledge that has been passed down through generations of the Piailug family through oral tradition.[19]

After entrusting his knowledge to his students, Piailug died on July 12, 2010 at the age of 78. He died after suffering complications relating to diabetes. Newspapers nationwide, such as The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, published articles and obituaries to honor him and his significant contribution to the rebirth of Polynesian culture. They praised him for being the last wayfinder, while he had worked his whole life to ensure that he would not in fact be the last—the real reason why he deserved so much praise.[20] His achievement of this goal is how a man from a small island in such a large ocean became one of the most important people in Polynesian culture. He single-handedly caused the rebirth of Polynesian wayfinding in the Pacific, and is the reason why the art is so popular and well-studied today. Upon his death, two figures continued his legacy. Nainoa Thompson now travels the world spreading his knowledge of wayfinding, and the Mau Piailug Society posts videos of Piailug explaining wayfinding as well as other videos about traditional dance, song, etc. The Mau Piailug Society was founded in 1999 at the request of Piailug himself, who hoped it would preserve his teachings.  They are a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the traditional cultural arts, values and history of the Pacific Islanders. Pius Mau Piailug’s efforts led to the rebirth of Polynesian wayfinding—the ways of his ancestors—and his legacy will live on for generations to come.


Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Baybayan, Chad Kalepa. “Piailug’s greatest lesson is that we are a single people.” Star      Advertiser, July 29, 2010.

Brown, Emma. “Mau Piailug, Micronesian who sailed by navigating sun and stars, dies at 78.” The Washington Post, July 21, 2010.

Finney, Ben R. “A Role for Magnetoreception in Human Navigation?” Current Anthropology 36, no. 3 (1995): 500-06.

Finney, Ben R. From Sea to Space. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

Finney, Ben R. Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1979.

Howe, K. R. Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors: The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Lewis, David. We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Miller, Stephen. “Pacific Navigator Kept Sailing Techniques Afloat.” The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2010.

Oliver, Douglas. Polynesia in Early Historic Times. Honolulu, HI: The Bess Press, 2002.

Papa Mau: The Wayfinder. Directed by Na’alehu Anthony. 2010. Paliku Documentary Films, 2011. DVD.

Stimson, J. Frank. “Songs of the Polynesian Voyagers.” Journal of the Polynesian Society 41, no. 3 (1932).

Thomas, Stephen D. The Last Navigator. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1987.

Thompson, Nainoa. “Mauna Kea.” The Wayfinding Art: Ocean Voyaging in Polynesia, a      Collection of Essays. Berkeley, CA: Regents of the University of California, 1986. 27-32.



[1] Papa Mau: The Wayfinder, directed by Na’alehu Anthony (2010; Paliku Documentary Films, 2011).

[2] Stephen D. Thomas, The Last Navigator, (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1987).

[3] Papa Mau: The Wayfinder, directed by Na’alehu Anthony.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ben R. Finney, Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti, (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1979).

[6] Finney, Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti, and https://www.hokulea.com/

[7] Finney, Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti, and https://www.hokulea.com/

[8] Finney, Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti.

[9] Finney, Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti.

[10] Finney, From Sea to Space, 20.

[11] Papa Mau: The Wayfinder, directed by Na’alehu Anthony.

[12] Finney, From Sea to Space.

[13] Thomas, The Last Navigator.

[14] Finney, Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti, 123.

[15] Thomas, The Last Navigator, 30.

[16] Ben R. Finney, “A Role for Magnetoreception in Human Navigation?” Current Anthropology 36, no. 3 (1995): 500-06.

[17] Nainoa Thompson, “Mauna Kea,” The Wayfinding Art: Ocean Voyaging in Polynesia, a Collection of Essays, (Berkeley, CA: Regents of the University of California, 1986). 28.

[18]  Papa Mau: The Wayfinder, directed by Na’alehu Anthony.

[19]  Papa Mau: The Wayfinder, directed by Na’alehu Anthony.

[20] Emma Brown, “Mau Piailug, Micronesian who sailed by navigating sun and stars, dies at 78,” The Washington Post. July 21, 2010. And Stephen Miller, “Pacific Navigator Kept Sailing Techniques Afloat,” The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2010. And Chad Kalepa Baybayan, “Piailug’s greatest lesson is that we are a single people,” Star Advertiser, July 29, 2010.

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