But in the sea of rejoicing after the historic landing, an important member of the crew was missing: Mau Piailug, a master navigator from Satawal, a small atoll in Micronesia. He was the only crew member to master the art of orienteering, and by 1976 he was one of the few master navigators in the world.
The Satawal people still relied on orientation for food, and Piailug had started training in the tidal pools with his grandfather, also a master navigator, before he could walk. This is why the Hōkūle’a crew sought him out for their inaugural expedition; with orientation long absent from Hawaii, they needed an expert to teach them the trade. Piailug, who made the entire trip from Hawaii to Tahiti, reluctantly agreed to help, but quickly regretted it. The crew members quarreled throughout the trip and several lacked the concentration and discipline required for non-instrumental navigation, so Piailug rushed home to Satawal as soon as Hōkūle’a entered. the port of Pape’ete. He left a farewell gift: an eight-track tape with return instructions and a fiery final message: “Don’t come get me. You will never find me.
Despite Piailug’s absence, the Hōkūle’a crew set their sights on another trip from Hawaii to Tahiti. But the ocean had other plans. In 1978, Hōkūle’a capsized and Eddie Aikau, a seasoned crew member, one of Hōkūle’a’s biggest supporters, went surfing for help. Hōkūle’a and the team were ultimately rescued, but Aikau never returned. Mourning spread with hurricane-like force, jeopardizing the future of this nascent movement.
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“Hōkūle’a was about to become just another canoe in a museum, as so many canoes are today,” said Matahi Tutavae, a Tahitian traveler who trained and eventually sailed with the crew. of Hōkūle’a in 2010. “[Polynesian] culture belonging to museums has been detrimental to our people. He says our traditions are blocked, that they are a thing of the past. But Nainoa [Thompson] helped put Hōkūle’a back in the water. “
Thompson had trained with Aikau throughout the 1970s, and the two bonded through a mutual dedication to the direction and cultural pride that this sparked. But the tragedy of 1978 tested Thompson’s strength: could he orient himself without his friend? The answer had to be yes, Thompson knew, and he would continue to push Hōkūle’a’s boundaries to honor Aikau.
But the catastrophic capsize of 1978 exposed the many blind spots of the Hōkūle’a crew – weaknesses that would make long-range orientation risky, if not fatal. Thompson and his father, Myron “Pinky” Thompson, one of the founders of Hōkūle’a, knew they needed an expert versed in the art of non-instrumental navigation, someone who had grown up in it. guidance, to teach them – and the only man on the planet qualified enough for this task was the very man who had sworn to leave Hōkūle’a two years before.
Thompson nevertheless flew to Micronesia.
“Mau was waiting for me there,” he recalls, noting that Piailug was heartbroken about Aikau. “We sat on a driftwood log by the beach, and I asked him, ‘Can you come back? Will you teach us?’,” This last question struck Piailug, who in 1978 had to barely 50 years old. . “Mau needed to come down at the end of his life knowing that navigation would not end, because if one day there are no more sailors, we will no longer be people.”