Sailing Into The Future
Story by Floyd K. Takeuchi
Mentil Laik has the strong, rough hands of a man who uses them to earn a living. But his calloused fingers move with surprising dexterity as he weaves fibrous coconut twine through the narrow confines of the outrigger of a miniature Marshallese sailing canoe.
Laik gently guides and tugs at the strong twine, which he made moments before from the fibers of the coconut husk by rubbing them against his thigh. He’s an expert at all things related to the canoes of the Marshall Islands, even on a model designed to be exhibited at the world expo in Shanghai.
At 55, Laik has been building the beautiful traditional canoes of the Marshall Islands for more than 30 years. He apprenticed on his home atoll of Ailuk with his grandfather, a master canoe builder. For the past seven years, the soft-spoken Laik has been the teacher for a score of Marshallese youth who are learning the ways of their ancestors.
He’s part of a unique skills-building program that looks to the past to prepare at-risk Marshallese youth for the future. Formed in 1999, but based on work that began 10 years before to document traditional canoe-building skills that were being lost, Waan Aelon in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) is a unique example of finding value in an indigenous culture to prepare its young people to survive in a commercial world.
You would think that all things related to the sea would come naturally to young Marshallese. Their nation spreads out over the Central Pacific, just above the equator. It is comprised of 34 coral atolls and islands scattered across an ocean area of 1 million square miles. The young nation’s capital, Majuro Atoll, home for Waan Aelon in Majel, is about 2,300 miles south-southwest of Honolulu.
But many of today’s young Marshallese who grow up just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, are disconnected from their maritime heritage.
“We’ve got kids who don’t know how to swim,” says Alson Kelen, the energetic Marshallese who is director of Waan Aelon in Majel. So swimming is among the skills that Kelen’s trainers pass along to each class, which can number around 20.
Originally designed to focus solely on reviving traditional canoe-building skills, Waan Aelon in Majel today takes a broader view of training. The ancient ways of hewing the foundation of a canoe hull from a breadfruit tree is still required learning. But so too are modern carpentry skills, which can also be used to make furniture, as well as building traditionally-styled canoes protected and strengthened by fiberglass.
“Today it is about jobs. People expect to be able to get jobs when they learn skills,” notes Kelen, who has been with the program from its beginning. That practical attitude is understandable at a time when, by some estimates, the nation’s unemployment rate is about 30 percent.
But if the practical co-exists with the traditional at Waan Aelon in Majel, so too does a respect for the program’s roots in Marshallese culture. Revered elders are brought in to share stories with each class, which studies for six months at the program’s canoe house on Majuro.
In recent years, to the surprise of some, young women were allowed to compete along with men for a place in incoming classes. But Kelen says that while going co-ed was a change, it reflects an understanding of the critical role women played in the development of a canoe culture in the Marshall Islands.
Marshallese are recognized as having had some of the region’s finest traditional navigators, who could steer their voyaging canoes by using the position of stars and the feel of waves. And, says Kelen, in Marshallese lore the first navigator was a woman, Litarmelu. Women also wove the sails that made Marshallese canoes some of the fastest in the Pacific.
While Waan Aelon in Majel’s efforts are focused on training young people, it has also spurred a revival of Marshallese canoe building and sailing. Today, at least two regattas are held in the islands. Long-distance sailing over hundreds of miles has also been revived, using a 35-foot fiberglass-strengthened canoe to make the voyage.
Marshallese canoes are considered among the most beautiful in Oceania. Their hulls are rise gracefully at either end, and have the look of a craft designed for speed. A large outrigger attaches to the starboard side and provides stability and more “deck” space for longer voyages. But when sailing in a strong wind, an experienced sailor can ride the outrigger up 25 or 30 degrees into the air. It makes for a stunning sight, and an exciting time for those aboard the canoe.
One of the benefits of having the canoe program is that visitors to Majuro can also experience first-hand what it is like to sail on a Marshallese canoe. For a reasonable fee, a hotel can arrange for Waan Aelon in Majel students to take tourists across Majuro lagoon in one of the program’s canoes.
On the day that we headed out, the trade winds were blowing across the lagoon at about 10 miles per hour. Not a stiff wind, but enough to move the canoe along at about five knots. And given the slender shape of the hull of a Marshallese canoe, the speed seems much faster when you’re actually sitting on an outrigger and spray is blowing up from the bow.
Anyone who has sailed aboard a Marshallese canoe will be amazed at the sophisticated technology of these graceful craft. The canoes sail remarkably close to the wind. Instead of the traditional tacking, a crewmember simply lifts the front of the sail out of the bow and places it in the stern of the hull. No leisurely tack needed; no ducking to avoid a swinging boom. The canoe immediately takes off in a different direction.
On our afternoon on the lagoon, the crew took the canoe through a maze of multi-million dollar fishing trawlers, many with helicopters secured to their decks. The ships are part of the huge purse seiner fishing fleet that uses Majuro as a base to chase tuna across the Marshall’s huge exclusive economic zone.
I can’t imagine what the crewmembers aboard those boats must of thought of our canoe as it zigged and zagged among the anchored behemoths. A few curious sailors at the railings looked down on our canoe as it darted around their ships.
As our canoe worked its way across the lagoon, I was reminded of what it was like in the 1950s when I was growing up on Majuro. In those days, it was common to see canoes sailing across the lagoon, or beached on the shore. They were often sailed by Marshallese coming in from the outer islands to buy goods at Majuro’s trading stores.
The young men who sailed our canoe were likely the grandsons or, perhaps, the great-grandsons of those sailors of 50 years ago. While the times have changed, our crew and their passengers were connected to the past by our sleek blue-and-red canoe as it sliced through Majuro lagoon. For part of an afternoon, at least in our minds, the large fishing boats disappeared and we had the lagoon to ourselves.