Mau Piailug: Remembering Hokulea’s first navigator

Mural on Auahi and Cooke sts.

Hokulea’s first navigator is being immortalized on a wall in Kakaako.

Local artist Kamea Hadar and students from 808 Urban and the Pow Wow School of Art spent the last week and a half painting a mural of Pius “Mau” Piailug at the corner of Auahi and Cooke sts.

Many students didn’t know who he was when they started.

“I learned that he was really important in the revival of a certain art form that was lost in the Hawaiian culture,” said student Beethoven Sausal. “He taught the art of celestial navigation.”

“My hope with this mural is not only to teach people about master Mau and everything he represents, but also to bring awareness to the worldwide voyage,” Hadar said.

Hadar says he hopes the mural serves as a constant reminder that the canoes Hokulea and Hikianalia are out there in the world, representing Hawaii for the next three years.

Piailug was from Micronesia and happened to be in Hawaii when Polynesian Voyaging Society founders were looking for a navigator. The rest is history.

Piailug was chosen as a baby by his grandfather to be a navigator and follow in a long tradition that goes back 3,000 years. Piailug’s grandfather took him to the ocean and the tidepools, and got him immersed in nature on their tiny island home of Satawal.

Piailug learned the star compass, how to build canoes and how to sail, eventually graduating as a master pwo navigator at age 16, navigating between Micronesia’s islands thousands of miles west of Hawaii, where such traditions had long ago ended.

In 1975, Hokulea was launched — Hawaii’s first long-distance deep-sea voyaging canoe in 600 years. Building it in less than two years was one thing. Learning to sail and navigate her in one year was another.

Then Piailug came.

“Back in the mid-’70s when Hokulea needed to go to Tahiti to fulfill its destiny, we needed a navigator and at that time on earth, there were only six that were masters left, none in Polynesia, only in Micronesia,” said Nainoa Thompson, president, Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Piailug had never sailed south of the equator, so he came to the Bishop Museum planetarium.

“The planetarium was a really important tool to bring him here to get familiar with that sky that in his whole life he’s never experienced, he’s never seen,” Thompson explained.

After a blessing at Honolua Bay, Maui on May 1, 1976, Piailug navigated a canoe much bigger than he ever sailed in Micronesia, a distance six times longer than he ever voyaged, under stars that had never guided him before.

But they did, and Piailug found their way.

“He came and was the navigator that pulled Tahiti out of the sea and that gave Hokulea both its legacy and destiny,” Thompson said.

Two years later, Piailug returned in a second great act of compassion for Hawaii. “We needed a teacher, so Mau came back for the next three decades and trained all of us,” Thompson said. “So Mau’s contributions are enormous. If voyaging has any value, it would never have been successful without those two things, being the navigator and being the teacher.”

Before Piailug passed away in 2010, he performed a third act of compassion in 2007 and 2008, bestowing pwo to five navigators from Hawaii and five from other parts of Polynesia.

He wanted to ensure traditional, non-instrument navigation continued and flourished.

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