Mau Piailug

Mau Piailug bigraphy, stories - Micronesian navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal and a teacher of traditional, non-instrument wayfinding methods for deep-sea voyaging

Mau Piailug : biography

01 January 1932 – 12 July 2010

Pius "Mau" Piailug (pronounced ; 1932 – July 12, 2010) was a Micronesian navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal, best known as a teacher of traditional, non-instrument wayfinding methods for deep-sea voyaging. Mau’s Carolinian navigation system—which relies on navigational clues using the sun and stars, winds and clouds, seas and swells, and birds and fish—was acquired through rote learning passed down through teachings in the oral tradition. He earned the title of master navigator (palu) by the age of eighteen, around the time the first American missionaries arrived in Satawal. As he neared middle age, Mau grew concerned that the practice of navigation in Satawal would disappear as his people became acculturated to Western values. In the hope that the navigational tradition would be preserved for future generations, Mau shared his knowledge with the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS). With Mau’s help, PVS used experimental archaeology to recreate and test lost Hawaiian navigational techniques on the Hōkūle‘a, a modern reconstruction of a double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe.

The successful, non-instrument sailing of Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti in 1976, proved the efficacy of Mau’s navigational system to the world. To academia, Mau’s achievement provided evidence for intentional two-way voyaging throughout Oceania, supporting a hypothesis that explained the Asiatic origin of Polynesians. The success of the Micronesian-Polynesian cultural exchange, symbolized by Hōkūle‘a, had an impact throughout the Pacific. It contributed to the emergence of the second Hawaiian cultural renaissance and to a revival of Polynesian navigation and canoe building in Hawaii, New Zealand, Rarotonga and Tahiti. It also sparked interest in traditional wayfinding on Mau’s home island of Satawal. Later in life, Mau was respectfully known as a grandmaster navigator, and he was called "Papa Mau" by his friends with great reverence and affection. He received an honorary degree from the University of Hawaii, and he was honored by the Smithsonian Institution and the Bishop Museum for his contributions to maritime history. Mau’s life and work was explored in several books and documentary films, and his legacy continues to be remembered and celebrated by the indigenous peoples of Oceania.

Later life (1975–2010)


With Finney’s help, Mau was awarded a special fellowship at the East-West Center. Mau returned to Honolulu in April 1975 to begin work with the Hawaii-based Polynesian Voyaging Society, eventually navigating the double-hulled canoe, Hōkūle‘a, from Hawaii to Tahiti on its maiden voyage in 1976.To follow the course of the maiden voyage by the Hōkūle‘a, see the . Mau trained and mentored Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson, who later would become a master navigator. David Henry Lewis, a scholar of Polynesian navigation, documented Mau’s work.

Mau Piailug’s Voyages on Hōkūle‘a Hawaii–Tahiti
1980 Tahiti Voyage Hawaii–Tahiti–Hawaii
1985–1987 Voyage of Rediscovery Hawaii–Tahiti–Rarotonga;Waitangi–Nuku‘alofa–Pago Pago–Tutuila–Aitutaki–Rarotonga–Tautira
1995 Nā ʻOhana Holo Moana Hilo–Pape‘ete; Nuku Hiva–Hilo

Mau’s first-hand knowledge of traditional navigation had been accumulated in northern hemisphere study and sailings, but the voyage to Tahiti required Mau to familiarize himself with the geography and night sky of the southern hemisphere. Of this preparation, Finney writes,

…To prepare Mau Piailug for the voyage, David Lewis briefed him on the geography of the islands in this part of the Pacific and the winds and currents that could be expected along the way, all information that an early Polynesian navigator acquainted with this route would have carried in his head. In addition, to alert Mau of how the elevation of stars above the northern and southern horizons would change as the canoe sailed farther and farther south, we held training sessions in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum planetarium to graphically show how, for example, as one sailed toward Tahiti[,] Polaris sank lower and lower on the northern horizon until it disappeared at the equator while the Southern Cross curved higher and higher in the sky. During his first few days of the voyage, Mau received further coaching on the pattern of winds and currents from Rodo Williams, a veteran Tahitian seaman on the crew who the year before had sailed a yacht from Tahiti to Hawaii and could therefore provide Mau with a firsthand account of what he could expect to encounter.