Back in the early 1970s I visited Palau for the first time and was killing time in Guam on my way back to the Virgin Islands when I bumped into an ex-Navy diver I had done submarine diving work with in the Caribbean earlier in 1971. I had yanked him out of a few tight spots in our diving projects and he insisted that I join him aboard a commercial freighter where he had recently signed on as one of the Merchant Marine officers and was serving as Third Mate. This was before the days that Guam’s main beaches on the north shore were lined with luxury hotels and I was facing a grim layover at a flophouse with more roaches than guests. I couldn’t have afforded a decent hotel then even if one had existed, so I quickly accepted his invitation to dinner aboard and a berth for a few days while they took on cargo.
Over dinner in the officer’s mess that evening, he mentioned that one of their first ports of call was the main island of Weno in Truk Lagoon. Being a WWII history buff, I was well aware of the epic battle termed Operation Hailstorm that sunk over 80 Japanese vessels as well as nearly 250 aircraft in February 1944. It was now coming up on the 30th anniversary of that battle and, without much hope of success, I asked if I could accompany the ship there to have a chance to do a bit of exploring. Luck was with me and the captain welcomed having another licensed Merchant Marine officer aboard since they were short-handed and I evened out the watch sections. I volunteered for 0400-0800 bridge watch that nobody wanted and we cast off for Truk after two nights in port.
This was also before the days of well-outfitted liveaboard vessels and there was merely a barebones land-based diving service starting up owned by the legendary Kimiuo Aisek. As a 17-year old, Kimiuo had witnessed the battle in 1944 and was still in the process of locating the shipwrecks as dive sites. It was surreal to talk with a man that had actually experienced the carnage, escaped the Japanese occupation forces, and gone on to pioneer what would become the wreck diving Mecca of the world.
I availed myself of his diving hospitality while the ship off-loaded and was treated to some incredibly virgin wrecks. But my story is not about the diving, but of a unique tradition of ocean transiting developed by the Micronesians from centuries long past.
Those who mastered this form became known simply as The Navigators and they led trips across the Pacific that spanned thousands of miles in dugout canoes and primitive sailing craft… all without the aid of a compass, charts, sextants, or even a rudimentary form of celestial dead reckoning. I asked Kimiuo about The Navigators and he immediately confessed to a total lack of understanding about the practice. But he offered to introduce me to one of the few remaining Navigators, now in his late 80s, who was living on distant Polle over on the far west side of the lagoon. He dispatched me one afternoon with a guide in a leaky wooden launch powered by an outboard motor that punched us along at about five knots. It was long trip and I arrived just before sunset and was welcomed ashore for dinner over a cook fire of fresh fish and steamed rice. I brought a case of semi-cold beer and was immediately the most popular guest to visit in years.
The Navigator, whose name escapes my memory now, was happy to engage me in an attempt to explain how he and his ancestors managed open ocean crossings using a methodology based on waves and swells. A narrative about the direction of waves, the frequency and period of the swell, height of crests, and how they impacted the hulls of their small boats somehow was translated into how to steer a course without a compass left me utterly bewildered. I prided myself on my own skills in navigation all derived from mathematical calculations, star and sun sights transposed by sextant, the origin of Bowditch’s rules, and a good set of parallel rulers and conventional charts. But my mariner’s world was as confusing to him as his was to me.
We talked for hours and I finally departed late that night back to Weno without advancing an iota of my knowledge. The Navigator assured me that western mariners who had not grown up in the culture would never understand and that I shouldn’t feel too bad about my failings. He went on to explain that it was a lost art to all but a handful of Micronesians and would probably soon be forgotten entirely by the next generation. Somehow his gentle reflections on my inability to get a grip on his art were little comfort and I rejoined the ship glad to be back in the 20th century… but conflicted on my intellectual failure to even vaguely understand his theories and practical lessons that made no sense to me whatsoever.
Twenty years went by since my first trip to Truk and I found myself back again in the modern age of diving as photo-journalist doing a big feature article following the 50th anniversary of the Operation Hailstorm battle. This time I was hosted in total wanton luxury by Capt. Lance Higgs aboard his 180-ft. dive ship Thorfinn. Now most of the wrecks were charted and I began two weeks of exploration spending most of the day and early evenings underwater with my able and intrepid assistant Cathryn Castle.
Over dinner one night, I asked Lance if he had ever tried his hand at the old Micronesian navigator’s craft and he admitted that the theory escaped him as well. And Lance was far better suited than me to be privy to such tradition having married a local Truk woman and employing about a dozen of her relatives in his diving operation. He also had met the ancient gentleman that I had spent time with and told me sadly that he had passed away.
But then he related a story that I have found compelling ever since and I sat transfixed as he spun the tale.
In the late 1970s a U.S. oceanographic survey vessel was on a two-year voyage to update the vastly incomplete and inaccurate charts of much of the area including the more remote and uninhabited atolls that fringed the wide footprint of Micronesia and other far-flung regions of the Pacific. They made port in Weno for supplies and also took on some replacement crew as deckhands before resuming their surveying mission.
Once at sea, a huge typhoon blew up and the captain made for a distant atoll hoping to get inside the only entrance through the barrier reef to the relative safety of the protected anchorage inside where he could ride out the storm. As the winds increased, the rain came down in sheets, and visibility rapidly decreased. Now this was back in the days before Sat-Nav, GPS, and no Loran existed out there to assist in navigation. As the wind topped 130 knots and 30-ft. waves blew spray over the bridge of the 260-ft. ship, the captain knew that the odds of finding the pass in the barrier reef was all but impossible and that he’d have no choice but to seek open ocean and ride things out without protection. It was a grim scenario.
At that point, his Chief Mate offered a somewhat reluctant suggestion.
“Captain, when we were in Truk we took on local crew and one of the young men is the grandson of the last of The Navigators who practiced their craft without the need for visibility, stars, or even charts. Maybe he has some idea of where the atoll is from our last fix and could help.”
Initially the captain was dismissive of such “witchcraft” but as the seas increased and the ship heeled violently with each massive swell, he finally told the mate to get the teenager and bring him to the bridge. He arrived barefoot and in a ragged pair of shorts and tee shirt with long dark hair held back in a ponytail fastened with a tortoise shell ring. This didn’t do anything to advance the captain’s confidence. But he figured it was worth a shot.
“Son, we’re trying for the atoll and need to find the entrance pass before the storm gets any worse. We can’t get a fix and the sea clutter has made the radar useless. Do you have any idea where we are and how to find the channel?”
His grandfather, the same wise man who had spent an evening with me on Polle several years before, had mentored the boy. He simply nodded and said he needed to go out on the wing deck and would relay directions to the captain. He opened the bridge door and stepped out into the full fury of the storm without hesitation. Ducking down behind the steel bulwark, he peered into the storm and seas ahead.
After about ten minutes, he turned and began giving commands.
“Come to port 15 degrees for 20 minutes.” This was followed by silence. Then, “Now head due east and hold course for exactly 12 minutes.”
The captain instructed the helmsman to follow the boy’s maneuvering commands while inwardly praying that he was not going to end up explaining to a court of inquiry how he had run a ship up on a remote barrier reef because he had abdicated navigation to a teenager exercising an ancient art that no one understood.
As the last of the light faded into a raging storm of darkness, the boy gave a rapid fire of commands that had the ship on several changing bearings that defied explanation. Just as the captain and mate were about to decide to give up and take their chances in the open sea, they looked to starboard and could sea the waves breaking on the barrier reef less than 30 feet away. Running to the port side, they were even closer to the reef but clearly the boy had found the pass and they were entering the lagoon. As the waves lessened and the ship stabilized, the boy walked back on to the bridge soaking wet and dripping rain and sea water over the teak decks.
“You can steer ahead for ten more minutes and then we’ll be in about forty feet of water with good holding ground to anchor in. We’ll be safe here until the typhoon ends.”
The captain mustered the deck and anchor crew into action and, just as the boy predicted, the soundings shallowed and the ship was positioned in the lee of the central island. Once secured, the captain turned to the boy and thanked him profusely for his uncanny skill at bringing them to safety in a raging storm with practically no visibility. The boy simply nodded and asked if he was excused.
The captain said, “Yes, but can I ask you one last question?”
The boy again nodded.
“How did you know the pass was there through the barrier reef?”
The boy looked at him impassively and simply replied, “It’s always been there.”
Lance finished the story and we both sat back in silence. I went out to the bar and got us each a glass of Scotch and we banged glasses together in an unspoken tribute to The Navigator and the tradition that he had managed to pass on to a last generation.