Pacific 'wave pilot' kept ancient skills alive

2 min

Majuro (Marshall Islands) (AFP)

One of the Pacific's last traditional navigators, or wave pilots, has died in Majuro, but not before passing many of his skills onto a younger generation of Marshall Islanders.

For thousands of years, Pacific islanders have sailed between remote atolls without navigation aids such as maps and compasses, instead using wave motion and stars to guide them across vast distances.

Captain Korent Joel, 68, was a master of the ancient techniques, which were recently highlighted in the animated Disney feature "Moana".

Joel was determined these skills would not die with him and worked with the non-profit organisation Waan Aelon in Majel (WAM -- Canoes of the Marshall Islands) to teach youngsters.

He also collaborated with international researchers keen to document his uncanny abilities and see if they could find a scientific explanation for them.

His knowledge was also featured in several publications, including the New York Times.

"Theoretically, a wave-pilot, dropped blindfolded into a boat in Marshallese waters, could follow a set of seamarks -- waves of a particular shape -- alone to land," the Times reported.

Because Joel was also a licensed ship captain, he understood both traditional and Western navigation, giving him the ability to communicate his knowledge to outsiders as well as Marshallese.

Stories about his navigation skills abound.

WAM director Alson Kelen was with Joel in a small yacht sailing between Kwajalein and Ujae atolls when they were hit by high winds which blew them off course.

Joel woke from a sleep and immediately told the crew they were heading the wrong way, even though it was pitch dark and raining heavily with no stars visible.

They followed his directions and were amazed when dawn broke a few hours later and Ujae came into view.

Once when Kelen was lost and radioed Joel for advice, the veteran wayfinder told to him "feel it" and read the swells.

Kelen said that navigators such as Joel were traditionally a vital part of the ocean-going society -- with knowledge about how to plant seeds, build canoes, organise the community and protect the reef.

He said the knowledge Joel has passed on was helping inspire young Marshallese to become marine biologists, oceanographers and take up other marine-related skills.

"It’s amazing how much we lost... I hope what Captain Korent started with other navigators won't stop now," he said.

"This is the blueprint not just for navigation, but for life in the Marshall Islands."

Joel was buried on Saturday, two weeks after he died in the capital Majuro.