Stick Chart

Stick Chart

Price upon request

Stick charts, used for the teaching of navigation skills, are unique to the Marshall Islands. They explain about wave and current patterns around the Marshalls atolls. According to researcher Carol Curtis: “They were not taken to sea, but memorized and were meaningless without the knowledge in the heads of their master navigator instructors.

“Traditionally, the charts were made by men from thin strips of coconut frond midribs or pandanus root. They were then bound together with coconut sennit in geometric patterns depicting sea currents around the low lying atolls. Small money cowrie shells or coral pebbles indicate special islands and the curved sticks show wave patterns.”

There are three kinds of stick charts: The rebbelib is a general wave navigational chart and can cover all of the Marshall Islands; the medo covers only a few islands and is useful for specific voyages; and the mattang or wappepe, a small, square shaped teaching chart that identifies wave patterns formed around a single island.

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Pandanus stripper

Pandanus Stripper

Price: $5

Weavers of jaki (mats) use a tool also called an ar that is made from a block of wood about the same width as the dried pandanus leaves (maañ) and has a row of sharp metal points inserted in one end. The distance separating the metal points will determine the width of the strips. The weaver inserts the ar’s points into the broad end of the maañ and drag it down, creating the strips in one move. If the weaver intends to make a finely-woven clothing mat (jaki-ed), the ar’s points will be much closer together to create fine strips of leaf.

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One of the heavy pounders known as dekã in nin that are used to soften the dried pandanus leaves, shown in coils behind the pounder.

Maan Pounder

Used to soft the dried pandanus leaves (Maan) before the weaving.

Price: $45

The making of all mats in the Marshall Islands wouldn’t be possible without the use of the heavy pounders known as dekã in nin (literally translated as ‘stone of pound’). These larger, heavy pounders are mainly used to soften the dried pandanus leaves (maan) that are used to weave mats (jaki). They can, however, be used in the making of many traditional medicines and to soften some types of food.

WAM staff and trainees use hardwoods such as the wood from the lukwej tree to make the pounders.

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Betty Lobwij, who at that time was an apprentice weaver, learns to use a pounder (dekã in nin) to soften the dried pandanus leaves in preparation of making a jaki-ed (clothing mat).

Betty Lobwij, who at that time was an apprentice weaver, learns to use a pounder (dekã in nin) to soften the dried pandanus leaves in preparation of making a jaki-ed (clothing mat).

Two versions of pandanus pulpers made by WAM staff and trainees: One is for sitting on, while the other is not.

Beka (Pandanus Pulper)

Price: $45

WAM makes two varieties of pandanus pulpers: One to sit on, the other to sit next to. The fruit is scraped over the sharped edge of the PVC piping, bringing the juice out, which falls into a bucket or bowl placed beneath the pulper.

About pandanus: The pandanus tree grows up to heights of about 25 feet. Its trunk has aerial prop roots and long leaves up to 10 feet in length. The large edible fruit is called of bōb and is made up of many angular, wedge-shaped sections called keys that turn orange as they mature. It is likely that the pandanus is indigenous to the Marshall Islands and grows wild, but can be cultivated with very little effort.

Bōb, which is packed with vitamins and particularly Vitamin A, is usually eaten raw, but can be cooked. In the old days, many people preserved the fruit into a paste called mokwan or jāānkun. Canoe voyagers often took it with them as a main source of food.

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A coconut grater made by the WAM program staff and trainees.

Raanke (Coconut Grater)

Price: $45

Grated coconut, and the coconut milk that is squeezed from the flakes, plays a huge role in Marshallese cooking. The flakes are mixed with water and pressed through cloth to extract the milk. The tool used to grate (or scrape) is called a raanke. It is traditionally made of breadfruit wood, but can be made of almost any hardwood, such as the local tree called lukwej. It is often shaped like a stool, making it easy to sit on (usually with the legs extended in a V-shape) and work the metal jagged blade. The blade used to be made of a piece of shell, but modern versions use metal cutters.

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A WAM trainee finishes off a coconut grater with a coat of varnish.

A WAM trainee finishes off a coconut grater with a coat of varnish.


Model canoe different sizes

Model Canoe

Probably the most popular product made at WAM are the beautiful model canoes, which are made in a range of sizes. The designs faithfully follow their life-size counterparts, right down to the miniature paddles. The making of these model canoes by the trainees is an excellent starter exercise in how to work with wood. During the breaks between training programs, the full-time staff make the canoes to order. $9 per inch for student models and $15 per inch for staff models up to 12 inches. $20 per inch for larger models up to 24 inches. Custom prices for custom designs. Contact us to buy our product

A trainee lashes the platform between the outrigger and the hull on a model canoe.

A trainee lashes the platform between the outrigger and the hull on a model canoe.


A model canoe, measuring three feet, made by WAM trainees sits on the beach next to the Canoe House.

A model canoe, measuring three feet, made by WAM trainees sits on the beach next to the Canoe House.


A trainee puts the finishing touches to a model canoe in the program’s A-frame workshop.


US Ambassador Tom Armbruster with WAM Director Alson Kelen during the Award Ceremony of the 2014 Ambassador's Award for Cultural Preservation.

Ambassador’s Gift

“Kapeel in meto”, translates to mean, “The skill of the ocean…”, this is what a $31,000 grant to Waan Aelõñ in Majel (WAM) will help preserve. The money comes from the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation and was one of only 47 such grants around the world this year. Embassy Majuro congratulates the students and staff at WAM as they navigate into a future that will be more secure when these vital skills are secure.

Researcher of Marshallese navigation Joe Genz with WAM Director Alson Kelen at the Canoe House alongside Majuro lagoon. Photo credit Karen Earnshaw

Reviving the ancient skill of navigation

The next key stage of the traditional Marshallese navigation revival project that began in the early part of the last decade is now being planned by Waan Aelon in Majel Director Alson Kelen, expert navigator Captain Korent Joel, and anthropologist Joe Genz. Having researched, re-enacted, and documented much of the uniquely Marshallese skill of navigating using the wind and wave patterns, the trio is now working out how best this important cultural knowledge can be passed on to a new generation of sailors. Karen Earnshaw reports.

In the early days of Waan Aelon in Majel, more often known as WAM or the Canoe House, when Dennis Alessio and his recruit Alson Kelen were eagerly working on tapping into the knowledge of the Marshalls’ master canoe builders, American Joe Genz arrived on the scene.
“I had been in the Peace Corps in Samoa in the late 1990s, where I became interested in traditional navigation.” This transformed into a fascination that led to meet the University of Hawaii’s Ben Finney, who was a co-founder and first president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “Ben took me on as his last student in 2001,” explained Joe as he sat in WAM’s upstairs office.
“Ben had already been in conversations with Dennis and Alson about reviving the Marshallese skill of navigating, and he asked me if I would be interested in assisting in the project.” First he spent two months on Ailuk to begin learning the language and about the culture. “It was full immersion and very effective, especially as no-one really spoke English.”
Joe went back to university, finished his master’s degree, and began preparing for his PhD in anthropology, returning to RMI in 2005 to work for a year with the twin goals of researching Marshallese navigation techniques and assisting with the revival aspect of the WAM project.
“Our starting point was going with Captain Korent to his home island of Rongelap. He wanted to start talking about how he learned navigation as a child. On Rongelap he took us to a reef that simulates the water patterns. This was where he began his lessons in navigation from his grandfather.”
At this time, the only master navigator alive was Thomas Bokin of Ujae. “But in addition to Thomas and Captain Korent, there were six other experts in navigation, primarily from Rongelap, including Isao Eknilang,” Joe said. “And they weren’t all men. One was Lijon Eknilang, Isao’s younger sister.” Of these eight, three have now passed on, including Lijon.
“Of course the secrets of the skills of navigation are still very much under traditional chiefly control and there are strong regulations controlling the dissemination of this knowledge,” Joe explained, adding, however, that there is a general perception that there is a need to keep the skills alive and that this can really only happen with an ongoing training program.
“So, for example, it was okay for Captain Korent to take Alson on as a novice, because Alson is from the same family.”
Alson and Joe worked with the elders for a year. During this time, Joe organized for the deployment of a ‘wave buoy’ in many locations around Majuro and Arno. “We used this scientific instrument to try to understand and document how the waves can be used for navigation.” Joe’s year in RMI culminated in using a yacht loaned by two guys from Kwajalein to test Captain Korent’s skills.
“On that first voyage in 2006, we sailed 120 miles from Kwajalein to Ujae and back, and the captain made it with no navigational help from any of the devices on board the yacht Mali. “A bonus of this voyage was that while we were in Ujae Captian Korent spent a lot of time talking stories with Thomas the navigator. Another important note is that for Captain Korent it was his ‘ruprup jokur,’ which means ‘breaking out of the turtle shell’ or, more plainly, his coming of age as an expert navigator. He would have earned this earlier on, in Rongelap, but the movement of the people back when he was young had disrupted this step.”
Joe left RMI again to continue his PhD — which he achieved in 2008 — returning to do more research in the summers of 2007 and 2009. “Our intention was to do another voyage to test the navigation skills, this time using a large voyaging canoe, but each time there was no wind. The whole place was completely becalmed.”
Finally, in 2010, Alson successfully sailed WAM’s big canoe to Aur. There were six crew on board. “Captain Korent was on a chase boat, ready to give navigational guidance via radio to Alson if and when he needed assistance.”
In 2012, Joe was hired as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and this allowed him to apply for funding to continue the navigation project with Alson. This includes a grant from the United States Ambassador’s fund. “I am here now to work out how we can best continue the program,” Joe said. “We still don’t have all the answers on how to read the waves, but we feel the most important thing is the passing on of the skills.
In Hawaii, a similar process of connecting to the past led to the building of the famous double-hulled canoe Hōkūleʻa, which has just now embarked on a three-year voyage around the world to raise awareness of environmental stewardship.
“Alson’s idea as of now is to organize a voyage next summer that will include novice navigators, who will be chosen with great care and using the correct channels, with the ultimate hope of reviving the voyaging canoes as a means of sustainable water transport.”

Joe Genz publications

Joe Genz has published the following academic papers on the voyaging project:

  • Genz, Joseph. (2014). Complementarity of Cognitive and Experiential Ways of Knowing the Ocean in Marshallese Navigation. Ethos 42(3):332-351.
  • Genz, Joseph (2011). Navigating the Revival of Voyaging in the Marshall Islands: Predicaments of Preservation and Possibilities of Collaboration. The Contemporary Pacific 23(1):1-34.
  • Genz, Joseph, Jerome Aucan, Mark Merrifield, Ben Finney, Korent Joel and Alson Kelen. (2009). Wave Navigation in the Marshall Islands: Comparing Indigenous and Western Scientific Knowledge of the Ocean. Oceanography 22(2):234-245.
  • Genz, Joseph and Ben Finney. (2006). Preservation and Revitalization of Intangible Cultural Heritage: A Perspective from Cultural Anthropological Research on Indigenous Navigation in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 5(1/2):306-313.

WAM Visitors center

Visitors’ Center

If you’d like to learn more about Marshallese canoes and their history, come and visit the Waan Aelon in Majel’s Visitors Center, which is open during business hours Monday to Friday. The center features a large model canoe strung from the ceiling, a range of traditional canoe-building tools, and a swag of other items related to the program and the history of canoes. On sale are WAM crafts, T-shirts, and DVDs about the canoes and the Marshall Islands.

The center was created in 2011 with the assistance of a $10,000 grant from the Pacific Asia Travel Association. It is located in a former program office, which the staff grew out of, relocating upstairs in the main building.

At the opening, in September, WAM Director Alson Kelen thanked PATA and the RMI National Training Council for their. “We’re fortunate for all the help we’ve received,” said Kelen. “We start small, but more will grow around the circle. And we invite everyone who wants to contribute old pictures of canoes or traditional materials for the center,” said Kelen.

Meanwhile, regular program director Ken Taggart emphasized the need to teach young people to carry on their traditional knowledge. The program currently has 24 trainees. “As part of the canoe building training, we help outer islands by building canoes because they don’t have the materials. If they cut down the trees, they wouldn’t have breadfruit to eat,” said Taggart.

Kelen added: “Our program is not following what’s on paper, but that which is in our hearts.”

Master Canoe Builder Binton Daniel

Binton Daniel – Master Canoe Builder

I like working at the WAM program because I enjoy teaching the trainees how to learn the names of the different woodworking tools and how to use them. Next I teach them how to build canoes and the skills to sail them. My goal is that they will learn these skills well enough that they can pass the knowledge on to their families and friends.”


  • Trained in Gardening hosted by PIMA

  • Trained in Canoe Building by Master Canoe Builders Zedkeia Baso, Pinam Henry, and Samuel Jambin

Joined WAM in 2012

Home islands: Ainlinglaplap and Mejit

WAM Director Alson Kelen

Alson ‘Tuak’ Kelen – Director

“Working for WAM is win-win-360. While promoting and conserving our precious culture, we’re utilizing it to provide a future for our young people and a sustainable livelihood for our fragile nation.”


Alson, who is a certified counselor, has been involved in the traditional canoeing culture of the Marshall Islands for a number of decades. For four years, he assisted the Waan Aelõñ Kein (These Islands) project to document the step-by-step construction of Marshallese canoes. In the late 1990s, he co-founded the Waan Aelõñ in Majel program, a registered Non-Government Organization.

As well as being the ongoing Director of WAM, Alson has worn many hats over the years, including the following:

  • Mayor of Bikini Atoll (November 2009 to 2011)

  • Councilman for Bikini Atoll (November 2007 to November 2009)

  • Chairman of Marshall Islands Shipping Corporation (2006 to present)

  • President, Council of NGOs (2005 to present)

Alson’s many achievements relating to canoes includes writing and compiling the following:

  • Traditional Canoe and Canoe Model Building Workbook, English version

  • Traditional Canoe and Canoe Model Building Workbook, Marshallese version

  • Canoe and Canoe Model Building Manual, English version

  • Canoe and Canoe Model Building Manual, Marshallese version

Home island: Bikini