Scientists intrigued by Marshallese navigation

“On the morning of Thursday, June 18, the wind was about 10 knots from the east and Alson said at 10am ‘Let’s go!’”

By Karen Earnshaw


Smooth sailing in Majuro lagoon as Jitdam Kapeel heads for the pass. Photo: WAM

Smooth sailing in Majuro lagoon as Jitdam Kapeel heads for the pass. Photo: WAM

It has taken 10 years, but master navigator Captain Korent Joel’s vision of having scientists validate the method by which he pilots the waves of the Marshall Islands is now in motion.

John Huth, a physicist at Harvard University, Massachusetts, and a self-taught expert in navigation, and Dr. Gerbrant van Vledder, an oceanographer at the Netherland’s Delft University of Technology, were both recently in Majuro and met with Captain Korent to attempt to understand the technique he uses to move around RMI’s atolls.

In a related landmark event, the scientists also witnessed the second voyage of a Waan Aelon n Majel (WAM) ocean-going canoe from Majuro to Aur Atoll, 60 miles to the north, in June.

Joe Genz, the Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, and a long-time visitor to RMI, has been working hard on Captain Korent’s vision and the canoe revival program with WAM director Alson Kelen.  “I met Captain Korent in 2005 when I was here doing my PhD work. He said then that he wanted a scientist to validate what he knows to be true. Now, at last, we’re starting to make that happen.”

Joe was in Majuro last summer to work with Alson on the strategy for this year’s continuation of the navigation revival. “I arrived June 9, at which point the guys at WAM were finishing repairs to the canoe. The team leader was master canoe builder Binton Daniel and alongside him were Sear Helios, Linton Baso, and Elmi Juonraan.”

The 35-foot canoe is called Jitdam Kapeel, which loosely means ‘seeking knowledge’. It was used in a similar voyage to Aur in 2010. This year’s crew was led by Alson, who has been serving as Captain Korent’s apprentice,’ and included Binton, Sear, Elmi, Ejnar Aerok and Jason Ralpho.

Captain Korent Joel studies paperwork brought by the scientists. Photo: WAM

Captain Korent Joel studies paperwork brought by the scientists. Photo: WAM

The original plan was to have Captain Korent travel on the escort vessel, MIMRA’s Jebro, but sadly he was sick and was forced to stay home. “We needed an alternate plan,” Joe said. “It was either cancel the trip or try something else. Alson was very determined to make the trip and he had a lot of confidence they could do it because of the success of the 2010 voyage. Plus, John and I each had a GPS on the escort vessel to keep track of their route, so were confident everyone would be safe.”

The decision was made and by the time the scientists arrived in Majuro, the canoe was ready. ”We had everything we needed including life jackets and provisions and water for a voyage that would last 10 days,” Joe said. “We kept a lot of the food on Jebro.”

The voyage

“On the morning of Thursday, June 18, the wind was about 10 knots from the east and Alson said at 10am ‘Let’s go!’

“It was a scramble to get ready,” Joe said, “but finally the canoe left at 3pm. The scientists and I also left on Jebro at about the same time. Jebro was loaded with the supplies: chicken, ribs, Gatorade, rice and lots of vegetables. Some of these were to be a gift to the Aur community.”

The day was sunny and looked like a great day for sailing. “We all got to the pass at about 5pm. Then, as soon as we got out into the ocean, the wind picked up to about 15 knots. The waves were very erratic and stayed that way.

“All of us ri-belle on the Jebro were throwing up,” Joe grimaced.” It was a chaotic wind chop from east, a very violent motion.

“On the canoe, the crew was cold and tired. We could see from the escort vessel that the canoe was pounding into the waves and no-one could be in the front of the mast as there was so much water on the bow. The bow would dive into the waves. It was a jolting ride for them. They were wet, cold, and hungry.”

A precious teapot of rice cooked on a burner set under the deck. Photo: WAM

A precious teapot of rice cooked on a burner set under the deck. Photo: WAM

The crew had a little burner under the deck and they did manage to cook some rice.

The canoe and the chase boat communicated by VHF, but no details of the canoe’s location were transmitted. “Their course was pretty amazing as they tracked a little bit east of north.” Joe and the scientists were also surprised at how fast the canoe was travelling. “Alson had anticipated getting to the eastern side of Aur for safety. This is because he didn’t want to shunt (to move the sail) because in the waves it would have been too dangerous.

“I asked over the radio Alson where he thought he was when we came closer to Aur. We were worried that the canoe might hit the reef in the dark.  But he described to me exactly the right spot. He said he was using sightings of the (stars of) Southern Cross. He described it to me as ‘guessing his way up to Aur’.”

At about 5:30am or 6am the next morning the two boats were 15 miles to the east of Aur. “Alson knew where to turn,” Joe said, “but going downwind was a problem because of the direction of the wind for the canoe. Eventually, the scientists and I knew that he knew where he was and where he was going, but the conditions were too difficult, so we eventually towed them in.”

In hindsight, had the canoe been able to perform better, they would have made it and gone over the north tip and into Aur’s northwest pass. As it was they sailed across the lagoon to Tobal on Friday, with the local community giving them a formal welcome ceremony with a feast and speeches. “The scientists thought they were in another world,” Joe said.

On Saturday the crews enjoyed relaxing, but some repairs were done to the canoe. “They fixed some lashings and replaced the main sheet and main halyard.” The team also installed a light on the mast to make it easier for the Jebro crew to see them at night.

The MV Jebro, which acted as an escort boat on the voyage to Aur. Photo: WAM

The MV Jebro, which acted as an escort boat on the voyage to Aur. Photo: WAM

“Sunday we left at about 2pm or 3pm in the afternoon, going out the southern pass. The wind was about 10 knots from north of east, then it died down. They had just a little bit of current flowing from east to west. Then, at about 2am the wind picked up. The course they ended up sailing was like an arc.”

Alson knew he needed to get upwind to make Majuro and he continued to do that. “At daylight we were 20 miles out and he was headed to Rongrong,” which is at the northwestern end of the atoll. “One of his guys worked out which island it was they could see and after that they went straight to the pass.

“The scientists were blown away. After leaving Aur, they had thought they were going to be way off course.”

After the voyage, Alson said the crew’s performance was excellent “and I’m really proud of myself and for the crew I chose. I borrowed the chief mate Jason from Shipping Corp. He’s been on the water all his life. He’s from Namdrik. Also, Sear did a great job on the helm. And Sear and Elmi made repairs. Binton is our elder … he’s from Ailinglaplap and has sailed all his life. Yes, it was a good voyage.”

 The mystery of ‘dilep’

Jitdam Kapeel underway to Aur in June, 2015. Photo: WAM

Jitdam Kapeel underway to Aur in June, 2015. Photo: WAM

Because Captain Korent Joel was sick with an infected leg, Joe, Alson, and the scientists John and Gerbrant visited him at his home in Rita, a village of Majuro. Alson and Joe were translating “but it was difficult to find the right words in Marshallese for the scientific descriptions of waves and currents,” Joe said. Key, however, was working out the English translation of the word ‘dilep’. “Korent explained that his system of navigation includes something called the ‘dilep,’ which is a sort of ‘backbone’ or a line between two atolls. It’s like a wave path and describes using it as wave piloting rather than navigating.”

In years past, Joe and other researchers have tried using wave buoys to search for the ‘backbone.’ “Korent describes it as two swells meeting each other forming a series of heaped of waves called booj, or ‘knots’, along a path and that they balance the canoe on this. We now think that maybe the instruments we were using weren’t sensitive enough to pick up the  booj waves.”

Intriguingly, Korent said the ‘dilep’ system is not necessarily just for the Marshall Islands, stating he could use the system from, say, on a voyage from the Marshall Islands to Japan. “He says he can feel the ‘dilep’,” Joe said. “It seems he’s just higher tuned than other people to get a sense of what the water is doing.” While one would think to feel this one would need to be close to the water on a light canoe, but this is not so. “He can do this on a ship. He’s spent 40 years on transport ships and hospital ships and he uses his system of wave piloting.”

The scientists

John Huth, a physicist at Harvard University, Massachusetts, and Dr. Gerbrant van Vledder, an oceanographer at the Netherland’s Delft University, in Aur. Photo: WAM

John Huth, a physicist at Harvard University, Massachusetts, and Dr. Gerbrant van Vledder, an oceanographer at the Netherland’s Delft University, in Aur. Photo: WAM

As a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, Joe Genz was at two international conferences giving  talks on traditional navigation where he met the two scientists, Dr. John Huth and Dr. Gerbrant van Vledder, who joined him on the voyage to Aur in June, 2015. “The three of us had been having conversations about Marshallese navigation for a year or so,” Joe said. “Gerbrant and I met at an oceanography conference and John and I first met at an anthropology conference where I gave a talk on wave navigation. John has a passion for traditional navigation and Gerbrant is one of the top wave modelers in the world. I invited them to join the trip and they were very interested.”

For John a highlight of his visit to RMI was watching the voyaging canoe’s crew “using the stars as a natural compass and comparing the stars marking our passages to the waves and wind. The combination of the three were great to get into the shoes (or stomach) of the traditional navigators.

“In particular I remember lying on my back during the return voyage, eyes closed, feeling the chase boat respond to the waves, and making note of them, and then opening my eyes to see (the star) Altair pass close to our zenith.”

John is very impressed with the WAM program. “It is fantastic. I couldn’t have designed a better program. And the name of the boat Jitdam Kapeel is, I understand, a proverb meaning something like ‘seeking knowledge guarantees wisdom’. I try to pursue a similar philosophy in my course (at Harvard). As a mechanism to impart pride in Marshallese culture, it is excellent.”

John said he did not get the feeling of the ‘dilep’ on the voyage to Aur. “I understand it as Captain Korent has explained, and other explanations, and I have some possible hunches of what produces it, but I need to experience it as a navigator would experience it. On the voyage back from Aur, I’m told we followed a traditional route. This route, coincidentally, seems to have produced some of the wave-induced motions that are reminiscent of what I have heard of ‘dilep’.”

John’s co-adventurer, Gerbrant is a specialist in the research and development of ocean wave prediction models and metocean studies (meteorology and oceanography). “I have little experience with navigation on the open ocean,” he said, “but I have a knack for reading maps and the use of environmental information to find my position on land and to trace the routes taken. Two years ago I heard of the Marshallese method of wave piloting and I was immediately intrigued. My research brought me into contact with Joe Genz and John Huth, and I am very pleased to have been part of the expedition from Majuro to Aur and back.

Dr. Gerbrant van Vledder, an oceanographer at the Netherland’s Delft University of Technology. Photo: WAM

Dr. Gerbrant van Vledder, an oceanographer at the Netherland’s Delft University of Technology. Photo: WAM

“This trip had many highlights. The first was to travel on the open ocean during night time under the bright star-filled sky, and to experience the sunset and sunrise amidst the endless waves. The second was the exceptional reception by the people of Tobal on Aur Atoll. Their hospitality and their way of sharing was amazing. It made me aware of the many differences between our cultures.”

During the two voyages, “I tried to watch the waves to infer their characteristics. Although I could infer their main characteristics I failed to use it for navigation purposes. I still have much to learn.” On the WAM project, Gerbrant said he saw it “as a unique combination of preserving the cultural heritage of the Marshall islands and a social program to help the young generation ‘at risk’. I strongly support any initiative to keep WAM alive and to expand their working area of building canoes and teaching to sail them to other islands.”

Gerbrant is still working on understanding the ‘dilep’.  Korent and his colleague Isao Eknilang gave the scientists their explanation of a symmetric motion due to reflected waves tracing a path between two islands. “This is still difficult to grasp from our scientific perspectives. This does not mean that we (John and I) think Korent and Isao are talking nonsense. Instead, it makes us realize that we may not yet speak the same ‘language’ when discussing the same phenomena. There might be cultural and language barriers and words whose meanings are still unclear to us. More contact is needed to elucidate this wave piloting knowledge.”

Gerbrant hopes his trip in June to the Marshall Islands is possibly only the beginning of a further collaboration between WAM and the universities of  Delft and Harvard to explain all wave phenomena known to the navigators using scientific methods.

The next steps

University of Hawaii's Joe Genz with WAM director Alson Kelen. Photo: Karen Earnshaw

University of Hawaii’s Joe Genz with WAM director Alson Kelen. Photo: Karen Earnshaw

Joe Genz and Alson Kelen were extremely excited that the scientists came and tried to figure out the wave patterns. “I can also see how the canoes and their voyages have started to inspire people,” said Joe. “On Tabol, there were kids on the beach looking at the canoe and saying ‘What’s that?’ The villager leader, in both his welcome and farewell speeches, spoke of how he wishes to one day have a fleet of canoes lining their beach.

“The next step, I think, is that this canoe should be sailed as much as possible and we will continue to study the ‘dilep’.

“And Korent and Alson want to sail to their home atolls of Rongelap and Bikini, but these are big goals. One good thing is that after the Aur voyage, Binton now has a good sense of how the canoe needs fixing so it will be easier to sail in the ocean.”

The ongoing navigation and canoe revival efforts are being made possible by a grant from the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation and the National Geographic’s Genographic Legacy Fund. The University of Hawaii Hilo’s Department of Anthropology also assisted with travel funds for Joe. “We thank everyone who helped us, including the permission to sail to Aur, and hope that their support, and that of others, will continue as we help Captain Korent seek the answers to this ancient Marshallese knowledge,” said Joe. “Wave navigation is one of many traditional Marshallese practices that may help guide the Marshallese as they navigate their way through the 21st century. ”

Alson would also like to recognize the RMI National Training Council for its ongoing support of WAM and especially its training programs. “Komol tata to all those who support us!”

Captain Korent Joel, Alson Kelen, and Joe Genz on Rongelap Atoll in 2005. Photo: WAM

National Geographic supports WAM

The plan to begin coaching a new generation of traditional navigators this summer has taken another leap towards reality thanks to a grant for Waan Aelõñ in Majel (WAM) from an organization linked to National Geographic.

The Genographic Legacy Fund is providing $25,000 for the project, which is officially called the Preservation and Training of Marshallese Voyaging and Navigation.

Alson Kelen, Joe Gen, Captain Korent Joel on the yacht Mali in 2006. Photo: WAM

Alson Kelen, Joe Gen, Captain Korent Joel on the yacht Mali in 2006. Photo: WAM

Joe Genz, the Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who has worked on the navigation program for many years with WAM director Alson Kelen, is thrilled with the news of the grant. “The National Geographic grant will substantially move WAM’s navigation program forward by supporting a long-distance canoe voyage on which a younger generation can begin to learn the traditional Marshallese methods of wave navigation.

“Passing on this knowledge now is critical to the safeguarding of Marshallese voyaging for future generations.”

The grant follows an equally generous donation of $31,000 to WAM from the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, which was provided in September last year.

Kelen said National Geographic has long had a relationship with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “He realized that what we’re doing at WAM is the same goal as the Society’s, so he approached National Geographic to see if they would want to support us. Both programs are all about teaching youth about traditional skills by reviving those skills and passing them on down.

“As well, we know that there aren’t too many skilled navigators left today, so time is of the essence.”

There is already a lot of work being done on the project, especially at the university in Hawaii, Kelen said. “There’s a team working on devices that will help us understand the traditional navigation in a scientific way. This is one of the requests from our master navigator Captain Korent Joel. He’s very keen to see the scientific knowledge and compare it to what he knows, so that we can all understand it better.”

Here in the Marshalls, Alson is beginning the process of following tradition in selecting the first group of novices for the summer canoe program. “Joe and I have been working on this for years and we are now about to see our efforts come to fruition,” Kelen said. “This is a time we’ve long been waiting for and now it’s nearly here we’re very excited!”

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.