Alson Kelen captained a second voyage of a Waan Aelon in Majel (WAM) ocean-going canoe from Majuro to Aur Atoll, 60 miles to the north, in June, 2015. Read the story: Scientists intrigued by Marshallese navigation. Below is a video taken by Alson, Director of WAM.
WAM trainees have had much to be happy about in the past weeks. Counselor Tolina Tomeing helped the trainees to get birth certificates, social security numbers and ID cards. With these documents they will soon be helped to open up their own savings accounts at the Bank of Guam. All of these things will help them in their future endeavors after graduation from the program.
During this initial part of the program, each trainee received a health screening courtesy of the Ministry of Health and the Wellness Center, whose staff educated them on healthy meals they can make, as well as the importance of physical activity.
On Constitution Day the WAM trainees and staff enjoyed participating in the celebrations and the canoe races. To see how much fun they had with exciting video coverage go to our Facebook page.
WAM trainees got off to a good start their first week. They were instructed on the proper use of tools, how to maintain them and safely use them. Both girls and boys worked together in maintenance and cleanup of the WAM site.
A group of new trainees aged 17 to 25 came into WAM shy but within a matter of minutes Director Alson Kelen, with a little bit of movement to music, had them up and dancing and laughing.
The first National Training Council (NTC) sponsored program of 2016 is now underway. During the morning orientation Alson explained what to expect during the 26 week course, which will include classroom instruction and canoe building.
Alson then introduced the WAM team to the students they are:
Counselor – Tolina Toeming
Program Leader – Linton Baso
Trainer – Binton Daniel
Trainer – Sear Helias
Associate Director – Tamie Bowman
Accountant – Kristin De La Torre
Not present was Math and English Instructor Agatha Rollis. Watch this space for updates on the trainees progress.
About 400 Peace Boat passengers, in groups of about 50 at a time, visited WAM Tuesday, March 22. Despite the language barrier, everyone left with a smile on their face after a tour of the Canoe House and, for some, a canoe ride.
The Peace Boat is a cruise ship belonging to a Japan-based international non-governmental and non-profit organization that works to promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment.
To find out more about the program, go to http://peaceboat.org/english/?menu=44
March 25, 2016: An article in this week’s New York Times on Marshallese navigation techniques has gone viral and the link is being scattered electronically around the world, giving thousands upon thousands of people the chance to read about an ocean-going voyage in a canoe from Majuro to Aur that was achieved in June last year.
The headline on the 6,000-word feature article is ‘The Secrets of the Wave Pilots’ and is followed by an enticing introduction: “For thousands of years, sailors in the Marshall Islands have navigated vast distances of open ocean without instruments. Can science explain their method before it’s lost forever?”
The must-read story is written by Kim Tingley, who, with a number of scientists, joined the voyage of the Waan Aelon in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands, WAM) canoe to Aur on the project’s chase vessel.
In it, she explains that the Director of WAM and captain of the Jitdam Kapeel canoe, Alson Kelen, is “potentially the world’s last-ever apprentice in the ancient art of wave-piloting.” Kim continues in the NYT article that “If successful, he would prove that one of the most sophisticated navigational techniques ever developed still existed and, he hoped, inspire efforts to save it from extinction.”
Waan Aelon in Majel Director Alson Kelen believes all Marshallese should read the New York Times story. “It’s all about us and our beginnings.” He says the article is also “a big step for the WAM program, but it doesn’t just tell the WAM story, it tells of our culture and who we are.”
Crewing alongside Alson on the voyage was Bilton Daniel, Sear Helios, Elmi Juonraan, Ejnar Aerok and Jason Ralpho. It had been hoped that master navigator Captain Korent Joel would be the canoe’s captain, but he was too sick to make the passage.
Working closely with Alson on this event and the ongoing WAM navigation revival project is Joe Genz, the Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, and a long-time visitor to RMI. He said Tuesday: “I am very pleased with how well Kim Tingley presented such a complicated story of community resilience and scientific discovery, and also how she portrayed the Marshallese in such a graceful way. Mark Peterson’s images are equally captivating and capture many of our experiences during the voyage.”
To read the article and view thel photographs, you can google the key words New York Times Marshall Islands in the News section or type in the following link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/magazine/the-secrets-of-the-wave-pilots.html.
FOOTNOTE: This article first appeared in the Marshall Islands Journal. To subscribe to the weekly newspaper, email firstname.lastname@example.org
A traditional canoe with a lagoon backdrop features grandly on mural artist Apo Leo’s new work of art at the entrance to Waan Aelon in Majel , but the work’s main focus has an even stronger meaning than this depiction of the powerful Marshallese icon.
“The words on the painting reflect the WAM program and the need for us to be out there talking to the people,” the non-profit program’s counselor Tolina Tomeing said. “It’s saying your life is important and to not take it away. There is a reason to live.”
WAM Director Alson Kelen said the painting is “dedicated to the young people in RMI who had to go through a hard time” and took there lives as a result.
The mural was sponsored by the Single State Agency’s program Substance Abuse Prevention Treatment program, run by Julia Alfred. “WAM approached us with the project and we felt that art says a lot and is another medium to spread the word,” Julia said. “We have been in partnership with WAM for over 10 years and their canoe building is another medium in which WAM provides a sober-alternative activity.”
The words on the wall
Likit peim ioon menono ne am, kwoj ke enjake? Etan mene ej wun kwoj mour rainin kon wun ko, kon men in jab epwer.
Place your hand over your heart, can you feel it? That is called purpose. You’re alive for a reason, so don’t ever give up.
Apo’s magic murals
The WAM mural marks a year that Apo Leo has been adding color to Majuro’s walls, with his first works of art showing up in Bilimon’s Alley, Uliga. Since then, Apo has particularly enjoyed engaging youth in his painting. “I love to get people involved in the process,” he said. “But doing the canoe at WAM wasn’t so great,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “I was pretty much done with it and the trainees and staff started coming over and telling me that this rope was in the wrong place, or that rope was tied to the wrong part… They wanted it to be exact.” And so he did just that.
Sear Helios last week (Dec. 2015) combined his artistic skills and practical talents to create a brand new design for Waan Aelon in Majel’s popular lime juicers. A graduate of WAM’s class of 2015 and now a carpenter for the non-profit organization, Sear’s design has a larger handle, making it easier to work with, and has smoother, softer lines. WAM sells the lime juicers, which are made from the wood of the local lokwej tree, for $15.
Louis Justin, the expedition leader of the cruise ship Silver Discoverer, said the passengers who took rides on Waan Aelon in Majel canoes Saturday (December 5) told him it was the highlight of their time in Majuro.
WAM had three canoes with captains and crew ready to go when the ship’s passengers arrived at 2pm, according to WAM Associate Director Tamir Bowman. “They were much later than planned,” Tamie said, “but that worked out well because earlier on the lhe low tide would have made it difficult to launch the canoes.”
The ship had book 40 rides, but they ended up ;taking 46 people on on the lagoon. “The rides were quite short, about 20 minutes, but everyone seemed to have a great time. Our guys did such a good job with the visitors, keeping them safe and helping them on and off the boats.” A number of passengers took their big cameras with them. “I couldn’t believe it,” Tamie said. “I asked one guy if he was sure and he told me it was worth the risk to get the shots.
“Louis said to me at the end that ‘this was the best part of our trip to the island. If we ever come again, you’ll be at the top of our list.'”
Footnote: This article first appeared in the Marshall Islands Journal on December 4, 2015. To see more news from the Journal, check out their site at www.marshallislandsjournal.com.
Eleven of the WAM 2015 trainees who graduated in early October are now employed, with most walking into jobs the week after graduation. All of the trainees did done internships as part of the program, with many being hired by those employers. The employers who recognized the graduates’ skills include Pan Pacific Food, True Value Hardware, Payless Supermarket, K&K Supermarket, and a Chinese takeout store in Laura. Four other trainees have applied to Job Corps and WAM is continuing to work with the remaining graduates to assist them in finding employment.
About 60 people gathered at the picnic area next to WAM on the afternoon of Friday, October 2, to witness the happy graduation of 20 trainees. RMI National Training Council head Alison Nashon and WAM Director Alson Kelen were amongst those who made speeches, in part congratulating the graduates. A highlight was the fact that a number of the trainees will move straight into employment, following successful internships at local businesses during the training period. Congratulations to all!
Graduates: Arinton Aister, John Bujen, Richie Aikam, Joti Latrik, Anje Banjo – overall top student, March Lakson, Helino Haini, Neil Lakmij – best in safety, Jammy Edwards, Reghie Lucky, Jackhead Francis – best in life skills/counseling, Dalmer Menwe, Jacklyna Jetea, Janen Torelik, Michaelson Jihu, Jeitha Jennop, Jamison Jack, Jacklick Kamo, Rolton Kaiko, Junior Heine- attends Assumption Middle School and was one of the trainees whom graduated with the above trainees and was awarded with a Certificate in completing the WAM Summer Training program.
At least six Waan Aelon in Majel trainees are guaranteed jobs after they graduate on Friday, October 2, with the potential of 12 jobs being available, according to WAM Director Alson Kelen.
“All of the trainees did internships during this six-month training program and this really paid off for us, with six being promised jobs and two of those already working on the weekends.” Alson said. “If everything goes well, there will be 12 job openings by the time graduation day comes around.”
Twenty youth have spent the last six months learning vocational skills from cultural instructor Binton Daniel and literacy and numeracy from GED teacher Agatha Rollis. “They do two hours a day of English and math. The rest of the time is spent doing hands-on work,” Alson said. This has included building a 27-foot tipnol canoe. “It’s made mainly of plywood because of the shortage of breadfruit trees to use for canoe building. That’s because the canoe tree is also a food tree.”
This year’s group of trainees has been a great group, Alson said. “They have been very open to learning and right from the start they clearly wanted to participate. Over the years, I’ve seen a growth in the amount of English the trainees have and their ability to stand up in front of a group and do presentations.”
All our welcome to attend the graduation, which will be held at 3pm on October 2 next to WAM at the MIR picnic area.
Learning curve for Linton in Taiwan
Carpenter Linton Baso is being groomed to be a leader in the Waan Aelon in Majel program and is currently adding to his skills at a training workshop in Taipei, Taiwan. “We are very fortunate at WAM that we have a good partnership with the ROC. I have been on a number of excellent workshops in Taiwan, and now Linton is there doing a Level II Carpentry course,” said WAM Director Alson Kelen.
The course is being presented by Taiwan’s International Community Development Fund, with the selection of trainees being partly handled by the RMI National Training Council. “Two years ago, Linton did a six-month course with the Australian Pacific Technical College in Suva, Fiji. He came back with a lot of great skills from that and we’re hoping for the same this time. Linton has a lot of potential.”
“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
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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’
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.”
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.
“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
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!”
The heavy ‘mast’ of the Jitdam Kapeel makes it tough going to tack the canoe, as this video by WAM Director Alson Kelen shows.
Thanks to the team for this great documentary about what we do here at WAM!