This week current WorldTeach participant Marcel Robicheaux shares his love of canoes and admiration for Marshallese culture. In WorldTeach’s Marshall Islands program, Marcel teaches science at Northern Island High School in Wotje, an atoll in the Ratak Chain. To learn more about WorldTeach click here!
I went sailing in a canoe! For those of you who don’t know, my father loved sailing, had a 12′ wooden boat, and as a child my family would go for a sail on a nearby lake, and sometimes go for several days in the San Juan islands of Puget sound along with beloved family friends. This was a significant formative experience for my person-hood, and I cherish those times dearly. When I moved to Maine (eep 13 years ago!) I taught myself to sail, and now boats and sailing have become a living connection to my father who passed away in my early 20’s. In this connection I honor him, the good memories, and how much he helped me become the man I am today, but it’s also more than that. When I am on the water, powered by sail, I sense his presence and his joy in my joy. Through wind, water, sail and hull we stay connected.
Marshallese canoes are incredibly crafted, and very different from the boat I grew up with. Either end could be bow or stern, to tack one must shunt the sail – switching it from bow to bow, keeping the outrigger windward for stability, and also to lift the outrigger out of the water, reducing the drag. A steering oar, rather than rudder, helps make this possible. When sailed with skill, these canoes are very stable, and very swift, sailing into the wind at a steeper angle than any conventional craft. This last bit is because they have an asymmetrical hull, shaped a bit like a wing, providing lift in the windward direction. I didn’t understand until I saw it in action: my dad’s boat, pointed at a spot on horizon, would sail straight towards it if the hand on the rudder was true. Marshallese canoes, held firm on course, will actually migrate windward – sighting down a line drawn between bow and stern I think we won’t make it back to our landing on this tack, but the captain is a Master, and he knows his boat – the line of sight moves steadily to the left, towards the wind, and over a 500 yard run the boat lands exactly where he wants it to. The Master’s skill exceeds his physical prowess, though I can’t tell if he is in his late 40’s or early 60’s. His balance is excellent, his large hands and arms like roots handle the sail and steering oar with ease, and he could certainly put me in the water with his little finger if I deserved it. This man is incredible.
For the ri Majel, their canoes were once key to their survival and well-being. Sailing was needed to fish, to travel to nearby islands for harvesting crops, to transport of food and other goods for trade between atolls, and to transport people in times of drought. With gasoline and motors displacing canoes, and imported goods becoming valued more than local ones, canoe building and sailing have been in decline for many years, and is at risk of being lost. Thankfully, their culture is adapting to change – boat building, the knowledge and skill once held by only a few families and only the work of men, is being taught to young people studying at WAM regardless of family or sex. Marshallese canoes are a living metaphor of Marshallese values. The keel is called “jouj” which literally translates to kindness. All things are built upon the jouj, it carries the weight of all that rides upon it. Today plastic trash, concrete buildings, cars, motorboats, TV’s and “smart” phones are much more frequent than sailing canoes. My own relation to boats and ancestors is a small picture of what canoe building and sailing means to the ri Majel: more than a memory of their past, it is a way to keep vital elements of their culture and identity alive in changing times.
Check out some previous articles from previous WorldTeach participants!
7 Questions with Chris Hayden ’14-15 Marshall Islands (Includes Chris Hayden’s Original Song, Steady)