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The Navigators

Story of the Filming

The following was written by Stephen Thomas, author of THE LAST NAVIGATOR.

"The Navigators," a one- hour documentary funded by Pacific Resources, Inc., recreates one of the greatest navigational feats in human history: the exploration and settlement of Polynesia by navigated voyages which began more than 6,000 years ago.

The producer of The Navigators, Dr. Sanford Low was formerly a producer/writer for Public Television's "Odyssey" series. The film's credits also include program consultant. Dr. Pat Kirch from the Bishop Museum; cinematographer and director, Boyd Estus; film editor, Bill Anderson; and associate producer and production manager, Sheila Bernard.

Shreds of mist shift and change, finally to reveal lush, tropical mountain peaks. An ancient Hawaiian chant echoes: "Here is Hawaii, a child of Tahiti." We see a 60-foot Polynesian voyaging canoe, sails brilliant in the Pacific sunshine. These images are the first 30 seconds of the documentary film, "The Navigators," anthropologist and film-maker Dr. Sanford Low's documentation of the great voyages of the ancient Polynesians. With major funding from Pacific Resources, Inc. (PRI), and additional funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the Hawaii Committee for the Humanities, Low tells the story of the great voyages of Polynesia.

Ancient myths say that the Hawaiians, Tahitians and Maoris are one people, and that they sailed across the forbidding Pacific to settle on those widely scattered islands. If the myths have any basis in fact, then the early Polynesians must have found their way across thousands of miles of ocean. Polynesians must have been able to build, equip, man and navigate vessels large enough and seaworthy enough to make these passages of up to 3,000 miles.

To show us how such a culture would look. Low takes us to the tiny island of Satawal, in Micronesia's Central Caroline Islands. Descended from the same ancestors as the Polynesians, the people of Satawal still build sea-going outrigger canoes, man them with sailors, and navigate them throughout their widely scattered islands without maps or instruments of any kind.

The Satawalese, and in particular, the navigator Mau Piailug, become our guides, to whom we return again and again to bring the past alive.

Mau Piailug creating model of his canoe

Steve Thomas Photo

Distinguished Bishop Museum scientists Drs. Patrick Kirch, Yosihiko Sinoto and Roger Green show us how the early Polynesians ventured eastward from their homeland in Island Southeast Asia down through the Solomon Islands and out to Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, the Cradle of Polynesia. There they remained for a thousand years before making the great open ocean voyages to the Marquesas, Tahiti, New Zealand and

Back on Satawal, in scenes never before filmed, we see Pialug passing on to his people the knowledge of his forefathers, and finally we learn that Piailug's ancient traditions are threatened. For in the end he tells us: "After me, I am afraid there will be no more navigators."

Mau Piailug using the star compass to teach navigation to his son

Steve Thomas Photo


Eric Taylor (left), Boyd Estus, Mau Piailug, Translator

filming a key interview with Mau for The Navigators

Using only the wind, stars, flights of birds and other natural signs to guide them, the ancestors of today's Polynesians sailed their hundred-foot double-hulled canoes across a vast ocean area larger than Europe and North America combined, on voyages that lasted for months.
In the remote Caroline Islands of the Pacific, an ocean which spans one-fourth of the globe's circumference, are found the only remaining non-instrument navigators, or palu. In Polynesia, despite great distance and separation, scattered populations share an identical heritage, language and customs.

In the past, many theories, including Thor Heyerdahl's "drift" theory, were suggested to explain this phenomenon. Heyerdahl proposed recently, that Polynesia was settled by colonists from South America who drifted into the Pacific on primitive rafts. However, archaeologists, linguists and other scientists have found evidence that confirms that it was the remarkable navigational abilities of these early Polynesian seafarers, first inhabitants of these islands, that allowed their culture to spread. These new theories hold that the Polynesians sailed into the Pacific from Island Southeast Asia, against winds and currents prevailing in the Pacific.

  Small Satawalese Proa

Dr. Sanford Low spent three weeks on the tiny coral atoll of Satawal bringing the past alive by recording the seafaring society that still thrives there. Adding to "The Navigators" authenticity is island spokesperson Mau Piailug, Satawal's last initiated palu, who takes viewers back in history, as he skillfully sails the Hokule'a, a replica of the original Polynesian navigators' huge canoes, 2,500 miles across the open sea. Piailug finds his way from Hawaii to Tahiti, always on course, without the benefit of sextant, compass or any other western navigational instrument.

In addition to celebrating one of the greatest seafaring accomplishments in history, "The Navigators" reveals Polynesian life and travel as it might have existed during the time of the great voyages, from the birth of Christ to 1200 A.D.

Polynesia is a vast ocean area spanning nearly a fourth of the world's surface, strewn with high volcanic islands and low coral atolls. The distances between major island groups are great: Hawaii to Tahiti, 2,500 miles; Tahiti to New Zealand, 2,700 miles. Astonishingly, this huge area is populated by people who share the same cultural heritage, with language, customs and navigational skills that trace back to the same origins.

The Early Polynesian Seafarers

Historians and scientists now agree that the settlers of these widely scattered islands came from the west, on intentionally navigated voyages by large double-hulled canoes, in one of the most stunning seafaring accomplishments of the human race.

The Producer
Anyone who has stood on a seashore braced against a stiff wind must be awed by the thought of that mass of air moving steadily over miles and miles of cold, dark sea, and must be grateful for a solid beach and the warm earth. Surely the captains of the ancient Polynesian voyaging canoes must have stood thus, before they departed. Film-maker Sanford Low knew this feeling well-that of looking out across the water, and back in time. He knew it first as chief diver for numerous underwater archaeological excavations in the Mediterranean Sea and later as a watch officer aboard a Naval vessel in the Pacific. From these experiences, and because he is part Hawaiian, Low acquired both an intellectual and a personal interest in making "The Navigators."

With his own funds he began the research in Hawaii. There he met the Bishop Museum's Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto, who had excavated an ancient village on Huahine in the Society Islands. Among other artifacts, Sinoto unearthed the planks, mast and a steering paddle from a big sailing canoe, or pahi. Sinoto quickly re-buried these treasures to prevent them from disintegrating upon exposure to the air. "While I was talking with Yosi," Low said, "I learned that he was returning to Huahine within a few months to re-excavate and preserve the ancient canoe pieces."

Suddenly, a vital piece of Low's story was about to unfold and he had to find a way to film it - fast.

Filming a wedding on Satawal

Sam Low Photo

The Funding
Low contacted PRI and explained the project. Enthusiasm was immediate and Low was encouraged and supported by PRI's then vice president of Public Relations, Philip H. Kinnicutt.
PRI Chairman and Chief Executive Officer James F. Gary commented, "For a long time PRI has been looking for a project which would celebrate the achievements of the Polynesian people and benefit the Hawaiian community. Low's film offered us just such an opportunity."

PRI made a grant to Low for the filming phase of "The Navigators." While carrying on with the planning, Low joined forces with KHET, the Hawaii Public Television station, to solicit a grant from the Hawaii Committee for the Humanities. He returned to Boston, where he received word that the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations would also help fund the project.

The Team
In a matter of months Low's project had gone from initial research to being fully funded. It was then January 1982. Low had to plan and organize a major fuming expedition to remote sites in the Caroline Islands, Fiji, The Society Islands and Hawaii. Moreover, he had to do it fast. The spring sailing season in the Caroline Islands was only months away and if he missed it he would have to postpone the shooting for a year-something he couldn't afford to do.

Quickly Low assembled a team. Sheila Bernard, who had worked with him on his previous PBS documentary, "The Ancient Mariners," was named again as associate producer and production manager. Boyd Estus, cinematographer of the Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Flight of the Gossamer Condor," joined the expedition as co-director and cameraman. Bill Anderson, editor for Nova, Odyssey, World and many other PBS projects, would edit the film.

Special Equipment for a Remote Site
On Satawal the team would be shooting in a location 600 sea miles from the nearest airport and serviced by freighter on a wildly irregular schedule. Whatever they needed would have to be brought with them. The equipment and logistic requirements were formidable for such a remote operation and much of the equipment had to be specially designed.

Boyd filming on Satawal

Sam Low Photo

Since they would be filming on small, wet outrigger canoes, some means of keeping the camera dry had to Be devised. Estus designed a "parka" for their two $40,000 Eclair 16mm cameras of the same black neoprene divers use for their wet suits. For underwater shots Estus rented a housing of metal pipe in which he placed a small, aircraft "gun" camera. Since Low planned to document the traditional navigational instruction ceremonies, which take place at night in the canoe house, he had to bring special filming lights, filters and stands, and, as there is no electricity on the island, a portable generator was needed. The generator would have to be located far enough away from the filming so that the highly sensitive sound equipment did not record its noise. Therefore, they packed a quarter-mile of electrical cable. None of the crew spoke Satawalese, so an interpreter would have to be found on the island. To keep Low informed about what was being said as it was being filmed, a complex system of radio-controlled microphones was designed by Estus and sound-recordist Eric Taylor. The sound-recording equipment was connected to a small radio transmitter which broadcast to the interpreter located off-site. He translated the proceedings and transmitted them through a special radio to Low, who, listening on headphones, could communicate with Estus by a set of hand signals. All these systems had to be backed-up with spares in case of a breakdown. This gear, together with 48,000 feet of film, tripods, lenses, a gyro-stabilizer for filming in heavy seas, rubber boats, radios, camping gear, and food for the crew amounted to some two tons-which would have to be landed on Satawal by small boat through the surf. Estus designed and had constructed special waterproof bags to keep their gear dry in case the boat overturned. Estus said: "I've filmed on locations all over the world, but this one was one of the hardest I've had to plan for-salt water is the enemy of any delicate gear."

Low then had to charter a boat to get the crew to Satawal. The boat would have to be big enough to carry crew and equipment and, since Satawal has no harbor, be able to carry enough food, water and fuel to stand offshore for the duration of the filming.

Already running behind schedule in May, Low had to find a crew who would be willing to navigate the treacherous waters of the Caroline Islands during typhoon season. After searching in Micronesia and Hawaii for a month. Low finally found a 60-foot schooner-The Dorcas-captained by Dan Wright and a crew willing to do the charter.

No sooner did the film crew arrive in Guam and stow their gear aboard the schooner than three typhoons blew through the area, one after the other. For two weeks they were pinned in harbor. This was the beginning of a very tough and challenging period for Low. The delay was costing him a thousand dollars a day. "But far more importantly," says Low, "I realized I had the safety often people on my hands. If one of those typhoons had kissed us ... well . . .'

The two weeks in Guam were spent mostly in the weather hut at the U.S. Naval Air Station. Estus installed a radio on the schooner and arranged a network of operators to keep them informed daily of typhoon warnings once at sea and on Satawal.

Film and camping gear arrives on Satawal - note the wave breaking on the reef. (Boyd Estus photo)

Satawal: The Shoot

On Satawal, Low planned to film events in "real time," as they happened. He was up at 5 each morning, trekking the village with Mau Piailug, the navigator who became the central figure in the film. With Piailug, he made arrangements for each day's filming. Despite interruptions to the customary daily routine of the island, the Satawalese joined wholeheartedly in the work of the film.

"They were remarkable!" exclaimed Low. "They skillfully guided us through the crashing surf, helped lug our two tons of gear ashore, fed us, housed us, held three feasts in our honor-they overwhelmed us with their hospitality."

But it was the navigator, Mau Piailug, who took special pains to guide the film crew every step of the way. He took Low and Estus into his home and treated them as his sons-worthy, but needing the steady guidance of a father.

At night Piailug schooled Low in the lore of the sky, which was handed down to him through the generations, and which has guided him over thousands of miles in the Pacific. Low came to realize that Piailug was fully aware of the complexities of his film project. Having visited Hawaii and Tahiti, and having gained national recognition for his navigation of Hokule'a, the 60-foot replica of a Hawaiian voyaging canoe that sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti, Piailug knew what the 20th .century was about to overwhelm Satawal.

Mau and Sam take a break in Mau's canoe house

Sheila Bernard Photo

"I think Mau saw the film as a way to preserve the knowledge of his fathers-his heritage as a navigator. On Satawal a navigator is a teacher-more than a teacher, he is a community leader. He is bound by an unspoken contract to pass on to the community what he knows."

The day the film crew left, Piailug told Low: "I wanted you to make this film because the world is changing. I may be one of the last navigators. I hope that by your film, other people, the young people on this island and those that have never heard of the navigators, will understand what we know."
(Having filmed activities on the island as diverse as a wedding, canoe-building, and a night-time canoe trip to a neighboring island, the film crew departed on August 15, 1982 to complete the filming on Fiji and Hawaii. Three weeks after Mau Piailug said goodbye, the production phase of the film was completed. Low's work, however, was far from finished.

Back in Boston the footage was processed and printed, and the labor of editing began. "This was the first time I was really worried, said Low. I was suffering from a bad case of producer's
hangover. The images we came back with didn't match my preconceptions."
Editor Bill Anderson, however, fresh to the project, didn't share Low's worries. "The images took me to a place and time I'd never seen before," he said "I knew we had a good film on our hands."

After six weeks of editing the film began to reveal itself. Low put it this way: "It was as if we had a 200-pound ballerina on our hands: she could dance-not well-but she was dancing, and she had to lose weight. We had to do was put her on a diet."

"The Navigators," reveals the art and science of Polynesian navigation as never portrayed before. Some of the material, such as the teaching sessions in the canoe house, have never been filmed. Other sequences show breathtaking aerial and underwater shots. Low weaves the ethnographic originality and physical beauty of the island setting into the story of how the vast reaches of the Pacific were settled.


Sam resting at a marae (temple) on Huahine Island during filming of The Navigators. Sketch by cameraman Peter Hoving.

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