Grand Master Navigator Sesario Sewralur: Reading the Currents, Winds and Stars

Words by Aveline Yang.

Sesario Sewralur speaking with CHL ANU and UHM students at Palau Community College (2019). Photo courtesy of Aveline Yang. 

A storm was brewing. 

Strong winds whirled and blustered but he sat, calmly chewing betelnut, and his eyes scanned the skies and horizons for something invisible. Over 35 years’ experience of voyaging on the open seas lent a level-headed serenity to the man, and a practiced fluency in reading the natural world.

Sesario Sewralur from Satawal, an outer island of Yap, is a Navigator – a traditional seafarer who travels the oceans without using any modern navigation equipment like GPS or radar, instead using only natural guides such as ocean currents, wind direction and the orientation of stars. In fact, in recognition of his exceptional skill and experience, he was bestowed the title of Grand Master Navigator by Grand Master Navigator Ali Haleyalur in an initiation ceremony, called the pwo ceremony, in Palau in 2019. 

As our luck would have it, we happened to be in Palau for the first time ever that the pwo ceremony was planned to be held there and Patrick Tellei, President of the Palau Community College, kindly invited the ANU/UHM group to bear witness to this rare event. It was an amazing occasion to be a part of – joyful women in marmar (flower garlands on the head) greeted us and smeared turmeric on each of our faces. Excited children chattered and wove between the legs of more women who were preparing plates of food for after the ceremony, flashing curious grins at our decidedly non-Palauan procession. 

The pwo ceremony itself was a humbling experience. It was conducted in Palauan, and the significance of specific gestures and chants were therefore not immediately apparent to us, but even so, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe towards the five men sitting in front of me. Each of them embodied immensely deep Pacific history and knowledge and we were lucky to have the opportunity to experience this momentous occasion. Some parts of the ceremony was later explained to us; for example, lavalavas were taken from a mound of cloth and placed on the ground, with each representing distinct star guides that each Master used to lead them. Our good luck continued when our field school group was able to interview a few of the Grand Master and Master Navigators, and particularly so when Grand Master Navigator Sewralur agreed to an interview with us about wayfinding before he was due to leave the following day. 

“Navigating”, Sewralur says, “requires a cool head.” He recounted a trip where one hull on the Alingano Maisu sank: “We had two Americans on board who wanted to experience the voyage. The problem is they’re crying and shouting at 4am in the morning [when the hull sank]. They came to me and said that they needed to do something. I told them to calm down, because the shouting and crying was making people lose their minds and talk about swimming to land with fins and masks. But we were in the middle of nowhere! I said, ‘do you know where you’re swimming to? No? Then it’s better to stay on the boat where you’re safe.’ They looked at each other and said okay.” 

Sewralur embodies responsibility and harmony in his role as navigator to take care of the crew and everyone on board. He likens the canoe to a mother and the navigator to a father, emphasising the importance of working together as a family on the canoe irrespective of varying positionalities. As the “father”, he is expected to step into and manage conflicts, should they arise, and there is an understanding that he must treat everyone equally and fairly to avoid interpersonal tension and manage conflict. “Things have to be balanced,” Sewralur says. “Receiving titles is also a bestowing of responsibilities on you. It’s your responsibility if something happens on the canoe.”

It is no wonder that a brewing storm and its buffeting winds and rain do not bother him; he has weathered more and worse on his countless voyages. 

Wayfinding itself has also endured some thunderous storms. Indigenous navigating knowledge was rapidly lost during the Japanese colonial administration in the 1920s as the Japanese forbade inter-island travel due to fears of spies, Sewralur explained. Since then, navigators steadily declined until Sewralur’s father, Mau Piailug, revived the practice in 1976 with his historic voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. The sharing of this prized wayfinding knowledge with Polynesians precipitated a voyaging renaissance and thereafter, interest and practice of traditional navigation has increased considerably across the Pacific, though it has not occurred without controversy. In response to Micronesian criticism of this sharing of sacred Micronesian knowledge with Polynesians, Mau named his double-hulled voyaging canoe, a gift from Hawaiians, “Alingano Maisu”, meaning “to show the beauty of fallen breadfruit.” It symbolised his belief that his skills are just like fallen breadfruit – freely available to those who seek it and shared so it may continue to thrive. Since then, many canoe-building and navigation-educating initiatives have emerged, such as the work done at regional Voyaging Societies, the Okeanos Foundation and at the Maritime Institute of the College of Micronesia, where Haleyalur will begin teaching basic wayfinding. 

Sewralur has also notably involved himself in the continuation of traditional navigating. In 2008, he moved to Palau at the request of the Micronesian Voyaging Society to help teach wayfinding and further lectures with the Ebiil Society, a local youth summer camp aiming to educate children on indigenous ecological and environmental knowledge. From August to December, due to rough, westerly winds, he conducts sailing trips for activities such as stargazing on a clear night. From January to May, when rough winds and the typhoon season has passed, he teaches practical sailing classes for students to apply their classroom learning. For better education of sailing, Sewralur has additionally carved and built a canoe for the Society’s campers. He is currently teaching wayfinding to his two sons and in 2016, took his younger son, then seven-years-old, on a voyage totalling more than 1,000 miles from Palau to Saipan. Sewralur stresses the criticality of passing on traditional navigation: “It is part of our cultural way of life. We are flood islands, so we need to continue to revive these skills. Once we go through the pwo ceremony, you are the same level as the chief; you’re the one taking care of your community.”

Pwo Ceremony at Palau Community College (2019). Photo courtesy of Talei Luscia Mangioni.

However, though interest in traditional navigation has been kindled in Palau, it has yet to roar into flames. One reason that Sewralur sees as a barrier to passing on the knowledge of wayfinding is the inability of the younger generation to step away from professional work. “They’re too busy earning the dollar signs. This has always been an issue – the first class may have sixteen students but when we go out sailing, it turns out to be five or six students. It’s because they cannot leave their jobs, otherwise they come back and may lose their jobs.” In the course of looking for work, youths tend to migrate to other countries for education and a higher salary, with many unwilling to return and learn cultural ways of living. Sewralur hopes to revive these lifestyles little by little and asserts that this was one of the reasons why the pwo ceremony was brought to Palau – to show that they can still revive their cultural way of life.

He is also working on adapting to and coping with climate change’s impact on navigation. Weather predictions are increasingly uncertain and Sewralur uses storm stars as an example. These stars tell navigators when storms are going to happen, which should be about four days in advance. According to Sewralur, these days, storm stars are unpredictable, and storms can happen two days earlier or three days later. “I teach my students to expect unexpected things,” he says. “All we can do is get ready for it.” In his own time, he has been endeavouring to update the knowledge by recording daily weather patterns for yearly comparisons. It is hard work, but he is hoping that he can come up with something.

Sewralur has dedicated his life to navigation and his passion and commitment has translated to the perceptive, thoughtful and humorous man he is today. For now, the pwo ceremony is done and Sewralur intends to take a break and then prepare to attend the next Festival of the Pacific Arts in 2020, scheduled to take place in Hawai’i. This was a journey that should have taken three months going against the winds in January, but he says, unfazed, “at least we’ll get to Hawai’i.”[1]

Speaking to Grand Master Navigator Sewralur, and more broadly, experiencing Palau, has recalibrated the way I relate to nature and knowledge. I was taught how imperative it is to value and honour indigenous Pacific navigational, scientific and environmental knowledges ever-closer in a world that has tried to erase and harm these knowledge systems, and therefore by extension, Pacific culture, worldviews and ways of life. I was taught the importance of being mindful in my experiences with the earth, the skies and the seas. I was taught that this planet is alive and it talks to us – if only we listened! 

*

Aveline Yang is currently in the Graduate Development Program the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications for the Australian Public Service. At the time of writing this in 2019, Aveline was a 3rd year Pacific Studies student at the ANU. This profile was written as part of the Pacific Islands Field School to Palau.

*

Sulang to Dr Patrick Tellei for hosting the Palau Field School at the Palau Community College and also to Sesario Sewralur for speaking with CHL ANU and CPIS-UH students!

The Pacific Islands Field School is convened by Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa, and supported by the School of Culture, History and Language in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

The Palau Field School in 2019 was a collaboration with the Center for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa led by Dr James Viernes.


[1] The Festival of the Pacific Arts for Hawai’i was unfortunately cancelled in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has been tentatively rescheduled for 2024.

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