One of the few Marshallese traditional navigator dies

By Giff Johnson, RNZI Correspondent, in Majuro


One of the last of a dwindling breed of traditional navigators has died in Majuro, but not before passing many of his skills onto a younger generation of Marshall Islands navigators and to international researchers.

Captain Korent Joel, 68, was a skilled navigator who blended both traditional and modern skills that had him captaining numerous vessels for the Marshall Islands government while also working to share traditional wave navigation techniques to younger generation Marshall Islanders over many decades. Mr Joel was

New York Times New York Times and other publications in recent years.

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He was recognised for his determination to ensure that those skills did not die with him. Until his recent death, Mr Joel was one of only a handful of living Marshall Islanders who were skilled in traditional navigation. Marshall Islanders have long been recognised as skilled navigators, travelling long distances on the open ocean between low-lying atolls by using wave motion and stars as their guide.

Mr Joel stood out for his work in bringing together other navigators to share knowledge so it could be documented for future generations.

This led him to a long-term partnership with

Majel Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) Director Alson Kelen and

Majel Majel Majel Majel Majel

researcher Joseph Genz of the University of Hawaii. Mr Kelen's program has, for the past two decades, trained hundreds of young Marshall Islanders to build outrigger canoes and sail them to keep the art form alive.

Despite ill health over the past several years, Mr Joel joined in various voyages to teach wave navigation techniques to Mr Kelen, and so Mr Genz and other international researchers could document the knowledge.

Connections in the late 1980s and early 1990s between Majuro-based boat builder Dennis Alessio and Mr Kelen,and Ben Finney of thePolynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii initiated discussions about documenting navigation skills. "This is when Captain Korent came into the picture," said Mr Kelen. "He wanted to write a textbook so the information would be documented - both as a training tool for future navigators and as an academic resource for classrooms so students could learn about their history."

Mr Genz was Mr Finney's student, and Mr Finney recommended him to work with Mr Joel and the Majuro canoe programme on the documentation project. Mr Kelen noted that Mr Genz expects to publish a biography on Mr Joel later this year.

"Captain Korent came to us when he heard about Ben Finney," said Mr Kelen. "He wanted to be sure navigational knowledge would continue."

"Captain Korent wanted to get a textbook completed," he said. "Joe's work has gotten us close, but there is still more needed from our other navigators. We're still moving forward with Captain Korent's dream to have a document in place."

Because Mr Joel was also a licensed ship captain, it gave him a foot in both worlds of navigation and the ability to communicate his knowledge to outsiders as well as Marshallese.

Stories about his navigation skills abound.

On one trip between Kwajalein and Ujae atolls, on a small yacht without modern navigation aids, they were hit by high winds, recalled Mr Kelen. While Mr Joel was sleeping, the crew on the boat turned on the engine to help with steering, but the engine wasn't strong enough to help. As they started tacking the sailboat, Mr Korent emerged from below desk to ask, "what are you guys doing?

"You're heading way north, turn back this way" - pointing to the port side. It was a pitch black night, no stars were visible and it was raining heavily. The crew was amazed when a few hours later, as dawn broke, Ujae appeared in front of them.

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  • @ri_aelonglaplap99 , i never knew there were still mashanese that still kept the knowledge of navigation. Its good because i thought Yap got that department on lock but this story above tell us that the two vocal centers (Yap-Mashan) is still alive. Is Giff Johnson lying? Do your people still speak the "language of the sea" like giff say?
  • Or is this another fake news bs?
  • @PawNStar

    Yes. There are still people who practice it but it is kept to a select few and jealously guarded. Marshallese are not very big braggers so it's not a surprise that people don't know much about or haven't heard about this sophisticated arts practiced among these people.

    And another reason for it being known to a very few is because the clan/family that possess the knowledge of the art of Marshallese navigation are said to be really infertile so they don't have many descendants like their ancestors. The clan is called Ri-Meto and they are very few due this disease among their ranks which causes them to have few or no offsprings at all. At least that's what I heard.
  • Reaper loves to brag... lol
  • @Folueisomw what I brag about are historically recorded down in the annals of Micronesian history. Unlike you, whom try to claim that Guam was discovered by Chuukese. That's the difference between my brag and yours. Good day.
  • @Folu,

    Reaper is probably an American raised military brat. They love to display their pride in the accomplishments of their ancestors.
  • @Reaper and @Folu

    Did I hear that right??? Chuukese claim to have discovered Guam??? Hahahaha, nice joke.
  • I nvr once said my ancestors discovered Guam & the CNMI. But the question is why are their islands & villages named after Chuukese words? You Reaper needa learn how to adress peoples writtings.
  • @RiAelonglaplap99/Na rimajol been living abroad most of my life.I don't think being prideful of our great country is a bad thing.Quite honestly why keep it safegaurded? They should teach it throughout both chains to further strengthen the tradition.I respect our culture.It's just.Time has change.We should as well.
  • Mr.Nobody905, it's alive and well in the outer islands. Go ailuuk or ebon and you will see people still use it to travel. And you are right they should teach it to everyone who wants to learn it. But the old taboos of keep it secret are still followed.
  • Mr.Nobody905, those words coming from you is like asking Donald Trump to show everybody how to make nuclear bombs.
  • @Reaper/I'm from the ijjidik jowi.Sadly I know little about our Manit but am still learning.From my grandparents I've been told so many stories of Master Joel and the great Rimeto.Most of my life raised here in the states my attraction to our rich history and culture gave me great pride of where I came from which later made me pursue to study more about it.Seeing science articles about how westerners are astounded by our traditional navigation puts a smile to my face.I understand the sacred ways.But for the sake of future generations to come shouldn't they preserve it in a form of a book or so?.(All five techniques I heard there's that many and the stick chart is one of them.)

    @Junair/Tragically everyone knows what a nuclear bomb is and how it's constructed.I'm part European(German) and i am not proud of what we've brought into existence.To the topic i am only saying that the navigation should be preserved and reserved exclusively for the people of Lollelaplap/Ralik&Ratak.
  • Another thing.The misconception of "dwindling breed of navigators" isn't true.People of Microensia both The Yapese&Marshallese still navigate to this very day.We just don't want to show nor brag about it.

  • ^Something worth watching to see the might of the Marshallese seafaring heritage.Better understanding of the Walap(Canoe).
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