From lost knowledge to the open ocean

A trip to remote Pacific islands made Terence Huwe think about connecting patterns in knowledge and the librarian's role in educating, exciting and empowering user communities. 

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First, the sailing, then the stars

Figure 1

Figure 2
500 Sails collected the surviving records of indigenous sailing, and consulted Chamorro and Carolinean islanders to develop the building process. Their first prototypes exceeded performance expectations as sailing vessels (see Figure 1). At the same time, they received the vaku motu Okeanos Marianas, a fossil-fuel-free vessel. This unique vessel was conceptualised and constructed by the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea. The Okeanos Marianas joins a growing fleet of vaka that utilise traditional forms of celestial navigation (see Figure 2). 

500 Sails views itself as a gateway for Marianas islanders to reclaim their heritage, through sailing, celestial navigation, and open-water swimming skills. However, the popularity of their ventures also provides a side benefit: the formation of a cultural renaissance.

Other Pacific Islands, notably New Zealand and the Hawaiian Archipelago, have already experienced the resurgence of native traditions. 500 Sails has awakened a similar excitement in the Marianas. The organisation has emphasised “telling the story” of the Flying Proa, as well as traditional celestial navigation. These stories, sometimes kept as verbal traditions—have captured the imagination of the islanders. 500 Sails has found that the work of building Flying Proas is in fact just the first step. Engaging, hands-on presentations that educate and inspire are just as important as building and sailing the Flying Proa.

Education, outreach and cultural wisdom

The process of storytelling—a library skill--invites communities to rediscover knowledge that history has obscured. Information professionals have always played a crucial role in presenting ‘lost’ knowledge to researchers as well as activists who have a dream. In the Marianas, the experience of sailing indigenous outriggers has awakened a broader interest in cultural heritage, despite the near-disappearance of reliable information resources under colonial governance.

As I observed the excitement of sailing, I recognised a familiar pattern in the work of 500 Sails—the rigour of sound research skill, and its compelling influence on real-world challenges. Primary materials have enormous impact; the 1742 “Anson” diagram of the Flying Proa, shown in Figure 1, is an excellent example. Archival resources can excite new lines of inquiry and practice, and digital media can make archives quickly accessible and applicable to grass-roots projects.

As a librarian, I feel a kinship with the Chamorros and Carolineans of the Marianas as they build a sailing dream, because supporting research and putting it to work are key values of our profession. I became convinced, yet again, that the role of librarians is far more dynamic than library stereotypes would have us believe. Indeed, the process of building a social movement—first discovery, then prototyping, education, documentation, and preservation—has much in common with our own mission to foster lifelong learning and preserve the cultural record.

Perhaps 500 Sails has a lesson for the information professions: our charge is not only to teach and preserve, but also to educate, excite and engage. We need not go as far as the Northern Marianas to practice those values—although I highly recommend the journey.

Figure 1: anson-image.jpeg.  Caption:  500 Sails co-founder Peter Perez utilised the highly detailed “Anson Drawing,” (1742) to recreate the Marianas Flying Proa

Figure 2: navigation-image.jpeg.  Caption:  The Carolinean Islanders’ Star Compass is an example of traditional Pacific Island celestial navigation

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