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

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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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