This week, four hand-carved sailing canoes landed in Guam, completing a five-day voyage across the open ocean from Yap State. This arduous trek highlights the ongoing success of Waa’gey, a Yap-based mentorship program that trains island youth in traditional canoe carving and navigation. The voyage between Yap State and Guam served to bridge both time and cultures.
“Waa’gey students are trained to see the value in the traditions of our ancestors,” said Larry Raigetal of Lamotrek Atoll, the group’s program director. “They learned to build a large sailing canoe with their own two hands, and put traditional navigation into practice on a real voyage. The old ways still work.”
The canoes used were “Carolina Proas,” complex all wood outriggers designed, perfected, and made famous by Micronesians over centuries. Raigetal oversaw the project, captaining one of the sleek vessels that early Spanish missionaries called, “flying props.” Designing, building and navigating traditional canoes requires tremendous expertise.
Historically, Outer Islanders traded woven skirts and mats for canoes built on Yap Proper. This was part of a complex trade network spanning hundreds of miles across the Caroline Islands, Guam, and even the Marianas.
Today, the promise of healthcare, education and employment has drawn Outer Islanders to the larger, more developed islands in Micronesia. Many Micronesians have taken the further step of migrating to Guam or Hawaii, an option afforded them through the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and Micronesia.
For a decade now, Waa’gey has used mentored canoe building to help tackle contemporary social and environmental challenges across Yap State. This mission is driven by the belief that traditional values and skills have an ongoing role in teaching young people to confront modern challenges. The young men who arrived in Hagatna are a testament to Waa’gey’s success.
“For thousands of years, our people have been healthy and happy on tiny island atolls,” explained Raigetal. “Traditional practices taught us to use natural resources, and also protect them. Our cultures have withstood a lot of change over the centuries, but we’re dealing with more outside influences than ever. We’re also aware of the threat rising sea levels pose to low-lying islands. It’s not a theory. It’s real to us. This voyage to Guam is something the boys are quite proud of, but it’s just one symbol of the hard work and challenges they face in navigating Micronesia’s and their own future.”