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Wednesday, March 21, 2007
The Last Easter Island Wayfinder

The last ten years has seen a re-emergence of “Wayfinding” essentially finding one’s way across the ocean with no modern navigational aids, only the help of the stars, waves, wind, and birds. The most famous of these modern attempts paddled traditional Hawaiian canoes to Tahiti and back using ancient Polynesian wayfinding skills. In Hanga Roa on our second and last afternoon there, I met an old man who was the last wayfinder on Easter Island. His story was told to me, by him, in Rapanuian dialect translated into Spanish by his daughter. Brain burn! He looked at me with his one good eye and slowly recounted how he had learned his navigational skills from his grandfather and other elderly navigators. They taught him the stars and the islands to Tahiti by drawing lines in the sand and placing stones and shells for important landmarks. Most of what he learned was by rote memorization. His major accomplishment in life was to navigate to Papeete, Tahiti, in the old way by sailboat like the boat above. All alone, he survived on fish, coconuts, and captured rain water. It is a treacherous passage to thread through the Tuomotus. Hidden reefs and shallow atolls awash in breaking swells cover hundreds of miles on the path from Easter Island to Tahiti.

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that Polynesian navigators used sand drawings, reed constructions (think drinking straws glued together like tinker toys), and stone carvings to construct a mental schematic map of the “sidereal compass” (a star chart). The major visible stars, their 180 degree antithesis, and their lateral related star at 90 degrees, were memorized. In the case of the Easter Island navigator, this process began in early childhood. As a little boy he watched his grandfather and others draw the star patterns in the sand. He remembered learning about clouds, winds, and birds as aids to location and to steering. The swells, he said, were very important to both see and feel (at night) because certain islands reflected the swells at certain angles which gave him a bearing on that particular island. I had no doubt about his story. As a person who grew up in small sail boats, the familiarity with the sea is similar to “Smila’s Sense of Snow”, a book whose main character has over a hundred Icelandic words to describe the intricacies of snow. Childs play for me was sailing a steady course with my eyes closed, or shipping the rudder & tiller onboard to steer only by the sails, ( in a small sailboat of course.) It was the same sense that woke me up on anchor when the wind changed direction and put us on a lee shore. It’s the sense with which you feel the seaworthiness of a boat. Your senses feel and your mind is ever alert to anomalies in the ocean’s patterns. At sea you can’t have your ear to the ground, just the compilation of years on the water in your mental computer…your schematic mental pictures.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007
The Rongo-rongo board

The Rapanuians spread blankets on the grass and arranged their carvings and shell jewelry along the edges. The older kids were in school so just the young children and babies distracted their parents as they socialized in the warm afternoon sun. One item I especially wanted to buy was a rongo-rongo board. Briefly, the boards portray mystical animals and birds, anthropomorphic figures, and other signs which are carved in rows like hieroglyphs. They are read from the bottom corner upwards.

Discovered in 1868, the rongorongo language has never been completely deciphered, but it has been discerned early Rapanuians had a lunar calendar. To read more, click rongorongo. Some examples of the original rongorongo boards are seen on the following web site: The Rongorongo of Easter Island. The back side of my board was carved with petroglyphs which are carved into many rocks, especially at "Orongo." The outstanding image is that of the birdman, the subject of the cult of the birdman or "Tangata Manu". The petroglyphs began after the moai statues were deserted.
Wood and stone carvings have a life of their own. Each cut and gouge by a Rapanuian carver reinterpreted his culture's ancient symbols and language, the only written language in Oceania. Collecting the wood, sitting down with tools, and purposefully working the wood or stone in order to feed his family was meaningful work to me. The finished rongorongo boards cost the most of all the items because of the intricacy of the hieroglyphs.

Marco Meza, the hamming weatherman

Steve changed the oil on the main at 200 hours. Done and I cleaned the wheelhouse and galley as Drake worked on deck projects. We worked diligently because the lee side of Easter Island afforded us a gentle swell and breeze, unlike the rolling and pitching of the open sea. Today was another special day for visiting the island nestled in a morning mist.

The zodiac took us in through the breakers to the boat harbor where Miguel was waiting with his van for Steve and I. Heading up the dirt path, by stone walls, horses, dogs and children, we drove by a long row of pungent eucalyptus trees, the only trees left on this rocky island. Soon the airport appeared and we entered an air conditioned weather station. Four weathermen used radar, ship reports, and weather balloons to forecast the weather for Chile, 2000 miles to the east. One of them was our ham friend, Marcos Meza. He gave us a tour of the impressive weather station and then diverted us to his home to observe his QTH, or home station. Marco’s radio was on the blink, a Kenwood TS 440 which is a dandy little rig. His antennas were sufficient for DX’ing worldwide. In order to change the direction of his twenty meter beam it was necessary to go outside, grab hold of a rope tied to the antenna, and march around below until the antenna was directional for the US, South America, Australia or Japan. Europe and Russia could be gained by over the pole transmission. Mostly he aimed it East and West to avoid the hoards of American hams. Easter Island was a rare and juicy QSO for a budding American ham. I was satisfied with an eyeball QSO, which is a face to face meeting. We promised to write to Kenwood and report Marco’s radio problem.

Back down through the tiny village we went and stopped at the store. It was merely one long shelf along the wall with cans of fruit, vegetables, corned beef, and deviled ham. One bright spot was a basket of oranges and grapefruit which looked suspiciously like the ones confiscated from us by the agricultural official.

We met Drake and Donne` at the café for lunch. Again the owner prepared tuna. It was the only fresh protein available, and she broiled it to perfection. A tradition on Easter Island is to return a gift for a gift given. The owner placed shell necklaces around our heads in gratitude for the two albacore we brought her that morning. We were soon to make more friends who drove up on horseback as we finished our lunch.


Saturday, March 10, 2007
From the Kneeling Moai to Broiled Tuna

The only anomalous statue was the “kneeling moai”. No one knows why it is postured the way it is. We soon were back in the VW van for a ride to the crater from which the head dresses were carved out of a red rock. The grassy hillside makes you want to roll down like logs, like kids. In the crater lies a lake lined with reeds. We realized in seeing Easter Island with this 360 degree view, that it was pretty small. Back to Hanga Roa we trundled, just in time to see the yellow fin tuna macheteed into steaks, on a piece of old plywood. That whet our appetite to find the nearest restaurant….the only restaurant. We were the only tourists on the island! No one else was there, only the four of us with our lousy Spanish. We ordered “atun” and lemonade. The owner/cook/waitress went back to the kitchen and immediately a little boy of four or five ran out the back door and up the road towards the yellow fin hacker. Soon he was back with something wrapped in a baggie. It sizzled in the kitchen and soon we were treated to broiled tuna steak with mayo and a little coleslaw of some kind. The lemonade hit the spot and the fresh tuna was great because I didn’t have to cook it. All boat cooks really appreciate a break!

Easter Island is at 27 degrees south latitude which is farther away from the equator than Hawaii therefore the sunsets linger longer. We wanted to stay on the island after dark but our better judgment told us to hit the breaking seas outside of the boat harbor in the light, so we did. Behind us the lights in Hanga Roa burned a hundred little halos through the mist and much later the local rock band took up its guitars and the young locals began their partying at the bar. We checked the anchor, the fathometer, the weather faxes and listened to the ham radio for a while. I was still mentally pinching myself for actually being here at Easter Island. It was unreal.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007
Ancient spirits haunt the hillsides

( This Albacore trolling trip took place in the 1992-3. I have been cooped up by the gloom of a stormy winter in the Pacific Northwest and needed to travel away to the tropics in my imagination. Recounting a few yarns is fun anyway. Hope you don't mind. The F/V Papa George is fishing for squid tonight off of Catalina Island, CA with Steve on board. )
The area was marked by a carved sign, “Rano Raraku”. The statues leaned in random directions outside of the quarry. We climbed the grassy hillside, where several statues lay where they were carved; a broken ear, an incorrect nose angle, some imperfection disqualifying them for eternal worship. Our guide, Manuel, was a young boy ( in the 60’s) when Thor Heyerdal brought a group of volunteers to dig out a bevy of moai at Anakena Beach. He and his father were the horse handlers for the equiptment. We conversed in Spanish, rather I listened and asked a few questions. He explained the carvings on the moai, such as the spirals on the back depicting the solar plexus. It was an arduous translation for me but his knowledge and the pride of it was provocative. There was so much to take in!

Steve climbed up into the quarry to find the largest statue “El Gigante”, a mere 71.93 feet long and approximately 150 tons. If this moai had been raised, with part of the base buried, it would have towered over all the rest. Perhaps the engineering of moai raising was not up to the task. To begin with, it’s hard to imagine the ancient islanders carving and rolling these statues into position miles away from the quarry. The average moai weighed 14 tons and stood 13 feet high. There are 887 moai as of the last official count, of which a third made it to their final rock altar or “ahu.”

We didn’t plan to visit Easter Island initially, only after leaving Panama. The tuna trolling fleet chartered us to survey the albacore resource from 110W to 140W at the 38 to 40 degree south latitude line. Easter Island was near our descent into the southern latitudes of the South Pacific Ocean. It was like reading “terra incognita” on one of Magellan’s charts. This little 64 square mile volcanic rock was thousands of miles from the nearest land. We learned that we were in the land of the ancients. Rainbows bloomed every time you turned around. The air was full of mist and heat. Was it the same in AD 1400 when this culture of moai construction began? The spirit of the place was awesome.

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