Earlier this week Radio New Zealand International had an article about Captain Korent Joel who recently died in Majuro, Marshall Islands. He was one of the last of a dwindling breed of traditional navigators from this large group of coral atolls. Fortunately, before his death, he passed many of his skills onto a younger generation of Marshall Islands navigators and to international researchers.
Captain Korent 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. He was recognized for his determination to ensure that those skills did not die with him. Until his recent death, Joel was one of only a handful of living Marshall Islanders who were skilled in traditional navigation. Marshall Islanders have long been known as skilled navigators, travelling long distances on the open ocean between low-lying atolls by using wave motion and stars as their guide. Joel stood out for his work in bringing together other navigators to share knowledge so it could be documented for future generations.
Connections in the late 1980s and early 1990s between Majuro-based boat builder Dennis Alessio, Alson Kelen (Director of Canoes of the Marshall Islands), and Ben Finney of the Polynesian 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. He wanted to be sure navigational knowledge would continue.”
At the time of Captain Korent’s death the book has not yet been finished. “Captain Korent wanted to get a textbook completed,” Kelen 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.”
Captain Korent could navigate by the stars. But if clouds blocked the stars, he was comfortable navigating by wave swells. “The swells never change,” he said, making the point that understanding wave motion is the foundation of Marshallese navigation. “Wave piloting” was his specialty, said Mr Kelen. Korent spoke the “language of the water” – terms that few Marshall Islanders understand in today’s modern world. He was able to absorb knowledge from other navigators and explain it to others who were less familiar with the language.
As recently as 2014, despite Captain Korent’s increasingly poor health, he still took part in voyages, travelling on a fisheries department boat while keeping in touch by radio with an outrigger canoe manned by a team from the local canoe program, including Mr Kelen, and travelling without the use of modern navigation equipment.
Here is an interesting article that was published last year in the New York Times Magazine titled, “The Secrets of the Wave Pilots,” that is about Marshall Islands navigators sailing the ocean without instruments.