Meto – Stick chart navigation

Wapepe - Stick Chart
Wapepe - Stick Chart
Wapepe – Stick Chart

Marshallese have always been noted for their navigational skills and in the past only a certain few people, either men or women, were even taught the secrets of sailing and navigation. The stick charts were constructed as instructional aids for teaching to preserve knowledge. They were not taken on voyages, for all knowledge was memorized. The charts depict natural phenomena and interpret the wave and current patterns that strike the islands. Long before modern day navigational instruments were brought to the Marshallese, they traveled the ocean, maintained courses and determined positions of islands by the use of wave patterns that are depicted in the stick charts. Very few people today understand these charts, although many people know how to make them. In fact some types of stick charts of today, particularly the two common types of the rebbelip charts, are believed by some old men to be recent introductions that were influenced by modern methods of mapping and plotting positions. The only type that was verified by several old men to be authentic was the wappepe type.

There are generally three types seen today: two types of the rebbelip, and the wappepe. The word wapepe literally means a canoe that is floating on the water.

Rebellip — Square or Rectangular Shaped Stick Charts

The rebbelip illustrates sailing directions for most islands in both the Ratak (eastern) and Rālik (western) chains of the Marshall Islands. Small likajjir (money cowrie) shells are used to depict the island locations. In both types of charts, each straight stick represents a series or pattern of regular currents or waves with the curved sticks depicting the swells refracted by the surrounding reefs of the individual islands.

Wappepe — Small Square-Shaped Stick Chart

This is a small type of chart which shows the wave patterns that are common around all atolls. The story behind the wappepe is that it was originally brought to the Marshall Islands from Woleai Atoll, located in Yap State which is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. A large outrigger canoe from Woleai was lost at sea and drifted to an island in the Marshalls. The people landed, or were taken by the iroojs (chiefs) of the Marshall Islands to Kili Island where normally no people lived. All the people on the boat were killed except for two brothers. The older brother was taken to Ebon, and he lived there until he died, but he never had any children. The younger brother went to Lae and had one son, Tarmelu, by a Marshallese woman. After his father died, Tarmelu sailed to Ebon to see his father’s older brother, and during this visit he learned about the wappepe from his uncle. Tarmelu returned to Lae and taught the people how to use the wappepe. So today it is said that the wappepe came from Lae for this is where the Marshallese people first learned of it. Regardless of the availability of the stick charts to learn and study the ocean, the Marshallese have always been able to sail by watching and feeling the movements of the ocean currents and waves, and by using the stars as guides to plot positions. A few older men still know how to use the wappepe, but it is dying out. Several people, though, know how to make it without understanding its meaning.

From studying the wappepe the basic currents and wave patterns can be learned. Before sailing, the sailors know in what direction lies the new island. If they are sailing from south to north, then they watch for the main currents from the east and west. Within the first few miles of leaving, the currents are watched carefully to see which one is moving faster. For example, if the current from the east is moving faster than the western current, then the boat is sailed in a more north-easterly direction to compensate for the pull of the easterly current.

When leaving an island, the same wave and current patterns are encountered as when approaching an island, but only the wave and current patterns of the approaching island are closely watched. For example, using the illustration, if a canoe sailed from the island in the south, the boat would first encounter the jukae (first zone of currents — nearest an island), then dibukae (second zone of currents), and last jejelatae (third zone of currents — farthest away from an island). All three of these waves together are called no in ālikin bar (waves that come after the reef). As the boat proceeds north it will encounter the place where the aeto (current from the east) and aetak (current from the west) meet. At this point the boat will roll back and forth from front to back with a harder roll to the back of the boat than to the front. The type of ocean at this point is called limaajnono which means choppy seas. Then the boat continues northward and the captain constantly makes sure they do not cross over the aeto (current from the east) or aetak (current from the west) which would mean they were off course. Next the canoe hits the aelokean̄ (current from the north) and then is again in calmer water where the boat mainly rocks from side to side. Then the aelokrak (current from the south) is encountered. At this point very close attention is given to the waves, for the people in the boat know they are now beginning to approach the new island although it is still very far away. The canoe proceeds north and hits the place where again the aetak and aeto meet. At this point the boat rolls back and forth with the front roll of the boat being the strongest, for again the ocean is limaajnono (choppy). This signals that the island is getting close. When the jejelatae (third zone of currents) is encountered the people know they are on course and the island is nearby. Usually the island is visible by the time the dibukae (second zone of currents) is hit. Then the jukae (first zone of currents) appears and the island is very near. There is also a type of wave called dilep which the boat follows when leaving the island until arriving at the new island. All these currents can be seen and felt by experienced sailors. Many Marshallese sailors could lie in the bottom of a canoe and sail by the feel of the waves and currents. Today very few men and even fewer women can sail in this manner, and since few tipn̄ōl canoes (sailing canoe) and walap canoes (large sailing canoe) exist anymore, sailing between atolls has basically stopped.

Tools to make canoes in the Marshall Islands

Māāl — Carving Tools

The traditional types of carving and shaping tools used by the Marshallese are called māāl. These are only made today as hand-craft items although the old head parts of these tools are often found in the outer islands. The wood part of the māāls is made from lukwej, kōn̗n̗at, or kaar (types of trees). The head part or cutting part is made from kapwor (giant clam shell) and is attached to the handle with kkwal (coconut rope). Today, for hand-craft articles the cutting part of the māāl is usually made from mejānwōd or en̄ (large type of spider shell). These types of shells wouldn’t be used if the tools were actually made for carving, for only the kapwor is hard enough to resist breaking. Also the edges of the kapwor piece would be very smooth and sharp. The kapwor is prepared by hitting it with rocks to obtain the desired size and then shaping it with the use of the limlim (very hard coral rock). The tilaan (pumice) is then used to do the final smoothing and sharpening of the edges. There are four main types of māāls.

  1. Jaltok Likadkad
    This is used to hollow out canoes and for making the jābe (large bowl). The blade is curved from both side to side and from back to front. The edges are very sharp. This type varies from about one and one half feet long to three and one half feet long depending on its use. The piece of kapwor ranges from four inches long, to eight inches long.
  2. Likadkad
    This is a small version of the jaltok likadkad and is used for hollowing out the small places in a canoe. The kapwor piece is curved in the same way as in the jaltok and is also very sharp. The likadkad is about ten inches long and the kapwor piece is about three inches long.
  3. Ūlūl
    This is the largest type of māāl and is used for cutting down trees. It looks very much like an axe and is made with a large, thick piece of kapwor. The kapwor piece is not curved but flat with a sharp straight edge. The ūlūl is about three feet long.
  4. Jidūl
    The jidūl is a smaller version of the ūlūl and is used for finishing and smoothing the surface of wood. It is used like a scraper and has a flat, straight, very fine cutting edge. The jidūl is about ten inches long.

Ddāil — Drills

The traditional types of drills are now extinct although some older people do know how to make them. There were two basic types that were used by the Marshallese. These were used for drilling holes in pieces of wood, that were later tied together with kkwal (coconut rope) in making a canoe. Also the ddāil was used for drilling holes in the rajraj (warring spear) to attach the n̄iinpako (shark teeth) and in making other tools. Today more conventional types of drills are available.

The simpler type drill was made from one piece of wood about eight to ten inches long with the sides rounded and a small hole at one end. A small, very sharp n̄iinpako was attached with armwe (strong fibers). The n̄iinpako (tooth) was tied on so that only the top sharp point protruded from the wood. Sometimes an addin aorak (finger part of a spider shell) was used for the drill part. To drill a hole, a person placed the ddāil between his hands and moved them back and forth in opposite directions.

The second type was the same as the first only with an added circular piece of wood placed around the shaft of the drill to hold it steadier and with an attachment of kkwal and wood which was wrapped around the shaft and made the drill part spin. This type of ddāil was easier to control than the simple type.

Luj — Hammer

This is a hammer-like instrument made from kōn̄e (shrub, Pemphis acidula) which is a very hard wood. It was used for hammering wood pieces into very small spaces or cracks in a wa (canoe). The caulking for the canoes was made from liok (aerial roots of the pandanus tree) and was forced into the cracks by hammering with a luj. This type of instrument is not used as a work tool anymore, for more modern tools are available, but is made as a hand-craft product.

Kkwal — Sennit (Coconut Rope)

This is sennit made from fibers of the coconut husk. Sennit is very strong and can be made any length and almost any thickness. Since originally there were no nails in the islands kkwal was used in almost all construction (houses, boats, clothing) and for all tying purposes. Today kkwal is rarely made so the skills needed to make it are dying out.

Kkwal is made from the fibers of the husks of drinking coconuts. The fibers are called roro. They are placed in a pit, lined with coconut fronds, in the sand where the ocean water will wash over them. Large rocks are placed on top to hold them in place. The roro are left for one or two months. This process makes them pliable and separates the individual fibers. They are removed from the pit and washed and pounded until very soft, and then dried in the sun. When completely dried a man takes several individual fibers and places them on his thigh. The number of fibers used depends on the desired thickness of the rope. He rolls them back and forth with his hand until they are tightly intertwined. This is called idrab and each rolled together set of fibers is called an idrab. Next two idrab are rolled together and this process is called kkwal. Kkwal can be made any length by continually adding new idrabs and rolling them together.

Written by Carol Curtis

Traditional Canoes

All Marshallese outrigger canoes in the islands are made from mā (breadfruit tree) or lukwej (Calophyllum inophyllum – a large tree). The wood pieces are tied together with kkwal (coconut sennit) with no nails being used. The sails were traditionally made from maan̄ but today cloth is used. Traditionally the trees were chopped down with an ūlūl (axe-like instrument) and carved to the proper shape with different sizes of māāls (carving tools). The boats of today are still made in the traditional manner, except that more modern tools are used for carving and shaping of the wood. Boat houses are made for the kōrkōr and tipn̄ōl to protect them from the sun, although they are becoming less common today. The walap was protected by wrapping mats and coconut fronds around it. Three types of outrigger canoes are made by the Marshallese.

  1. Kōrkōr — Outrigger Paddle Canoe
    This is an outrigger paddle canoe that is usually about ten to fifteen feet long. It is used for fishing or sailing to other islands within the same atoll. It is too small for long voyages and distances. Often a sail is added which makes the canoe very fast. It can carry one to three people, sometimes as many as five people if it is a large kōrkōr. It can be identified by the number of apets, which are the curved pieces of wood that connect the outrigger part of the hull to the canoe. A kōrkōr has three of these. Today the kōrkōr is commonly found throughout the Marshall Islands.
  2. Tipn̄ōl — Sailing Canoe
    This is the large sailing canoe used for sailing between atolls, for fishing especially in the ocean, or for sailing across lagoons of big atolls. This type of canoe is very fast and efficient, and can carry from ten to forty people depending on its size. It always has a large sail. The tipn̄ōl is now rare in the islands but there still may be a few in the outer islands. The tipn̄ōl has four apet connecting the hull of the canoe and the outrigger.
  3. Walap — Large Sailing Canoe
    This was a very large outrigger canoe used for traveling long distances. It is believed to be the type of canoe that brought the original Marshallese to these islands. This large outrigger canoe could carry up to a hundred people plus all supplies for voyages lasting several months. Today this type of boat exists only as model canoes although the old people still know how to make them. The boats of ancient times were extremely slow, partly because the caulking was poor, and because they had no covering on the decks to prevent the waves from washing water into the hull, which made them all the heavier and slower. The more recent walaps were much faster for they were better made. All walaps had very large sails. These canoes had five or more apet.

Wōjlā — Sail

This is the traditional type of sail used on the outriggers. The sails were woven by the women from maan̄ (pandanus leaves). Only the leaves from the kinum type of pandanus tree were used for they are the strongest. If this species did not exist on a certain atoll, the people would sail to the atolls where it was available. In the Rālik Chain (western chain) of the Marshalls it exists on Lae, Ujae, and Ronglap, which meant long sailing voyages for the people living in places such as Ebon, just to obtain the material for a new sail.

In weaving the sail a mōnakjān in wōjlā was used. This was a piece of wood about one-foot-wide by one and one half feet long which the woman placed on her lap. She would then place the maan̄ on the mōnakjān and begin to weave the sail. The sail was made by weaving several separate strips that were later sewn together. These separate strips were called baken and usually six to twelve inches wide. It took about thirty to forty baken to make a sail for a large canoe. The baken were sewn together with maan̄ of the same type as used for weaving, and the iie (needle) was made from certain fish bones. They were sewn together again and again to make them strong. Today woven sails can be seen only on model canoes. Although all sails used on the outrigger canoes of today are made from canvas or other cloth, these sails are still made by sewing together several baken.

Lem — Bailer

The lem is used to bail water from inside the canoe. It is carved from one large black shaped piece of wood and a handle is attached by kkwal (coconut rope). The body part is rounded and scoop shaped so it can easily fit into the bottom of the canoe. The shape also enables a person to bail water in one continuous movement from gathering the water to throwing it overboard. These are still commonly made and used in the Marshalls.

Written by Carol Curtis