TV host pushes to keep island’s traditions alive

Posted Aug. 12, 2010, at 11:01 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Steve Thomas, made famous as host of TV’s “This Old House,” spent years on a Pacific island learning how to build canoes, sew sails and navigate using stars, birds and waves. Thomas summers in Port Clyde and gave a talk Thursday night to a group of 100 people about his time as an apprentice under master navigator Mau Piailug, who recently died.

“His mission was to teach [traditional navigation] to as many people as he could,” Thomas said. “He was a world citizen. He understood the context of his art and craft in the sweep of human intellectual history.”

Thomas gave a talk about his schooling on the Micronesian island of Satawal under Piailug at The Apprenticeshop in Rockland, where people learn boat building and sailing skills.

“His experience there was a great example of an apprenticeship,” said The Apprenticeshop executive director, Eric Stockinger, stating that Thomas’ time in Satawal allowed for the preservation of generations of knowledge.

“It’s a sense of retention of holding onto skills. I think it dovetails incredibly well with what we do here,” Stockinger said.

Thomas said when he landed on the island in the early 1980s, he jumped right into the culture and that Piailug was immediately willing to teach him about navigation using 16 stars and constellations by watching where they rose and set. In this way, a navigator wanting to go west would follow the constellation he knew set in the west as it was setting.

“It is a piece of man’s intellectual history that will soon not exist and barely exists now,” Thomas said to the gathering. He said elder men confronted him, knowing he planned to write a book and make a movie about their traditions and wanted to speak to him. “They realized if they did not speak to me or someone like me the knowledge would die.”

Thomas learned how to sail, how to build a canoe and the local lore. He recorded much of his experiences in a book, “The Last Navigator,” a film, “Adventure,” and the raw material, including his notes, tape recordings and photographs are in archives at the University of Hawaii.

“It was an extraordinary experience that I’m sorry to say you probably can’t have today,” he said.

Thomas discussed how Westernization has torn the island of Satawal apart culturally and the effects it has had on language, the navigational knowledge and how the traditions of the culture have “pretty much fallen apart.”

“Piailug was one of the last navigators,” he said of his late mentor.

Thomas now works at the television network Planet Green as the star of “Renovation Nation” and developing new programs for the network.

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