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For thousands of years the outrigger canoe has been the backbone upon which the food-gathering economy and transportation of the Marshall Islands depended.

Known as the fastest indigenous watercraft in the Pacific, the Marshall Islands outrigger canoe or wa has been fine-tuned to sail closer to the wind than any other modern watercraft (sail craft) in the world.

Waan Aelon in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) or “WAM” is a grassroots non-profit program educating young Marshall Islanders, based on the traditions of the Marshallese canoe. WAM provides vocational and life skills training to youth-at-risk using the medium of traditional outrigger canoes, boat building and woodworking. The program links the new generation with the old, working together to maintain the rich and vibrant Marshallese culture, while at the same time addressing serious social problems affecting youth in modern Marshallese society.

In response to the national agenda for development in the Marshall Islands, WAM has evolved to include vocational skills training in employable trades including modern boatbuilding and fiberglass technology, carpentry and woodworking, furniture and cabinetmaking and administrative office skills training.

The Atolls of the Marshall Islands

Picture a group of volcanic islands in the mid-Pacific surrounded by barrier reefs and waters ranging from the bluest of blue to indigo, sapphire and turquoise. Think of yourself as a time traveler, scanning these islands over millions of years, watching them slowly sink into the deep blue as a coral barrier reef grows, not being pushed up by the sinking island, but literally growing a little at a time, slowly and patiently, as coral animals do.

The atolls of the Marshall Islands represent the last stage in a developmental line from active volcano to a subsided volcano cone overgrown by coral reefs. Reef-building coral colonized the underwater slopes of the young volcanoes, over eons establishing fringing reefs. The high island of Pohnpei to the east is a good example of the earlier stages this geologic evolution. When the volcano is no longer active the cooling process begins, and it gradually begins to subside from its own weight. The corals, on the other hand, continue to grow, creating a barrier reef structure with a partially visible cone in the center. Kosrae, and for a later stage in development Chuuk (Truk Lagoon), typify this. The Marshall Islands exemplifies the final stage, when the entire volcanic cone subsides beneath the sea leaving only the fringing of coral reef and white sand beaches (Spennemann, 1990).

Now that you’ve gone back in time, picture yourself as a bird, flying over our coral atolls. At first glance you see strings of tiny islands surrounding lagoons brimming with sea-life, rimmed with coral white sand beaches. There are palm trees, huge Lukwej and Kõno trees shading the shallow, cool pools around the edge. A beautiful setting for a romantic South Seas novel, no? At first glance these islands would seem to be paradise. However, what most visitors do not realize is that this same idyllic environment is one of the harshest in the world for human survival.

Although the sea life is rich, the land of the coral atolls is for the most part just the opposite. It is extreme in that there is rarely adequate fresh water, and the poor sandy soil is unable to produce more than a few kinds of food plants. The history of the Marshall Islands ancestors has been that of feast or famine. Add to this exposure to harsh storms and searing heat, and top it off with extreme geographic isolation. The result is a race of people with an extraordinary ability to survive – the first settlers of the Marshall Islands (Lolelaplap). By necessity due to their extremely difficult living conditions, these people had an extraordinary amount of knowledge and skills including traditional medicine and massage, astronomy, dendrology and horticulture, social order, and some of the most advanced non-instrument navigation and seafaring in the world.

Naturally the skill symbolizing all of the great Pacific seafaring nations is canoe building – a technology that, even in our day, has received the admiration and wonderment of modern-day sailors. Even today’s aerodynamic and hydrodynamic engineers are in awe of some of the design technology of the outrigger canoes still sailing today, much like they have been for the past 100 generations. The people of the Marshall Islands sailed open ocean voyages of up to 500 miles as a matter of necessity. Take out a map and look at the islands; two chains running parallel north and south, the Ratak or Sunrise in the east and the Rãlik or Sunset in the west, including 29 atolls and 5 islands totaling more than 1,200 islands and islets with a combined land area of about 41 square miles. Now, if you took all of these islands, half in one hand and half in the other and pitched them south to north so that they fell covering an ocean area of more than 750,000 square miles, then you might easily see why the Marshall Islanders had to become so intimately familiar with their sea around them.