The Canoe Builders of Yap

Yap is a world renowned diving destination, However, I had come to the islands of Yap because of the pristine culture I was told I would find here. Although I was an avid diver, I chose not to bring my dive equipment, opting instead to photograph the culture and people of this Micronesian island. Upon arrival at the airport I was greeted by a Yapese hostess in their traditional attire of a grass skirt and a top consisting of flowers in the style of a Hawaiian lei. This difference in culture had taken me by surprise and I found myself averting my eyes from this very pretty 17 or 18 year old topless girl greeting us.

Yapese Woman in Traditional Dress.

After a brief customs and passport formality, I found my driver and was taken on a short drive to my cottage at the Pathways Hotel, one of the 3 main tourist accommodations in Colonia at that time. On this first day the culture of the island was already beginning to impress me. In my thatched roof cottage I found a small air conditioning unit to supplement the overhead fan, and old but workable refrigerator, and when I fired up my laptop I found of all things, Wifi. After testing, the internet connection was actually fairly fast considering where I was. So in the first four hours I had found a people that were keeping their traditional culture alive and native dress intact, but at the same time had access to all of the things we in the modern world would consider a necessity. I had good feelings about this adventure.

Pathways Hotel, Yap
Pathways Hotel, Yap.
Pathways Hotel, Yap.
Pathways Hotel, Yap.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in this culture candid photographs were (at the time of my visit) forbidden. To even look upon your neighbors land without permission was taboo, hence you will find people here walking the stone paths looking down at the ground, so they do not look on a neighbors land. By day three this tradition was taking a toll on me. I’m a photographer, and most of my photography is done in a documentary, somewhat candid style. I was starting to envision day after day of hanging out in the open air restaurant at the Castaways woefully looking down at my camera. Thankfully I was rescued, and saved from the fate of no photography in grand style. I had made a friends on Yap with Brian and Brie Greene, whom I met through their Mother on the island of Kwajalein, where I spent three years. As we were having coffee one morning Brian presented me with an opportunity. “How would you like to photograph the traditional canoe builders of Yap” he asked? “They are getting ready for a long voyage to Palau, Hawaii and back.” It turns out the islanders of Yap still build and sail their unique traditional vessels on adventures that take them thousands of miles across the Pacific. Yap has one of the last groups of these incredible Pacific island sailors that brave the seas for months at a time, navigating by stars and suffering from the lack of fresh water and food for days or weeks to reach their journey’s end. “Not only yes” I said, “but oh hell yes.” It turned out not to be the easiest of tasks for Brian to set this up.

Building A Canoe, Yap Islands.
Building A Canoe, Yap Islands.

The canoe builders usually do not allow documentation of the canoe school. We had a couple of things work out in our favor. First as luck would have it, the canoe builders had just signed a deal with a Japanese TV show to film them in an update to a piece made some 20 years before by the same T.V. station. This left them open to the idea of documentation. Next we bartered the usage rights of my photos which would help them when and if they ever established a website. Finally they knew I came from the Marshall Islands and the Marshallese were accepted as some of the best navigators in the ancient ways of sailing the pacific, so they felt a sort of small connection with me.

Building a Canoe on Yap.
Building a Canoe on Yap.

The morning of the shoot almost turned into a disaster. Although we had arranged to be there when the Japanese were not, when we arrived, we ran into the middle of the Japanese shoot. At first the Japanese had no problem, but then someone noticed my top of the line Nikon, and fear spread that I was a professional and would scoop their story. The Japanese then demanded I leave or they would walk off the shoot, without paying the Yapese. So we left and it took most of the day to work things out.

Japanese Film Crew on Yap.
Japanese Film Crew on Yap.

When I returned it was still a little tense and I managed to crack a joke. One of the cameramen pointed to my camera (that started this mess) and said through an interrupter “nice camera”. I pointed at his camcorder (worth many times what my Nikon cost) and said yours is nice also, want to trade? Everyone started laughing and the crisis was over.

Japanese Film Crew on Yap.
Japanese Film Crew on Yap.

I look back on these images and am grateful that I was able to capture something that few people see, and fewer people are allowed photograph. Credit should go to Brian Greene without whom this would not have been possible. I also thank the King of Yap, the people, and magnificent builders and sailors of Yap for allowing me to spend some time with them.

Tool used in canoe building in Yap.
Tool used in canoe building in Yap.
Yapese Sailor building a canoe while chewing Betel Nut
Yapese Sailor building a canoe while chewing Betel Nut.
Traditional Yapese Ocean Going Canoe.
Traditional Yapese Ocean Going Canoe.
A Sailor Cooking up some Lunch on the Island of Yap.
A Sailor Cooking up some Lunch on the Island of Yap.
A Sailor Building a Canoe in the Island of Yap.
A Sailor Building a Canoe in the Island of Yap.
Setting Sail on the Island of Yap.
Setting Sail on the Island of Yap.

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