Flying Proa: A Pacific Marvel
When European travelers first made their way to Guam, they were greeted by the sight of outrigger canoes with lateen sails speeding their way through the waters to meet them.
Those canoes were known as proas; single outrigger canoes used by the ancient Chamorro people of Guam. According to local sailor Frank Cruz, the proa or flying proa is the original vessel that brought the ancient people to the island.
“That’s the vessel they used to explore new lands,” he said. “But proa is a general term for any single outrigger canoe. In the Marianas, we have proas of different sizes and they have different names.”
Cruz said the name of ancient proa that has primarily survived is the galaide (gah-lie-DEE), which was a proa meant for sailing within the reefs. The oceangoing canoes that greeted European travelers were the sakman (SAHCK-muhn), which were much larger than the galaide and equipped with lateen sails.
“That’s the canoe the Europeans marveled over,” Cruz said. “They said that was the flying proa; that was the fastest thing that they’d ever seen.”
Unfortunately, native sailing techniques did not survive during Spain’s colonization of Guam and the rich history of proas was lost.
Though the historical knowledge was lost, Cruz learned the art of sailing from Tradition about Seafaring Islands (TASI) (tah-SEE), a non-profit organization whose name translates into ocean in the Chamorro language.
With the help of a centuries-old blueprint of an ancient proa, local seafaring enthusiasts at TASI have taken it upon themselves to revitalize Guam’s maritime traditions.
“We have a blueprint from a document that was produced in 1742 on the voyage of Capt. George Anson,” Cruz said. “(He was) a British navigator who brought a couple of ships through this area and he got stranded on Tinian. Then a sakman came up to Tinian; Capt. Anson captured the sakman and took the sakman and its crew of five Chamorros and a Spaniard on board and headed to the Philippines.”
Anson and his crew then allegedly took apart the sakman and drew a blueprint which serves as the closest image of what the proa may have been prior to its disappearance.
In 2008, TASI completed the construction of the first sakman built in the Marianas for nearly 300 years, which was christened “Saina” (SAI-nuh), meaning parents or elders. In May 2009, Saina made its maiden voyage to Rota in the Mariana Islands.
Cruz said the winds on the day of Saina’s maiden voyage were strong, causing the trip to take 40 hours to cross 45 miles to Rota. Nevertheless, Cruz said the trip was worth it.
“It was just exhilarating, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “When you get on the water for the first time and you finally experience that ‘hey, it’s not just a myth that our ancestors were able to sail these things out in the open water without any instruments, no navigational instruments and just on traditional knowledge,’ it’s just an incredible feeling. It also made me very proud to be a Chamorro at this time.”
The proa’s speed could be attributed to the construction of the canoe. Unlike traditional boats, the front and end of the proa are exactly the same, allowing proas to change direction with a quick change of the sail. However, the sides of the canoe are asymmetrical.
Cruz said when looking at the proa’s side profile, both ends look identical. It is when you are facing the proa head on that you notice a difference.
“You notice one side of the canoe has more of a curve than the other side,” he said. “The side with the curve is the side that goes where the outrigger is. The curvature helps the canoe maintain its track in the water.”
Aside from the blueprints by Anson, Master Navigator Manny Sikau’s instruction of canoe building, canoe house building, sailing and navigation were very much a part of TASI’s successful voyage.
“Traditional navigation consists of using the stars, constellations, waves, whales, birds, floating logs, floating leaves, wreaths, wind, sun, even the moon,” he said. “It’s all of these (that) are part of the traditional navigation that can guide you to your destination.”
According to Sikau, there are points to keep in mind when navigating. From the use of the horizon to the stars, ancient navigators seem to have followed natural lines.
“There are 32 points for the horizons; the 32 points are the direction from one place to another,” he said. “To leave a place (and) sail to another place, each island has its own star path. If I want to go to the Philippines, since the Philippines is so big, I can use three stars to go to the Philippines. I can use the setting of Orion’s belt to Mindanao. If I go to Saipan from Guam, then I’ll follow (the) rising Big Dipper.”
Sikau said that though the maritime traditions have been lost on Guam, they can still be found in other places throughout Micronesia.
“In the Micronesian region, including the Marianas and the Caroline’s, this has been part of the culture of these people,” he said. “Where I’m from, from the Caroline’s, we still have this knowledge because we still need it. We’re still sailing the canoes. We have some kind of modern stuff like modern motor boat(s), but that cannot go far and (is) dependent on gasoline. The outrigger canoes are just (from) the local materials.”