Project Proa students work together to build sailing canoes
500 Sails has been busy this summer; they partnered with NMC FCYD/4-H/CREES for Summer Swim Camp, NMC’s CDI Fun in the Sun Summer Camp, Western Pacific Fisheries Summer Camp, and finally NMC’s Project PROA to introduce the island’s next generation to the Chamorro seafaring tradition.
“I realized that we had been mostly working with adults and I wanted to reach out to youth,” said 500 Sails co-founder Emma Perez, “So I reached out to previous partners who were having a summer program and said, ‘Let’s try a pilot program and we’ll add it on Saturdays.” What followed was a torrent of partnerships with local youth groups; since June, students ages seven to eighteen have been bussed to the Guma Sakman for swim lessons and rides on Neni, 500 Sails’ 26-foot traditional Chamorro proa.
The participants in Project PROA were especially involved. Last week, the twenty-eight high school juniors, seniors, and recent graduates from Saipan, Tinian and Rota took part in a cultural presentation, swimming fundamentals and safety training, and canoe building at 500 Sails’ boatyard in Lower Base.
“This is our second year with them,” said Perez. “The water safety component was in response to reading about so many drownings this year and wanting to plant the seeds of safety early... we taught them how to float coming out of a panic, how to find alternatives instead of jumping in to save someone if it wasn’t safe — like throwing in a cooler that floats, throwing them an object to grab (tree branch, shirt, etc.) and holding on to one end, things that might keep them safe. We also showed them some releases if they tried to help somebody that was panicked and trying to pull them under.”
And as for their day at the boatyard, the students were up for the challenge.
“Nobody needed any prior skill because what they did was no more challenging than what we do on boat night, which is bring in people with zero to some skill and give them whatever work they can do,” said 500 Sails co-founder Pete Perez. “The students worked for two hours, but we got a lot of work done because there were 28 of them.”
500 Sails’ Boat Night is a tri-weekly event during which participants work together to build sailing canoes from 6pm to 9pm. Indigenous CNMI residents who volunteer 120 hours can receive their own canoe for free thanks to an Administration for Native Americans (ANA) grant, and non-indigenous CNMI residents who commit the same amount of time can receive their own canoe for only the cost of materials.
“We have an ANA grant that pays for materials, tools and training, while program participants provide the majority of the labor.“ said Pete Perez.
The students were separated into three groups. One group, led by Sakman Leader Jason Aldan, worked on a fabricating a fiberglass deck. The two other groups worked on the hull, using templates to cut panels for the hull out of polyester foam and laying out the runner and trim for the canoe-in-progress.
“Being at the boatyard gave me chills!” said Samantha Birmingham-Babauta, who also visited that day. Birmingham-Babauta works as the PIO for CHCC and is a member of the Physical Activity Group that sprang from the Non-Communicable Disease Bureau’s Strategic Planning Meeting earlier this summer. “I visited while the NMC Proa kids were there, and watching everyone work and seeing what they were putting together, and how seamlessly they were working, was amazing. Now I want to get in there and be a part of the canoe building!”
“People were very enthusiastic and engaged, particularly the girls. They were really getting into it,” said Perez. “They can be proud of contributing to making an actual canoe… and what they were building wasn’t just a boat, it wasn’t just a canoe — for many it was their canoe, it was the canoe their ancestors invented. It was the canoe their ancestors sailed every day.”
“What happened here today is something that used to happen on these islands for thousands of years,” Perez continued. “People got together to build a canoe. That was part of everyday life. Canoe culture was part of everyday life… for transportation, to go fishing, and just for pure enjoyment. What we did today was something that the people of the Marianas were deprived of for hundreds of years because of colonialism and now we’re taking it back.”
“I look forward to expanding this with more partnerships next summer so we can expose more youth to the culture,” added Emma Perez. “I hope that we inspire them to really embrace the maritime culture here — swimming and sailing — because the canoes that we’re building aren’t just for us adults... they’re for the next generation, and the next....”
For more information about building a canoe, contact Pete Perez, 500 Sails Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 783-0890.
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