500 Sails to celebrate canoe’s 10th birthday

Posted on Mar 16 2021

The nonprofit organization 500 Sails is inviting the public to an open house to celebrate the 10th birthday of the 47th-foot canoe Che’lu on Friday, March 26, 2021 at the 500 Sails Boatyard in Lower Base.

The celebration, to be held at the old Procurement building next to the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, will feature Che’lu, a beautiful 47-foot wooden traditional canoe called sakman that weighs 5,600 pounds. She is painted in the traditional colors of achote red and black. The event will also feature six other canoes in various states of completion. These canoes include: Ladahao, I Marianas, Auntie Oba (for Jacob Seman), Animiyu, Dinga, and Hagåtña.

According to a 500 Sails press statement, Che’lu began as a dream in 2006, when the non-profit Sakman Chamorro Inc was formed and in-depth research was collected about Chamorro sakman. Fundraising started when the Dolphin Club, San Francisco held a fundraiser to support the Chamorro Flying Proa Relay Team that successfully swam from England to France in 2007 to raise funds to build a sakman.

Sakman Chamorro Inc. was not able to start the project, so an alternative plan was needed. A chance meeting at a Chamorro event put master carpenter Mario Borja (who was born on Saipan) and canoe researcher Pete Perez (whose father was born on Saipan) in touch and they dove into deep discussions about the 1742 Anson drawing of a sakman that was drawn on Tinian by Englishman Piercy Brett. They agreed for the project to be transferred to Che’lu Inc, a San Diego nonprofit, and Borja would build the canoe. In 2009, a Mendocino redwood log was purchased and shipped to San Diego. The log was blessed and construction began. Many hours of discussion began between Borja and Peter about construction details.

On March 25, 2011, Che’lu was finished. She sailed in the San Diego harbor and was eventually shipped to Guam in preparation for the 2016 Festival of the Pacific Arts, where she first touched the waters of Guam, joining canoes from all over Micronesia.

Che’lu became part of the 500 Sails fleet in 2019 and came to Saipan from Guam under the watchful eyes of master navigator Cecilio Raiukiulipiy, who looks forward to captaining Che’lu on her first sail to Pagan once she has passed sea trials. Both Borja and Perez were part of the group that brought Che’lu home to Saipan, along with Henry Maly, April Repeki, Ray Alvarez, and others. Borja went home to San Diego briefly, with plans to return and get Che’lu on the water for her sea trials; all plans were cancelled when the pandemic hit.

The 500 Sails crew anticipates Borja’s return as soon as safe travel is possible. Until that time, Che’lu has been in the 500 Sails boatyard with her sisters waiting for Borja. Everyone agreed that Che’lu will not be touched without her father here to help with the transition.

500 Sails is grateful to all the hands and hearts that have brought Che’lu to life, and to partner Indigenous Affairs Office for hosting us in the 500 Sails Boatyard.

For more information, email info@500sails.org, follow 500 Sails at https://www.facebook.com/500SailsDolphin-ClubSaipan, or call 500 Sails Co-Founder Emma Perez at 670-285-4268.

Neil Fama
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