‘Che’lu is here to stay’
The indigenous canoe called Che’lu, which arrived on Saipan with much fanfare last Dec. 15, is here to stay, according to 500 Sails executive director Pete Perez.
“We will put Che’lu where the canoe can best move the revival of our maritime traditions forward. For now, that is Saipan and I suspect Che’lu will be here for many years. Che’lu is here to unite us and to help us learn how to be mariners again. This will take many years, probably generations. But we are getting there, and the addition of Che’lu to our growing fleet is a very big step,” he said.
The traditional 47-foot Chamorro outrigger canoe is a collaboration between the Sakman Chamorro organization of Saipan and the Che’lu organization of San Diego.
Prior to arriving on Saipan, the Che’lu made Guam her home since the 2016 Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture where the canoe represented both Guam and the Chamorro Diaspora that built her.
“In Guam her main purpose was to teach the local people about the Chamorro maritime heritage that was lost for so many years due to the Spanish colonization of the Marianas and to inspire people to join the revival of canoe culture that is happening today. Now we want to take Che’lu to the next level as a voyaging canoe between our islands and other islands in the Pacific,” said Perez.
500 Sails has programs that teach swimming and sailing and the non-profit will expand those programs to include Tinian, Rota, and Guam.
“We have trained sailors and more are being trained. We have a boatyard where we are building more canoes and where we can take Che’lu for maintenance and repairs. Because of these programs and facilities, Saipan is an ideal place to develop voyaging crews and it is our intention that every island have trained crew ready for Che’lu when she travels north and south between our islands,” added Perez.
With the addition of the Che’lu, 500 Sails now boasts five traditional canoes on its fleet. She joins the Ladahao, a 40-foot fiberglass voyaging canoe that is currently under repair and a trio of 26-foot canoes—the Nene, the Richard Seman, and the Anaguan.
Currently under construction are the 40-foot fiberglass voyaging canoe iMarianas and another 26-footer, the Jacoba.
“There is a saying in Oceania that ‘the canoe is the people.’ We need our canoes to be who we once [were]. They shaped our culture and kept us healthy and happy. We are facing so many problems in our islands today, from changing climate to the threat of the U.S. Navy’s plan to use our islands for bombing ranges, but here is one very bright light for the local people. We are getting our canoes back! Hunggan, magahet!” said Perez.
Perez said everyone involved in building and bringing the Che’lu back to the Marianas is proud of the canoe and proud that Che’lu has been welcomed in Guam and now on Saipan.
“The community is embracing the return of canoe culture to our islands. I also want to acknowledge and thank captain and master navigator Cecilo, who has been leading us back to the water and will continue to do so now that we are starting to voyage. We are grateful and very lucky to have this guidance. I just want to thank Mario Borja and the crew in San Diego who built Che’lu and found the strength to send her to the Marianas for the important work she will be doing. Also, those who took care of the canoe in Guam, especially Mike Hargis, who has been Mario’s right-hand man, and Frank Shimizu and family, who have been supporting Mario and Che’lu for many years. It is much like launching a child in to the world,” he said.
500 Sails is a cultural restoration project that aims to revive the indigenous sailing traditions of the Marianas Islands, both Chamorro and Carolinian. Its goal is to have to have 500 sakmans plying the Marianas waters by 2030.