Okeanos leaving Marianas

THE Polynesian sailing canoe once called the Okeanos Marianas — now called the Okeanos Ambassador — will depart from Smiling Cove this Sunday, headed to Yap with no plans of returning.

Built and provided by the international non-profit Okeanos Foundation for the Sea, the canoe or vaka has been docked in Saipan’s marina since its arrival from New Zealand in late Oct. 2017.

The Okeanos Foundation’s mission statement is to “empower Pacific Island people to implement traditionally based sustainable sea transportation to ensure independence, cultural revival, and ocean stewardship” using “Pacific Islands’ traditional knowledge as solution, adaptation and mitigation to climate change.”

“Their intention was to use the canoe as an educational platform,” said Cecilio Raiukiulipiy, who acted as captain of the Okeanos Marianas during its stay in Saipan. “But that didn’t materialize.”

Despite efforts by several phases of local leadership, the Okeanos Foundation did not manage to offer community education opportunities, nor did it consistently transport goods or people between Saipan and the other islands of the CNMI.

Raiukiulipiy told the Variety that recurring challenges included Okeanos’ hesitancy to compensate local crew.

“They said, ‘We’re not supposed to pay you. You are supposed to help your community,’” Raiukiulipiy said. He added that he was told this by Okeanos COO and Director of the U.S. and Pacific Region Dena Seidel, who in 2017 was paid $96,000, according to Okeanos’ 990-PF document posted on guidestar.org.

He also said he knows of one ex-Okeanos Marianas sailor who now works full-time in Pohnpei for a monthly stipend of $500.

“I don’t think they are promoting the culture,” Raiukiulipiy said. “I think this is taking advantage of us for their own benefit.”

Photo by Jack DiazPhoto by Jack Diaz

He said that during the Okeanos trip to the outer islands of Yap and Chuuk last July, the Okeanos Foundation paid local sailors small stipends or nothing at all, but sent along journalists, videographers and photographers to document the trip.

“The trip to the Micronesian islands — that’s what they’re using for advertisement,” said Raiukiulipiy. “Their intention is just to use us so that they can get more grants.”

He said that after months of disagreements and “micromanaging,” Super Typhoon Yutu was the last straw. Days after the storm hit, Raiukiulipiy and Okeanos Marianas executive director Ray Tebutev received a resolution from the non-profit halting the CNMI operation and announcing that Okeanos Marianas would be leaving the CNMI.

“We told them, ‘We need the canoe because we just had the typhoon,’” Raiukiulipiy remembered. But he said they were not receptive.

“Just a week after sending that resolution, they hired a lawyer and they deregistered the canoe and it was registered in the Cook Islands.” he said. “And they changed the name from Okeanos Marianas. They changed it to Okeanos Ambassador.”

The Okeanos did sail four relief trips to Tinian after Yutu; but Raiukiulipiy believes that he and his crew should have done more.

“For me, it’s very frustrating because I have a lot of people here that volunteer and help out. And they don’t even consider those volunteer hours to offset [costs] for using the canoe for [typhoon] relief,” he said.

And he is pessimistic about the canoe’s potential to promote seafaring culture in Yap, especially considering Yap’s seafaring culture was never hampered by colonists and continues to flourish to this day.

“They just want to intrude in this culture and use Yap so that they can get green climate grants,” he said. He wishes Okeanos Marianas could stay in the CNMI and fulfill its original goals.

“I really feel bad because all the people here, they were looking up to us to help them learn the culture of navigation.”