October 2, 2000.
Polynesia's Master Navigators
We have made our way into Polynesia, the territory of this planet's master navigators. The islands on which they live are scattered so thinly that many European explorers (including Magellan) sailed through the thousands of Polynesian and Micronesian islands without ever sighting land. In spite of the vastness of the Pacific, the Polynesian peoples managed to spread across this largest of oceans by developing the skills and the craft necessary to travel between its far flung islands. Long before Europeans arrived, Polynesian navigators were making round trips with confidence between islands hundreds, even thousands of miles apart without the use of compasses or other navigational instruments, routinely finding even low lying islands that can't be seen more than ten miles away.
Because these feats of navigation and seamanship were so great most Europeans have only recently accepted the fact that even as far back as Cooke's discovery of the Hawaiian Islands the inhabitants of Hawaii at that time included navigators who had made several round trips between Hawaii and their home islands more than 2700 miles away. (David Lewis, a modern European sailor, lived in the South Pacific for several years learning the navigational techniques of its inhabitants which he describes in his book: We The Navigators.)
And how did these master mariners managed to navigate without instruments across a watery plain so vast that to miss a landfall meant death from thirst or starvation? They were incredibly observant. They learned to read subtle clues that indicated the presence of nearby islands when the island itself was still out of sight below the horizon. European sailors of the time had caught on to the fact that seabirds meant land in the offing, and they also noticed that clouds over low-lying islands were visible long before the island came into view. But only the Polynesians recognized that major ocean swells become refracted (bent) as they pass around islands and in so doing generate detectable cross seas downswell (i.e. downwind) of the island. By devoting all of his attention to observing wave types and directions, an experienced Polynesian navigator could detect these swell patterns and note when they changed to become cross seas. This told him that if he now turned upswell he would find the island that was producing them. Such cues are at least as subtle as those employed for tracking game by the world's master trackers-the Khoi San peoples of the Kalahari desert of Botswana-people whose ability to read subtle clues make them the terrestrial counterparts of Polynesia's master navigators.
A while ago, I wrote about the open boat voyages of the survivors of the whaleship Essex which covered a distance of 4,500 miles-a feat often described as the most extraordinary open boat voyages in the history of seafaring. But such claims are made from within the confines of our European heritage. There were almost certainly many many open boat voyages by Polynesian and Micronesian peoples in outrigger canoes and catamarans that covered equal or greater stretches of the vast Pacific Ocean, and which were made with no instruments, and probably entailed far less suffering.
It is true that our present day society has accomplished remarkable things, but we often forget that the other cultures contain peoples who learned to do many things better than we did.
© 2000 - Roger Payne