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Non-Instrument Navigation | Modern Wayfinding | Nainoa on Wayfinding

SpaceAn Ancient Wayfinder
An ancient wayfinder. (Courtesy of Herb Kane.)

By Nainoa Thompson

The star compass is the basic mental construct for navigation. We have Hawai'ian names for the houses of the stars -- the place where they come out of the ocean and go back into the ocean. If you can identify the stars, and if you have memorized where they come up and go down, you can find your direction. The star path also reads the flight path of birds and the direction of waves. It does everything. It is a mental construct to help you memorize what you need to know to navigate.

You cannot look up at the stars and tell where you are. You only know where you are (in this kind of navigation) by memorizing where you sailed from. That means constant observation. You have to constantly remember your speed, your direction and time. You don't have a speedometer. You don't have a compass. You don't have a watch. It all has to be done in your head. It is easy -- in principle -- but it's hard to do.

The memorization process is very difficult. Consider that you have to remember those three things for a month - every time you change course, every time you slow down. This mental construct of the star compass, with its Hawai'ian names, is from my mentor, Mau Piailug. The genius of this construct is how they figured out to get in all this mental information and to compact it, and to come up with decisions based on it.

Tahiti is smaller than Maui, and it is a hard target to hit from 2,500 miles away. Even hitting a target as big as the Big Island is outside of the probability of our navigation. When we go down to Tahiti, we have this mental image of our course line for the trip. We tend to try to follow it, and if we follow it properly, we will end up in what I call a "box." In this box, there are many islands. In the Tuamotu archipelago, we cannot sail into there and not find an island. This box is four hundred miles wide. The first part of the journey to Tahiti is not trying to get to Tahiti, but to make sure that you hit this box. And then we have to identify the island that we hit, and once we do that, we know the direction to Tahiti. Or we can ask the people. Since these are coral atolls, it is very difficult to tell one from the other, so sometimes we ask the people, and hope they tell us the truth, and then from this shield of islands, Tahiti is only about 170-180 miles away. Then we can hit it -- even though it is just the size of Maui.

Now consider the return trip to Hawai'i back from the Marquesas. You are coming from the southeast to the northwest. The Hawai'ian islands are 315 miles wide, but approaching from the course you take from the Marquesas, you are approaching the islands from the skinny side. The trick that we use is that we sail toward Hawai'i, and use the stars to tell our latitude. We keep sailing upwind, and then we turn straight down west toward the Hawai'ian islands.

Sunrise at sea
At sunrise you start to look at the shape of the ocean. (Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.)


How do we tell direction? We use the best clues that we have. We use the sun when it is low down on the horizon. Mau has names for how wide the sun appears, and for the different colors of the sun path on the water. When the sun is low, the path is tight; when the sun is high, it gets wider and wider. When the sun gets too high, you cannot tell where it has risen. You have to use other clues.

Sunrise is the most important part of the day. At sunrise you start to look at the shape of the ocean -- the character of the sea. You memorize where the wind is coming from. The wind generates the waves. You analyze the character of the waves. When the sun gets too high, you steer by the waves. And then at sunset we repeat the pattern. The sun goes down; you look at the shape of the waves. Did the wind change? Did the swell pattern change? At night we use the stars. We use about 220 by name -- where they come up, where they go down. When I came back from my first voyage as a student navigator from Tahiti to Hawai'i, the night before he went home, Mau took me into his bedroom and said, "I am very proud of my student. You have done well for yourself and your people." He was very happy when he was going home. He said, "Everything you need to see is in the ocean, but it will take you 20 more years to see it." That was after I had just sailed 7,000 miles.

When it gets cloudy and you can't use the sun or the stars, all you can do is rely on the ocean waves. That's why Mau said to me, "If you can read the ocean you will never be lost." One of the problems is that when the sky gets black at night under heavy clouds, you cannot see the waves. You cannot even see the bow of the canoe. And that is where people like Mau are so skilled. He can be inside the hull of the canoe and just feel the different wave patterns as they come to the canoe, and he can tell the canoe's direction lying down inside the hull of the canoe. I can't do that. I think that's what he learned when he was a child with his grandfather.

The Southern Cross is really important to us. It looks like a kite. These two stars in the Southern Cross always point south (Gacrux on top and Acrux on the bottom). If you are traveling in a canoe and going south, these southern stars are going to appear to be rising higher and higher in the sky. If you went down to the South Pole, these stars are going to be way overhead. What happens if you are in Nuku Hiva, nine degrees south latitude, and you are going to go to Hawai'i? If you are going north to Hawai, the Southern Cross gets lower and lower. If you are in the latitude of Hawai'i, the distance from this star (Gacrux) to that bottom star (Acrux) is the same distance from that bottom star to the horizon. That only occurs in the latitude of Hawai'i. lf you are in Nuku Hiva and looking at the Southern Cross, the distance between the bottom star in the Southern Cross and the horizon is about nine times the distance between the two stars.

SpaceA low-lying atoll
A low-lying atoll can be difficult to spot from the sea. (Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.)

Finding atolls that are very low is extremely difficult, but there are a lot of clues in the ocean to the presence of land. The wave patterns change when an island is near. The behavior of animals in the sea, such as dolphins, will change. Mau can read this. The main guides are sea birds. There are two general types of seabirds that Mau taught us about. The birds we use are the manu o ku (white tern) and noio (brown tern) with a long sharp black beak. These are birds that sleep on their island homes at night. At dawn they go out to sea, and come back at evening to sleep. They go about 130 miles out in the morning and come back at night. The Tuamotus are just filled with them. When we sail about 29 days down from Hawai'i and we see these birds for the first time, we know the islands are close even though we can't see them. This bird, when it is fishing, its wings flutter but when the sun goes down, it will rise up from the water so it can see, and it will go straight back to land. When we see these birds in the day, we keep track of them and wait for the sun to get low, and we watch the bird. The flight path of the bird is the bearing of the island. Then we turn on that bearing, sail as fast as we can, and at sunset we climb the mast to see if we can find the island. And if we can't see it, we heave to until the morning.

On my first voyage in 1980, we saw two birds after the 29th day, and I was extremely relieved. At least we were in the ballpark. I did everything that I was told to do, and the birds did everything I was told they would do. They went up high and they flew away, and we sailed in that direction. At night, we couldn't see the island so we took the sails down and we waited. The next morning, as Mau told us, we looked for the birds to see what direction they were coming from and that would be the direction of the island. In the morning, they go back out to the fishing ground, so the direction they are coming from is the direction to the island.

We had a great crew of 14, and we made a ring around the inside of the canoe before dawn. We waited for the first bird. All hands on deck. Not a single bird. I was in near trauma, my first voyage, early 20s. Mau was very calm and he didn't say anything. We waited and we waited. The canoe was just sitting dead in the water. It was facing south. One of the canoe members was in the back of the canoe and a bird flies right over his head. The night before that we saw the birds flying south, so how come late in the morning, with the sun very high, was this bird coming out of the north? That would suggest that we passed the island. The island was back to the north. In my -- I would say panic -- I thought we had better start sailing back in that direction to find the island before the sun goes down again. I asked the crew to turn the canoe around. The crew was very disciplined. They turned the canoe around -- and you have got to understand that now we are sailing back toward Hawai'i. And Mau, who has always said that his greatest honor would not be as a navigator but as a teacher -- that he would come and make sure that the voyage to Tahiti would be safe but if he didn't have to tell me anything the honor wolud be his. But when I started to sail north he came to me and said, "no." It was the first time that he interrupted the trip. He said, "Turn the canoe around and follow the bird." I was really puzzled. I didn't know why. He didn't tell me why. But we turned the canoe around and now we see other birds flying also. Mau said, "You wait one hour and you will find the island you are looking for."

Mau Piailug, Wayfinder
Mau Piailug, wayfinder.


And about after that amount of time had passed by, Mau, who is about 20 years older than me -- my eyes are physically much more powerful than his -- he gets up on the rail of the canoe and says: "The island is right there." And we all stood up and we climbed the mast and everything and we just couldn't see it. Vision is not so much about what you do -- but how you do it. It's experience. Mau had seen in the beak of the bird a little fish. He knew that the birds were nesting, and they were taking food back before they fed themselves. He just did not tell me that in our training program.

We base our average sail time on average winds and conditions for 24 hours, but it never is. The majority of navigation is observation and adjusting to the natural environment. The more the weather gets up, the more the navigator needs to be awake, the less he can leave the crew on their own. We estimate that our navigators stay up between 21 and 22 hours a day. We sleep in a series of catnaps. Mau says the mind doesn't need much rest. But the physical body does. When the navigator is on the canoe, the crew does the physical work. When you are tired, you close your eyes. He always said that for him maybe his eyes were closed but inside here, inside your heart, you are always awake. And I have seen that. Outside here in Waikiki, training in 1979, when he was confident that I could steer by myself, he said, "Now I am going to go to sleep and you follow this star path." And like an overanxious student I wanted to try some different angles to feel what the wave patterns felt like and I thought that he wouldn't notice because he was sleeping inside the hulls. And the morning dawned, and he came up and said, "O.K., what did you sail last night? What star bearing did you hold?"

He knew that I had changed course. And when I told him, he challenged me to make sure that I knew where we went. He actually knew, lying in the hulls. Somehow, he has that ability.