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Nainoa on Wayfinding | Modern Wayfinding | Non-Instrument Navigation

Nainoa Thompson
Nainoa Thompson.

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Nainoa Thompson, the first modern-day Polynesian to learn and use wayfinding for long-distance, open-ocean voyaging, is leading a revival of the art and science of wayfinding. Thompson studied wayfinding under Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the island of Satawal in Micronesia. Mau navigated the first voyage of the Hokule'a to Tahiti in 1976; Thompson was Hokule'a's wayfinder on the 1980 and 1985-87 voyages.

Here, Thompson answers questions about wayfinding in an interview with filmmaker Gail Evenari. To listen to the interview, you'll need to download the RealPlayer.

Q: Why and how did the ancient Polynesians voyage?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) The ancient Polynesians voyaged on the double hull canoes. There were really three elements that -- allowed for -- the ability for the Polynesians to explore. And they needed to explore and they needed to sail in order to survive and spread their culture. The three elements that we're speaking of is one, they had evolve the technology of constructing a craft, a vessel, a double hull canoe that could -- be able to be sea-worthy enough and be able to be able to carry the people, the plants and the animlas to new found land. They had to have, they needed to be able to develop the skills of a sailor's to be able to -- to sail these canoes. And also they needed to have to develop a system of navigation that -- would able to guide the canoes to new found land and then back to their original home.

Q: Why was the canoe so important to Polynesian culture? Why is it still important?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) The canoe is really the central element to their survival. To the Polynesian's survival. They're an ocean people. Without the canoe they could not expand. And that's why in some respects, Hawaiians today owe their existence to the voyaging canoe.

Q: How is canoe sea-faring relevant today?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) People should care about the past. The Hawai'ians should care about the past. Because it tells the story of their ancestors. The accomplishments of the Hawai'ians and the Polynesians are tremendous. [Especially in light of] the time that they sailed and the minimal resource that they had to build their crafts. And the fact [is] that when you look at the great accomplishments of the Hawai'ians, there is a lot to be proud of. And that when we honor our ancestors, [and] also other descendants, it gives us a place, a place to belong.

Q: Why have you and others dedicated yourself to wayfinding?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Today we're voyaging to learn more about our past. We're trying to recapture what has been lost in our history in the last couple hundred years. It is the hope that in better understanding our past, we're going to better understand who we are. When we understand who we are, it's going to give us a much better sense of belonging in the land that we call Hawai'i.

Q: Tell me a little about the Polynesian people and their history. They were a pretty unique people, weren't they?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Yes, Polynesians are a unique people. They are an ocean people. They live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, mostly on small islands. For the culture to expand itself and really to survive, they had to sail. They had to explore the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Their explorations were amazing because in the time in their history, so far back in time, they were able to colonize almost every island in the central Pacific. And that -- that whole area -- is really the largest nation on Earth, geographically. It's more than six million square miles.

Q: What has it been like to sail on the replica Polynesian canoe, Hokule'a? How do you feel about the canoe?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Hokule'a is like, is kind of like a window. A window that you can look through to see our past. It's almost as if sailing on Hokule'a, you could slice through layers of time and look back at who your ancestors were. Hokule'a provided a tremendous amount of inspiration for not just Hawai'ians, but for all the people we met in the south Pacific. It's a tremendous symbol that we all can honor and find pride in. Because we're able to see how much our ancestors were able to do in working with so little.

Q: What exactly is wayfinding? How does it work?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) The traditional way of navigating used all the natural science to guide the canoe. And that would be in the heavens, the stars and the moon at night, the sun and the moon during the day, as well as the ocean waves. The system incorporated reading the signs of the clouds and also the animals, especially the seabirds to determine where land is. It was an ingenious system that required tremendous observation of the elements of nature to make successful landfall.

Q: Why did you want to learn how to navigate?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Initially, I just wanted to learn navigation because it just fascinated me. I didn't in the begininning, I would say. Up until truly from about 1974, when I was introduced to the ideas of navigation, to 1978, I didn't even consider ever being a navigator. So learning navigation was -- to me it was limited. I just wanted to go learn as much as I could, and I always thought, "There's a limit to this," and I never believed that I could ever navigate. I never considered that. I just wanted to learn, because, I wanted to learn the things about, mostly, the environmental stuff. Reading the stars and reading the ocean, and just being a part of something, that was so tremendously exciting and adventurous. And the pure challenge to be able to go sail with Mau from Tahiti to Hawaii, because that's the crew that I was on. He was going to navigate -- and just to be able to be with him. And that reverence for him had a limiting factor where we, in the crew, thought that it was almost absurd to think that we could ever become navigators. We weren't really directly trying to train for that. We were just -- I just wanted to learn as much as I could about the subject.

Q: You didn't begin your training trying to be a navigator?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) I wasn't trying to become a navigator, initially. It was more like trying to answer questions about, "How did they do it?" And the more that I got into it and tried to address elementary questions, the more questions arose. So that the whole pursuit of learning became greater and more immense, and yet a lot more exciting and a lot more meaningful and powerful, because beginning to almost open up new doors to be able to begin to see how huge an accomplishment it was, what these ancestral people could do.

Q: What was it like when you really grasped wayfinding? Can you describe one of your more memorable experiences?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Probably the most powerful experience I had on Hokule'a -- maybe, the most powerful one. Hard to say, hard to measure. But one of them, definitely one of the most memorable ones, was on my first trip.

I just dreaded the doldrums, because I had no confidence that I could get through it. I was very -- I forced myself, I limited myself to thinking that I could only really accurately navigate with visual celestial clues. And getting into the doldrums, where there's 100 percent cloud cover all of a sudden -- to me, I would be blind. And that's what happened. We got in the doldrums, and it was just a mess. It was 100 percent cloud cover, the wind was switching around, it was about 25 knots, and we're going fast, and that's the worst thing you want to do -- go anywhere and not know where you're going. And I was just fighting it to search in this kind of black. It was nighttime, and it was black -- the sky, everything was black -- and I couldn't find anything with my eyes. It was like I just got so exhausted that I just backed up against the rail and - and it, it was almost as if -- and this, I don't know if this is completely true, but there was something, a mechanism, that allowed me to understand where the direction was, without seeing it.

And it was almost like, when I just gave up fighting to try to find something with my eyes, I just settled down, and then all of a sudden, it was like this warmth came over me. It was just solid rain, and the guys steering the canoe , they were looking for direction. That put more pressure, because that was my first [voyage]. And all of a sudden, when sat back -- I leaned against the rail -- I felt this warmth come over me, and all of a sudden, I knew where the moon was. But you couldn't see the moon, it was so black. And then I directed the canoe with all this total confidence at a time when I had already convinced myself prior to the voyage that I would have no confidence in knowing where to go. And I turned the canoe to this particular direction, got things lined up, felt very, very comfortable in this cold, wet, rough environment, and then there was a break in the clouds and the moon was there. And I don't know how this -- from a scientific, you know, trained that way, just doesn't make -- it's unexplainable, but the experience existed.

And those are the things that I chase now. It's not like I can do that any old time, it's more like special experiences and my being has to be in the right frame of mind and beyond that. Internally I have to be at a certain state to be able to get into this kind of special realm. And so those experiences, I just can't conjure them up consciously. But they do come, and they're coming more and more often now. And it has a lot to do with this kind of internal relaxation. I don't know what it is. It just happens. And to tell you the truth, I don't want to analyse it too much. I just want to keep making it happen more often, and let myself naturally obtain it. Not try to analytically figure it out, because you know, I don't think there's an answer for it, throughout my kind of analytical thinking.