Story by Judy Edwards | Photography by Douglas Peebles
Thousands of years before Europeans began their first tentative ventures beyond coastal waters, Polynesians were exploring the vast Pacific. They settled the islands of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, and along the way, engineered some of the finest open-ocean sailing vessels ever seen. Aboard double-hulled voyaging canoes, Polynesians arrived in Hawai‘i, becoming farmers and fishers, warriors and kings — a people descended from what current-day navigator and Hawaiian son Nainoa Thompson calls “the astronauts of our ancestors, the greatest explorers on the face of the earth.”
Unlike the single-hulled ships of Europe, the Polynesian double-hulled canoe was light and fast. It ranged in length from 50 to 100 feet, with twin hulls that were each carefully hollowed and shaped from a single log, connected by a deck with one or more masts for the sails. People and provisions could be sheltered in the hulls for long journeys. Food swam all around in the sea. And the weather, if benevolent, added to water stores.
These explorers had no tools for wayfinding but their minds — no sextant or magnetic compass, no GPS. Instead, they watched celestial bodies in the night sky, listened to the winds, felt the swells slap against, and move under, the wooden hulls. The flight of seabirds, behavior of clouds, patterns in the ocean and in the air informed their sense of where land might be. They lived off the ocean the way farmers live off the land, in tune with everything around them, embedded in the pulse of the sea and the sky. A sky that, at night, gave them the star compass.
“The tradition of the oceanic star compass extends from Micronesia to Saudi Arabia, between the same [tropical] latitudes,” says Chad Kalepa Baybayan, navigator in residence at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. “No telling if it’s one system that diffused [throughout the South Pacific] or if everyone figured it out on their own, but the use of the same stars makes me think the former.”
The colonization of the Pacific in the 1700s by Europeans in their single-hulled ships was so swift and total that the art and science of traditional Polynesian migration were obliterated in the Polynesian Triangle — that vast area bounded by Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, Hawai‘i in the north, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the south — in just a few generations. The decline was so dramatic that theorists began to deny that deliberate Pacific navigation by the ancients had ever been possible.
In the 1970s, in response to theories that the Pacific Islands had been settled by accident or a stroke of luck, the Polynesian Voyaging Society of Hawai‘i built a sixty-foot voyaging canoe, a hybrid of natural and modern materials. They named the vessel Hokule‘a (“Star of Gladness,” a reference to Arcturus, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere and the guiding star for Hawaiian navigators). With the help of one of the last traditional Polynesian navigators in the world, a man from Satawal named Mau Piailug, they sailed Hokule‘a to Tahiti and back in triumph in 1976.
Four years later, mentored by Mau, the Society did it again. Chad Baybayan was aboard.
“When I sailed in 1980 it was like stepping back in a time machine,” he recalls. “The black silhouette of a crab-claw sail against the starry backdrop . . . at that moment you are as close to your ancestors as possible — the same stars, same shape of the sails, the rise and fall of the canoe, the wind in your face, the chill of the night air. It is incredibly romantic and dynamic, metaphorical and poetic.
“You always sense that there’s a presence out there with you; at least I do, and I live and I work in the shadow of my ancestors. But I’m not focused on it. I’m very attentive to the situation at hand, and I make decisions based upon my instinct. Experience becomes memory and memory becomes instinct.”
Between 1985 and 1987, the Society sailed Hokule‘a surely and steadily around the islands of the Pacific and back to Hawai‘i, putting to rest finally and forever the idea that the movement of Polynesians around the Pacific was anything less than masterful and deliberate. In so doing, they resurrected a dormant and wounded Hawaiian pride and brought about a cultural renaissance that continues to flower in every corner of the Polynesian Triangle.
“Western mariners use the magnetic compass to set direction,” says Baybayan. “The needle identifies magnetic north. We use the rising and setting of celestial bodies, and then the direction of the waves and the wind to help orient the compass. The winds are changeable, but they shift gradually.” During journeys, he says, “We divide the days into sunrise and sunset. At sunrise we have a navigation meeting, assess our position and compare that to the last twelve hours, and add that to the past days. Throughout the day you’re watching the speed of the canoe, averaging out speed and plotting position. At night you use the stars to reconfirm or update your position.”
At sea, “It’s eating/sleeping/working in four-hour shifts. It can be very romantic at night under the stars,” says Baybayan. “Exhausting, too. In the tropics, you have to keep fighting the squalls; you have to shut down the sails in squall winds, then open them back up and reset them, and then the next squall comes.”
Nainoa Thompson was the first contemporary Hawaiian to master the Polynesian art of navigation, but schooled himself in Western academics before learning from Mau. Only when he was anchored in the hard sciences did Thompson shift his attention to absorbing the more subtle but powerful older ways of navigating.
“Nainoa created his own field in navigation,” says Baybayan. “One of his greatest skills is meteorology. Weather is what drives the canoe.”
Baybayan says this hybrid approach is now the way young navigators train. “It’s still an indigenous art, but there’s a lot of science involved in it now. There’s a constant jumping between the two worlds, the scientific and the cultural.”
Hokule‘a has sailed 135,000 nautical miles since her maiden launch, restitching the fragments of Polynesia. As Thompson notes, “A culture reemerging is not a common story around the world — there are cultures and languages being lost every day across this planet.” In May of 2014, Hokule‘a is scheduled to begin a voyage around the world, sailing 46,000 miles in thirty-six months and visiting twenty-one countries with sixty-five planned landfalls. The message of this voyage? Peace and sustainability — and the hope that ancient wisdom will inspire modern solutions to the challenges of surviving on an increasingly stressed planet.
“If you come from the lens of what the canoe is supposed to do,” says Thompson, “it will do nothing if tied to the dock. We are not going to change the world, but we are going to build a network of people who are gonna change the world — and our job is to make sure they’re successful.”
“In the seventies, there was so much stuff we had to learn,” Baybayan recalls. “We had to learn how to sail, and then learn to navigate. No time to learn protocol. We were just trying to stay afloat. As we got more proficient we got more profound and thought, Who do we serve? Then the question became, What’s the canoe? Well, it’s the Earth, an island floating in a sea of space.
“I hope that the tradition is maintained,” he adds. “It ties us back to this ancient tradition of going to sea. You can do all the coursework for understanding the art of it, you can work it out in the classroom, but the process for learning is out on the ocean. At the end of the learning time, people are changed.”
Polynesian Star Compass
The Polynesian star compass divides the 360-degree horizon into four houses that align with the cardinal directions: hikina (east), komohana (west), akua(north) and hema (south). Each house is further subdivided into eight sections, creating a compass with thirty-two divisions in all. “Houses in the east reflect the houses in the west,” says navigator Chad Baybayan. “The compass also reflects northeast to southwest, northwest to southeast.
“The compass focuses on the rising and setting points of the sun. Everything arrives on one horizon — east — crests overhead, and sets in the west.”
Once the navigator aligns the compass, say, with the setting sun, the stars rise and set in parallel overhead. A star that rises one house to the north of hikina will arc overhead and set one house to the north of komohana. As stars rise throughout the night, they are fixed in relation to one of the compass houses or points, and in this way, the navigator sets a track as accurate as can be.
Baybayan has practiced indigenous navigation for more than thirty years. For him, the star compass is not an external apparatus, but an internalized environment that extends in every direction to the horizon, and up to the zenith, with the canoe — and himself — in the middle.
“Nainoa [Thompson] taught me this metaphor of the bird and the canoe,” says Baybayan. “He cut out a paper canoe and bird and put the bird on the table and spun it around. The bird always has a relation with the edges of the horizon. Birds are never lost at sea; they have an internal compass. If the head of the bird points in one direction, the tail [points to] the opposite. Same with each wing. The bird doesn’t have to see what’s in front of him if he knows what’s behind him. Nainoa put the canoe on the table and said, ‘The canoe and the bird are the same thing.’”