Polynesian Wayfinding

Modern Methods and Techniques of Non‑Instrument Navigation

Before the invention of the compass, sextant and clocks, or more recently, the satellite-dependant Global Positioning System (GPS), Pacific Islanders navigated open-ocean voyages without instruments, using instead their observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location of a vessel at sea.

In the 20th century, this method was still practiced in some areas of Micronesia, although the traditional knowledge and techniques are in danger of being lost because of modernization and Westernization of the island cultures.

A revival of the art and science of wayfinding is underway among the Pacific islands, led by Nainoa Thompson, the first modern-day Polynesian to learn and use wayfinding for long-distance, open-ocean voyaging. Nainoa studied wayfinding under Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the island of Satawal in Micronesia.

He also studied the movement and positioning of celestial bodies with Will Kyselka at the Bishop Museum planetarium in Honolulu, and oceanography and meteorology at the University of Hawai‘i.

Mau navigated the first voyage of the Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti in 1976; Thompson served as wayfinder on voyages of Hōkūle‘a in 1980 and 1985–87. In 1992, he began training new navigators from Hawai‘i and other Pacific islands to perpetuate the tradition.

A voyage undertaken using modern wayfinding has three components:

  1. Designing a course strategy, which includes a reference course for reaching the vicinity of one’s destination, hopefully upwind, so that the canoe can sail downwind to the destination rather than having to tack into the wind to get there. (Tacking involves sailing back and forth as closely as possible into the wind to make progress against the wind; it’s very arduous and time-consuming, something to be avoided if at all possible, particularly at the end of a long, difficult voyage.)
  2. During the voyage, holding as closely as possible to the reference course while keeping track of (1) distance and direction traveled; (2) one’s position north and south and east and west of the reference course and (3) the distance and direction to the destination.
  3. Finding land after entering the vicinity of the destination, called a target screen or “the box.”

The Star Compass

The foundational framework behind the master art of wayfinding, used by our crewmembers and navigators, is the Hawaiian star compass developed by master navigator Nainoa Thompson. The star compass is a mental construct and not physical like a western compass. The visual horizon is divided into 32 houses, a house being a bearing on the horizon where a celestial body resides. Each of the 32 houses is separated by 11.25˚ of arc for a complete circle of 360˚.

The Hawaiian star compass revolves around the rising and setting points of the sun, stars, moon, and planets. You orientate yourself by first locating the arriving horizon, East, the side on the horizon celestial bodies arrive at. Next you identify the entering horizon, West, the side on the horizon celestial bodies enter into. The arriving horizon is called Hikina and the entering horizon is called Komohana, literally “To Arrive” and “To Enter” in Hawaiian. You stand with your back towards Hikina, East, and you face Komohana, West, if you extend your right hand from the side of your body it points to ‘Ākau, which means “Right or North”. If you extend your left hand from the side of your body it points to Hema, which means “Left or South”. These 4 cardinal points break the compass up into 4 quadrants which is named for winds in Hawai‘i, Ko‘olau is theNortheast quadrant and is named for the trade winds, Kona lies in the opposite direction and is the Southwest quadrant, Malanai is the Southeast quadrant, and Ho‘olua the Northwest.

The horizon of the compass is broken up into 32 houses, 4 of which are the cardinal points. Each house on the compass is positioned 11.25˚apart. The names of the houses are the same in the east as they are in the west and vice versa. Starting in the east and moving northwards and southwards we begin with the first house Lā (Sun) which is positioned on either side of Hikina (East) and Komohana (West). It is followed by ‘Āina (Land), Noio (Tern), Manu (Bird), Nālani (Heavens), Nāleo (Voices), and Haka (Empty). The celestial bodies move in parallel paths, rising in the East and moving West across the sky and remaining in the same hemispheres. If a star rises in the star house we call ‘Āina in the northeastern quadrant of Ko‘olau on our compass it will set in the same house, ‘Āina, in the opposite northwestern quadrant of Ho‘olua and within the same hemisphere. If a star arrives in the star house we call Nālani in the southeastern quadrant of Malanai, it will arc overhead and set toward the southwestern horizon in the Kona quadrant and re-enter the horizon in the same star house, Nālani, that it arrived in. All celestial bodies rise and move in parallel tracks as they travel on their daily east to west cycles.

We can also use the wind and ocean swells for telling direction on our star compass. The wind and swells move diagonally across the compass from quadrant to quadrant. If the wind were blowing from the northeast quadrant of Koʻolau and from the compass house Manu, it would blow in the direction of the southwest quadrant Kona and exit the same house, Manu, that it blew from. If an ocean swell was to roll in from the compass house Nāleo in the northwest quadrant of Ho‘olua it would continue in a southeasterly direction and exit the compass in the opposite quadrant, Malanai and in the same house, Nāleo, that it originated from.

This Star Compass system of orientation works particularly well because most of the oceanic islands of the Pacific are located within the tropics. The Tropics is the area on the planet between the margins of 23.5˚ North latitude, and 23.5˚ South latitude. The northern limit of the sun’s path is known as the Tropic of Cancer, and the southern limit of the sun’s path is known as the Tropic of Capricorn. June brings on the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. December marks the arrival of the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere and the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The solstices occur once per year in both hemispheres. When the sun crosses over the equator it is known as the equinox, which occurs two times a year and creates the summer and winter seasons on the planet.