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Hawaii News

Art and science guide the way

It’s one thing to build a replica of a voyaging canoe that the ancient Polynesians used to sail across the South Pacific. It’s another to actually sail it like they did, using only the wind, waves and stars for navigation.

But how was it possible when the ancient art of wayfinding was practically extinct?

This was the daunting task facing those who plotted the resurrection of traditional ocean voyaging in Hawaii 40 years ago and constructed the double-hulled canoe Hoku­le‘a.

Noninstrument Navigation

To guide them across the vast Pacific, ancient navigators created mental compasses that helped orient their ship to the rising and setting points of the stars. From this, Hawaii’s premier navigator, Nai­noa Thompson, with the help of master navigator Pius “Mau” Piai­lug, developed the Hawaiian Star Compass. It features 32 equidistant points around the horizon, with each point 11.25 degrees from the next point (11.25 degrees x 32 points = 360 degrees). It, along with other navigational elements like the sun, ocean swells, clouds and birds, will be used during the journey.

The stars
Stars rise and set in particular directions on the horizon. For example, a star that rises on the northeastern horizon, travels across the sky and sets on the northwestern horizon. Thus, the rising and setting points of stars are clues to direction. Recognizing a star as it rises or sets and knowing in what direction it rises and sets gives the navigators a directional point from which they can orient the canoe and head in the direction they want to go.

The canoe as a compass
(1) The handrails on the Hoku­le‘a have eight vertical grooves carved into the wood, filled with bright red epoxy resin. These grooves are compass points, providing the navigator with references to use when viewing the stars in the night sky near the horizon.
(2) Using Sirius as an example, the navigator stands at a preselected point at the right side of the back of the boat. Assuming the navigator wants to head in a certain direction (in this case south) the navigator knows to keep the canoe in line with Sirius and one of the grooves.

As it turns out, Polynesian Voyaging Society pioneer Nai­noa Thompson tackled the subject through modern math and science and then, after a long search, discovered master navigator Pius “Mau” Piai­lug on the far-flung island of Sata­wal in Micronesia. He was one of the few wayfinding navigators still practicing in the Pacific, and he agreed to mentor Thompson.

The rest is history: Thompson became the first Hawaiian and Polynesian since the 14th century to practice the art of wayfinding on long-distance ocean voyages. In 1976 the Hoku­le‘a was successfully navigated across 2,500 miles on its first voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. Hoku­le‘a’s voyages would help to inspire a cultural revival.

Today in Hawaii there are five master navigators — known as pwo navigators — and a couple of dozen apprentice navigators who are keeping the tradition alive.

Kalepa Baybayan, one of the pwo navigators, having learned from both Piai­lug and Thompson, describes the Hawaiian wayfinding as a hybrid form of the ancient art, involving both academic and traditional navigation techniques.

“I’m not very academic,” he said, “but I understand the principles of navigation and the science of it, so I kind of walk between both worlds.”

Thompson, with Piai­lug’s help, developed the star compass, which has been described as the basic mental construct for navigation. The compass shows Hawaiian names for the houses of the stars — the place where they come out of the ocean and go back into the ocean.

If one can identify the stars and know where they rise and set, direction can be found. The compass also helps navigators read the flight path of birds and the direction of waves.

But what happens on a cloudy black night?

“You pray,” laughs Ka‘iu­lani Murphy, a veteran apprentice navigator who teaches Hawaiian studies and voyaging at Hono­lulu Community College.

“The night is the most challenging time to navigate,” Murphy said. “If you’re lucky, you will get stars popping out here and there. But you really have to be in tune with your senses in having to read the ocean. During the day you have to rely on reading the direction the swells are coming from, how they are passing through the canoe. Sometimes that’s all you have to keep yourself on course.

“When the sun rises, you are reading a lot of things: What’s happening with the clouds and the colors. What the ocean and the wind is doing. You have to sense shifts in the wind. The stars are the easiest part of navigating.”

Baybayan, the navigator in residence at ‘Imi­loa Astronomy Center in Hilo, said there’s a trait important to being a navigator that doesn’t have anything to do with the sun, moon and the stars.

“You have to be the most positive, the most can-do type personality on board the canoe,” he said. “Even if the outcome of the voyage is in doubt, you have to constantly reassure the crew. The crew has confidence because you have confidence.”

Baybayan and Murphy are key members of the crew preparing to sail around the world. They agree that the wayfinding tradition must never be lost to Hawaii again.

“Papa Mau Piailug,” Murphy said, “broke rules back home to teach this navigation outside of Sata­wal, outside of Micronesia — and his people were not thrilled that he shared this knowledge with people here in Hawaii. But he saw that we had lost this knowledge and was interested in having us get it back.

“For those of us who had the privilege to learn from Mau or his students, it is a kule­ana to continue to share that so it never does go to sleep again.”


Twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, the sun gives a directional point to the traveler, rising in the east and setting in the west.

Swells are waves that have traveled past wind systems that created them. The navigator can orient the canoe by using the direction of the swells as a guide.

The shape, height and color of clouds foretell the weather, and they also accumulate over land. Also, the presence of seabirds indicates land is near.

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