I have been on some passenger and cargo ships that have many sophisticated instruments to keep them on course. I became aware of the huge contrast to the non-instrument navigators of ancient Hawaii. These helmsmen learned to be finely attuned to nature. Even the color of ocean and the shapes of clouds have meaning to seafarers who have observed them for many years.
I admire how the navigators of these antiquated boats and rafts acquired an innate sense of where they were from the feel of the waves or swells on their hands, the direction of the wind, as well their position in relationship to the stars in the sky. This awareness was passed from generation to generation to an elect few.
Stargazing has almost become a lost art in Hawaii. Fortunately, certain individuals are inspiring many of the younger generation to study the stars again. There are also non-profit organizations, like the Hawaiian Astronomical Society, and The Polynesian Voyaging Society, as well as others. The celestial bodies played an integral role in ancient ocean navigation and these mysteries are being kept alive.
I live near the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore of Oahu. One of the newest displays there is a locally carved double-hulled canoe called the Iosepa. It is seaworthy and is taken out by experts who train students from the Brigham Young University – Hawaii in the art of navigation through the Pacific Island Studies Program.
In the 1970s, The Polynesian Voyaging Society constructed a double hull canoe and named it the Hokulea. As a young man, Nainoa Thompson was taught traditional navigation by Mau Piailug, a Micronesian master. He became well acquainted with the stars and the other natural signs nature manifests. Nainoa also spent hundreds of hours studying the stars and the sky in a planetarium at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum. I have recently been to this museum, and it is very impressive. With all of this expertise acquired from the ancients, Nainoa was able to make a historic voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back again without the use of modern-day navigational tools.
There is one main star the navigators look to, the one that does not move. It is called Polaris, and this beacon light has directed many mariners to safety over the ages. By learning where the other celestial bodies rise and set in relationship to Polaris, the navigator can steer his boat with confidence. The constellations in the heavens provide direction no matter where you are. This also includes the sun, the moon and the stars.
Most of us are familiar with the Big Dipper, but there are several others that can also point the way. There are also pairs of stars in the heavens that cross the meridian at the same time. These are called pointers because they always point to either the North or the South poles as they arc across the sky. Signs of land approaching can be found in the amount of ocean froth, presence and number of birds, and the appearance and colors of clouds.
While living in Tonga, before moving to Hawaii, I experienced traveling in a tiny wooden boat as a navigator was attempting to get us out into the open ocean without hitting the reef. None of us wore life jackets, and the navigator stood on the front of the boat so he could see better. All of a sudden he disappeared into the ocean, having lost his balance. I thought we were all doomed, until he reappeared and continued his navigation as though nothing had happened. I owe my life to several Polynesian ocean guides and have a deep respect for them.