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Hawaii Navigation By The Stars

Updated on July 5, 2016

The stars played an important role in ancient ocean navigation. Stargazing is almost becoming a lost art in the Pacific.Fortunately the non-profit organization, the Hawaiian Astronomical Society, The Polynesian Voyaging Society, as well as other individuals are inspiring many locals to study the stars again.

Nainoa Thompson and crew
Nainoa Thompson and crew

When I lived in Tonga, we traveled on little boats between the islands. Often there were no life jackets or emergency equipment of any kind. I feel fortunate to have lived through those experiences.

I was often amazed how the navigators of the little boats had a sense of where they were from the feel of the waves or swells on their hands, the wind, as well as from the stars at night.

I have been on some big ships that have many sophisticated instruments to keep them on course. This is a far cry from the non-instrument navigators I experienced in the little islands. These navigators have become finely attuned to nature. Even the color of ocean and the shapes of clouds have meaning to one who has observed them for many years.

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 gives. With this knowledge, Nainoa was able to make an historic voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back again without the use of modern-day navigational tools.

What about you? Say you were in a boat on an ocean spanning ten million square miles. Without even a compass, charts or other tools, you must navigate your way safely to a tiny island some 2500 miles away. Would you survive?

Nainoa spent hundreds of hours studying the stars and the sky in a planetarium at Hawaii's Bishop Museum. I have recently been there, and it is very impressive.

A Star Compass

The main star, the one that does not move, is called Polaris. This beacon light has directed many mariners to safety over the ages. By learning where the other stars rise and set in relation to Polaris, the navigator can steer his boat with confidence. The celestial bodies in the heavens provide direction no matter where you are. This also includes the sun, the moon and the stars.

Pointer Stars

There are also pairs of stars in the heavens that cross the meridian at the same time - these are called pointers since they always point to either the north or the south poles when they arc across the sky. Most of us are familiar with the Big Dipper, but there are several others that can point the way.

Signs of land approaching are to be found in the amount of floatsam, birds and the presence and colors of clouds.

Nainoa combines his western knowledge with those passed down from Polynesian ancestors. His understanding of longitude and latitude, which they did not have in ancient days, together with his observations of nature result in a hybrid system of navigation.

Currently there are plans for the Hokulea to circle the globe in a worldwide voyage. The currently captain of the vessel is Chad Baybayan. He is excited to use traditional navigational techniques to train his crew members for what will surely be an epic journey.

Studying the stars is something that can be done by anyone. You can sit on your lawn with your family and neighbors and familiarize yourself with the stars. If you are in Hawaii, you will definitely want to pay a visit to the Bishop's Museum.

Bishop's Museum

A marker1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu, HI -
1525 Bernice St, Honolulu, HI 96817, USA
get directions

Planetarium and Historical Museum (808)847-3511


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  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 5 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    Thank you for stopping by I have a lot of admiration for those who were brave enough to take on the Pacific Ocean without all the technology we have today.

  • profile image 5 years ago from upstate, NY

    Its amazing what poeple can do if they have to. I think the voyages of the ancient polynesians were the greatest in history. The voyage between french polynesia and hawaii is epic, they had to travel about 2500 miles with the hope of restocking on tiny islands, hoping thier boats would withstand the beating of the high seas and hoping not to die of thirst or starvation.

  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    Thank you so much PWalker281 for your comments. I agree that they were amazing - these Polynesian mariners.

  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    That is terrific DavePrice. You seem like a handy person to travel with. I am sure your children will benefit from your shared knowledge.

  • DavePrice profile image

    DavePrice 7 years ago from Sugar Grove, Ill

    My grandfather taught me navigation by the stars when I was a teenager. While I couldn't navigate the ocean, I have navigated through the terrain across the US, from the swamps of Georgia and Florida to the Colorado mountains. When the Marine Corps sent me to Japan I was lost, because the night sky is different. It is a lost art, but I have taught my children as they have grown and all are quite good at finding their way. Thanks for a wonderful hub.

  • profile image

    PWalker281 7 years ago

    Excellent hub, Elayne! Informative and insightful. It's amazing what these ancient mariners were able to accomplish.

  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    I am glad you enjoyed it Hello, hello, Thanks so much for your comments. Our universe is so immense and there is so much to learn.

  • Hello, hello, profile image

    Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

    This was such a fascinating read. Thank you for writing this wonderful hub.

  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    That is great LianaK. You could no doubt navigate through the waters with the knowledge of your ancestors. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Thanks Pamela99. I enjoyed stargazing myself, but still have much to learn.

    Yes, BJBenson, I am scared of the sharks too, but so far, I've been lucky. Here in Hawaii you can even go out and be in a cage on the North Shore so you can get really up close and personal with them. They would have to drag me in fighting and screaming I am afraid. Some people even pay to do it!

  • BJBenson profile image

    BJBenson 7 years ago from USA

    When I go out on the ocean, sharks show up. That is my answer.

    Wonderful hub.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

    I really enjoyed this article. It is amazing to me that people can navigate by the stars as they did centuries ago. It would be interesting to study the stars which is something my grandfather did, but I never have.

  • LianaK profile image

    LianaK 7 years ago

    Fascinating topic Elayne. Loved it. I am a descendant of some Polynesian navigators and would love to learn more. What a wonderful hub!

  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    That is great Mentalist acer - I get lost every time to go to Honolulu! the big city (haha). I think we are pretty spoiled with GPS nowadays, but I don't use it since I am on a little island. Thanks for your comments.

    That is important dtchosen also to know your bearings, especially when fishing. I know some people here in Hawaii who fish in the middle of the nite - pretty scary to me, but they love it. In Hawaii we usually say mauka side for by the mountains and makai side (by the ocean) as reference points. Interesting how we can adjust to different cultures. I am from Utah where it is all by main street, center street and then how many north, south, east or west you go from there. Thanks for commenting.

    Thanks nakmeister - I took astronomy in college and enjoyed it. Hope you get a chance to come to Hawaii soon.

  • nakmeister profile image

    nakmeister 7 years ago from Lancaster, UK

    A really interesting hub, thanks. You've made me want to study the stars now (and go to Hawaii but that may take a bit longer...)

  • dtchosen profile image

    dtchosen 7 years ago from Dumaguete City, Philippines

    From where I come from, we use the mountains as a point of reference since fishermen seldom fish at night. It is a basic skill for us to know how to look at the mountains and know how to swim:). Nice hub.

  • Mentalist acer profile image

    Mentalist acer 7 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

    I would be fairly lost off the shore,but always know my basic directions on land using the sun and landmarks...nice to know some people have respect for tradition,thanks for sharing,elayne.;)

  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    The Royal Navy - wow, must have been quite an experience. I have had my share of boating around little islands without instruments and no life jackets. Some time I was scared for my life, but we never had an accident - thank goodness. Once in a while, the navigator would be testing the waters and in bending over - would fall in, but he would pop right back up and carry on as if nothing happened. Amazing. Glad you enjoyed it diogenese.

  • profile image

    diogenese 7 years ago

    What a great ship and group of people. I am envious of their life. I was several years in the Royal Navy, we navigated with radio aids back then even, and had a sextant for back-up. I don't suppose anyone aboard knew the stars well enough to navigate. Of course, it's all satellite navigation these days and you can get a "fix" within a yard of your position. Nice article...Bob