Hawaii Navigation By The Stars
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.
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.
- Welcome to the Bishop Museum
The State Museum of Cultural and Natural History, Honolulu, Hawaii
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.
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.
Planetarium and Historical Museum (808)847-3511