a Way: 1974-1980
the last 25 years, Nainoa Thompson, navigator for the Polynesian
Voyaging Society, has inspired and led a revival of traditional voyaging
arts in Hawai'i and Polynesia-arts which have been lost for centuries
due to the cessation of such voyaging and the colonization and
Westernization of Polynesia. In 1980, Thompson became the first Hawaiian
to practice the art of wayfinding on long distance ocean voyages since
voyaging ended between Hawai'i and Tahiti around the 14th century.
Thompson has developed a system of wayfinding, or non-instrument
navigation, synthesizing traditional principles of ancient Pacific
navigation and modern scientific knowledge. This system of wayfinding is
being taught in schools and practiced throughout Hawai'i and the
Pacific. In addition to being a navigator, Thompson is a leader with a
vision, and a charismatic, spell-binding storyteller. The following
narrative has been compiled from Thompson's interviews, talks, and
a Crew Member for the First Voyage of Hokule'a
was the first year I was paddling for the Hui Nalu Canoe Club, and I
happened to be in the right place at the right time. Herb Kane
was living across the canal from the club at Maunalua Bay. It was 1974,
and Herb, Tommy Holmes, and Ben Finney were designing Hokule'a.
The canoe hadn't been built yet, but they had a smaller canoe then, and
they'd ask us to paddle it out of the canal over the reef into the open
ocean. That was great! I was at the club every day so I could take the
one day, Herb invited two of the paddling coaches and me over to his
house. Herb's house was filled with paintings and pictures of canoes,
nautical charts, star charts, and books everywhere! Over dinner Herb
told us how he, Ben and Tommy were going to build a canoe and sail it
2,500 miles without instruments-the old way. "We're going to follow
the stars, and the canoe is going to be named after that star,"
Herb said, pointing to Hokule'a. This voyage would help to
show that the Polynesians came here to Hawai'i by sailing and navigating
their canoes-not just drifting by accident here on ocean currents or
driven off course by storms. The voyage would demonstrate something very
important for the Hawaiian people and for the rest of the world.2
that moment, all the parts of my life that had seemed disconnected came
together in me. I was 20 and looking for something challenging and
meaningful to do with my life. I had a hard time finding that inside the
four walls of a classroom. But now here it was-the history, the
heritage, the charts, the stars, the ocean, and the dream ... there was
so much relevance in that dream. I wanted to follow Herb; I wanted to be
a part of that dream.
told us what the requirements would be to become a crew member on the
first voyage. We would have to go through a training program to learn
about the canoe and how to sail her; there would also be physical
training and training in teamwork. The best thirty would be selected
from the several hundred candidates in the program.
Hokule'a was completed in the spring of 1975, I
participated in the training and was assigned to the return crew. My
dream was coming true.
First Voyage to Tahiti: 1976
in the early seventies, before Hokule'a was even built,
when the Polynesian Voyaging Society was putting the dream together, the
organizers said, "We need to get a Polynesian navigator, someone
who could sail to Tahiti in the way the ancient Hawaiians had, without
modern instruments." There was no one in Hawai'i. The only
Polynesian navigator that was known to be left on earth was a man named
Tevake. He came from the Santa Cruz Islands, Polynesian outliers in
Melanesia. A group from Hawai'i went down to his island to talk to him
to see if he would agree to navigate a canoe that wasn't even built yet.
They explained the project and all Tevake said was "We'll
see." He gave no commitment. The group went back to Hawai'i and six
months later the group received a letter from Tevake's daughter.
Apparently Tevake had a canoe house where he kept an old canoe that he
never used. But one day he got up, said good-bye to his family, got in
the canoe, went to sea, and never came back. That's the way Tevake
was-he followed the old way. He chose his life in the ocean and he also
chose his death there.
the Polynesian Voyaging Society eventually did find a traditional
navigator to guide Hokule'a-Mau Piailug from the island of
Satawal in Micronesia. To provide for his people, Mau still sailed
canoes for long distances across the Pacific, guiding them only by the
stars and his knowledge of the ocean. Mau was willing to come.
1976, Hokule'a sailed on its historic voyage to Tahiti.
Kawika Kapahulehua skippered the canoe, and Mau Piailug was the
navigator. Never before had Mau been on such a long journey, never
before had he been south of the equator where he could not see the North
Star, a key guide for his travels. Nevertheless, sensing his way over
2,500 miles, using clues from the ocean world and the heavens, clues
often unnoticed to the untrained eye, he found, after 30 days of
sailing, the island of Mataiva, an atoll in the Tuamotu island group.3
the arrival into Pape'ete Harbor, over half the island was there, more
than 17,000 people. The canoe came in and touched the beach. There was
an immediate response of excitement by everybody, including the
children. So many children got onto the canoe they sank the stern. We
were politely trying to get them off the rigging and everywhere else,
just for the safety of the canoe.
of us were prepared for that kind of cultural response-something very
important was happening. These people have long traditions and
genealogies of great navigators and canoes. What they didn't have was a
canoe. And when Hokule'a arrived at the beach, there was a
spontaneous renewal, both an affirmation of our great heritage, and also
a renewal of the spirit of who we are as a people today.
did not sail back to Hawai'i with Hokule'a. There had been
dissension on the canoe offshore of Tahiti.4
Because of this dissension, Mau did not want to continue sailing and
instead returned home to Satawal. Hokule'a was navigated
back to Hawai'i with a compass and sextant. But back in Hawai'i, a group
of Hawaiians, Nainoa among them, dreamed of voyaging to Tahiti again.
Nainoa tried to teach himself traditional navigation by reading books,
taking courses at the University of Hawai'i, and observing the night sky
from land and at sea. But on one of the training sails on Hokule'a,
he was puzzled by a moon rise and sought out a teacher who could answer
moon rose in a place I didn't expect. I expected the full moon to rise
in the same place the sun had risen in the morning, but it came up
somewhat to the south. Why? I thought I had understood the relationships
between the path of the sun and the moon fully. This just didn't make
I got back home, I grabbed my astronomy books, but I couldn't find an
answer in them-and I had no teacher. I thought someone at the
planetarium at the Bishop Museum might have an answer to this riddle, so
I called. The person who answered said, "Sorry, we don't have time
to help you. Try Will Kyselka." So at 6 a.m., I called Will and
said, "I've got this problem with the moon!" He agreed to meet
me. In the planetarium, he could move the stars anywhere, anytime in the
world. He seemed to be able to answer all of my questions.
that first all-day session, I still wanted to learn so much from Will,
but I didn't think it proper to ask him. I thought that would be an
imposition, that he was very busy. But Will must have sensed my wish
because he finally said, "Why don't you come back again?" I
had found someone who cared, who was willing to give up time to help
another person learn.
spent hundreds of hours together at the planetarium. I would figure out
at home what I didn't know and then come to Will at the planetarium with
my questions. And together we would look at the different skies to find
answers. Will was teaching me the fundamentals of the skies and how they
can be reduced to geometry, math, and science.
Will was not just someone who fed me information. When I considered the
dangers involved in sailing to Tahiti without modern instruments, I
often thought it would be impossible. Will's calming, committed
friendship helped me get through those difficult times. He wasn't just
an astronomer teaching me about the stars. His lessons were about
Swamping of Hokule'a-1978
second voyage to Tahiti was planned for 1978. On this voyage Nainoa was
to navigate without instruments while Norman Pi'ianai'a would check
Nainoa's accuracy with instruments and give him fixes only if Nainoa was
dangerously off course. Dave Lyman served as captain. Hokule'a
left Honolulu Harbor at 6:30 p.m. on March 16. A few hours later, after
taking on water, the heavily-loaded canoe capsized in gale force winds
and 8-10 foot swells in the Moloka'i Channel. There was no escort boat
to radio for help. The crew spent the night holding onto the leeward
hull of the overturned canoe, hoping that a passing plane or ship would
spot them. By mid-morning no one had come to the rescue. Fearing that
the canoe would drift away from the islands and that crew members were
physically tiring, the leadership allowed Eddie 'Aikau, an experienced
lifeguard and big wave surfer, to leave on a surfboard to get help. 'Aikau
left at 10:40 a.m. At 9 that night, a Hawaiian Airlines pilot spotted
flares from the Hokule'a; the Coast Guard was alerted and
rescued the crew from the canoe; 'Aikau was never seen again.]
was totally intense and strong, but he was also a very caring man. He
loved his culture. He loved the canoes. He was a total Hawaiian. He
stood out. I will always remember a crew meeting, before the trip, at
the Honolulu Medical Group down on Lauhala Street. Eddie brought a
guitar and he was playing music. We were talking in the back, just the
two of us, and he told me that what he wanted most in the world was to
see Hawaiki [the legendary homeland] rise up out of the ocean.
Eddie's death, we could have quit. But Eddie had this dream about
finding islands the way our ancestors did and if we quit, he wouldn't
have his dream fulfilled. Whenever I feel down, I look at the photo of
Eddie I have in my living room and I recall his dream. He was a
lifeguard ... he guarded life, and he lost his own, trying to guard
ours. Eddie cared about others and took care of others. He had great
passions. He was my spirit.
was saying to me, "Raise Hawaiki from the sea." But his
tragedy also made us aware of how dangerous our adventure was, how
unprepared we were in body, mind, and spirit.
Master Navigator, Master Teacher
realized we did not know enough. We needed a teacher. Mau became
essential. Mau is one of the few traditional master navigators of the
Pacific left. And Mau was the only one who was willing and able to reach
beyond his culture to ours.
searched for Mau Piailug. Finally, I found him and flew to meet him. Mau
is a man of few words, and all he said in answer to my plea for help
was, "We will see. I will let you know." For several months I
heard nothing. Then one day I got a phone call; Mau was going to be in
Honolulu with his son the next day. When Mau arrived here back in 1979,
he said, "I will train you to find Tahiti because I don't want you
to die." He had heard somehow that Eddie had been lost at sea.
asked him to teach me in the traditional ways. But Mau knew better. He
said, "You take paper and pencil! You write down! I teach you
little bit at a time. I tell you once, and you don't forget." He
recognized that I could not learn the way he had learned.
Piailug is from the island of Satawal. It's a mile and a half long and a
mile wide. Population 600. Navigation's not about cultural revival, it's
about survival. Not enough food can be produced on a small island like
that. Their navigators have to go out to sea to catch fish so they can
eat. Mau was not like me, who learned by using both science and
tradition. I started at an old age, at about 21. He started at one. He
was picked by his grandfather, the master navigator for his people,
taken to the tide pools at different parts of the island to sit in the
water and sense the subtle changes in the water's movements. To feel the
wind. To connect himself to that ocean world at a young age. His
grandfather took him out to sail with him at age four. Mau told me that
he would get seasick and when he was seven years old, his grandfather
would tie his hands and drag him behind the canoe to get rid of that.
This was not abuse. This was to get him ready for the task of serving
his community as a navigator.
learned to turn the clues from the heavens and the ocean into knowledge
by growing up at the side of his grandfather-he had been an apprentice
in the traditional way. He had learned to remember many things through
chants and would still chant to himself to "revisit
greatness as a teacher was to recognize that I had to learn differently.
I was an adult; I needed to experiment, and Mau let me. He never impeded
my experimenting and sometimes even joined in.
never knew when a lesson started. Mau would suddenly sit down on the
ground and teach me something about the stars. He'd draw a circle in the
sand for the heavens; stones or shells would be the stars; coconut
fronds were shaped into the form of a canoe; and single fronds
represented the swells. He used string to trace the paths of the stars
across the heaven or to connect important points.
best was going out on my fishing boat with Mau ... every day! I watched
what he watched, listened to what he listened to, felt what he felt. The
hardest for me was to learn to read the ocean swells the way he can. Mau
is able to tell so much from the swells-the direction we are traveling,
the approach of an island. But this knowledge is hard to transmit. We
don't sense things in exactly the same way as the next person does. To
help me become sensitive to the movements of the ocean, Mau would steer
different courses into the waves, and I would try to get the feel and
remember the feel.
can unlock the signs of the ocean world and can feel his way through the
ocean. Mau is so powerful. The first time Mau was in Hawai'i, I was in
awe of him-I would just watch him and didn't dare to ask him questions.
One night, when we were in Snug Harbor, someone asked him where the
Southern Cross was. Mau, without turning around or moving his head,
pointed in the direction of a brightly lit street lamp. I was curious
and checked it. I ran around the street light and there, just where Mau
had pointed, was the Southern Cross. It's like magic; Mau knows where
something is without seeing it.
spent two Hawaiian winters with Mau. In the summer, ninety-five percent
of the wind is trades, so it's easy to predict the weather. Tomorrow is
going to be like today. But in wintertime you have many wind shifts.
When I had spent enough time with him, I realized that he was not
looking at a still picture of the sky. If you took a snapshot of the
clouds and asked him, "Mau, tell me what the weather is going to
be," he could not give you an answer. But if you gave him a
sequence of pictures on different days, he would tell you.
said, "If you want to find the first sign of a weather change, look
high." He pointed to the high-level cirrus clouds. "If you see
the clouds moving in the same direction as the surface winds, then
nothing will change. But if you see the clouds moving in a different
direction, then the surface winds might change to the direction the
clouds are moving. That's only the first indication, but you don't
really know yet. If clouds form lower down and are going in the same
direction as the clouds up high, there is more of a chance that the
winds will change in that direction. When the clouds get even lower then
you know the wind direction will change."
technology was in its infancy then, and many times Mau's predictions
would be right and the National Weather Service would be wrong.
used the same clouds that we use to predict the weather--mare's tails,
mackerel clouds. But in his world, he practices a kind of science that
is a blend of observation and instinct. Mau observes the natural world
all day. That's how he relates to nature. There are no distractions, so
his instincts are strong.
November of 1979, Mau and I went to observe the sky at Lana'i
Lookout. We would leave for Tahiti soon. I was concerned-more like a
little bit afraid. It was an awesome challenge.
he asked, "Can you point to the direction of Tahiti?" I
pointed. Then he asked, "Can you see the island?"
was puzzled by the question. Of course I could not actually see the
island; it was over 2,200 miles away. But the question was a serious
one. I had to consider it carefully. Finally, I said, "I cannot see
the island but I can see an image of the island in my mind."
said, "Good. Don't ever lose that image or you will be lost."
Then he turned to me and said, "Let's get in the car, let's go
was the last lesson. Mau was telling me that I had to trust myself and
that if I had a vision of where I wanted to go and held onto it, I would
a Navigation Problem
1980, not only would I have to get down to Tahiti but also return home.
To find Hawai'i without instruments, we sail to the east of it by dead
reckoning. When we determine we are at the latitude of the islands, we
turn west to look for them. But how do you know when you are at the
right latitude? How do you know when to turn?
didn't have the answer. How could he? In Micronesia, he uses the height
of the North Star to determine latitude. The North Star over Satawal is
only 7 degrees above the horizon. It's easy to measure that with the
naked eye. But it's 22 degrees over Hawai'i - and that's not easy to
measure without instruments. I needed to find some other way to
determine the latitude of Hawai'i.
a voyager sees the star Hokule'a [Arcturus] passing
through the zenith-the point directly overhead-he knows he is at the
latitude of Hawai'i. Not a problem on land. But how can you tell where
the zenith is while standing on a rocking canoe? The point above your
head keeps moving. We [Nainoa, Will, and Bruce Blankenfeld] spent a lot
of time in the planetarium distracted by figuring out how to use zenith
stars to determine latitude. But the closer I got to the voyage, the
more I recognized that zenith stars were not going to work.
were other patterns going across the planetarium sky over and over
again, and the answers were all there, right in front of us all the
time, but we didn't see them. And, as we got closer to the trip, the
anxiety made it even more difficult to see them.
the time, I was still living in an old one-bedroom house in Kuliouou. I
had been studying this latitude problem and not finding any answers. One
night I was asleep, and suddenly I sat up in my bed and said to myself,
"That's it." In a dream, I saw the Southern Cross moving above
the southern horizon-top star to bottom star, bottom star to the
horizon, it was absolutely clear. It was so clear that I jumped up, ran
down the hallway, jumped over my friend who was sleeping over, ran out
the door, and sprinted down the road-because I knew that not only was
the solution clear in my mind but this was the right time of the night
to see it in the sky.
ran past all the streetlights to Kuliouou Park where it was dark. There
it was. The Southern Cross upright on the horizon-the top star to the
bottom star, and the bottom star to the horizon, at the latitude of
Hawai'i, are equidistant, 6 degrees apart.
called Will early in the morning. We met at the planetarium, and there
it was-we confirmed my observation from the night before. The answer was
always there-the Southern Cross was constantly going by on the
planetarium dome, but we were always looking at the zenith star instead.
The solution just emerged in my dream and now the solution is taught to
everyone who studies navigation with us.
the spring of 1980, Hokule'a made a second voyage to
Tahiti and back. Nainoa navigated the canoe both ways.]
difference between the second voyage and the first one was that on the
second voyage, the canoe was guided by, captained by, and crewed by
people from Hawai'i. For our culture to really be alive, we recognized
that we had to practice it ourselves.
we left I was panicking. I had the safety of the entire crew in my
hands. There was intense media pressure. I had to appear confident, but
inside I was very much afraid. The part of the trip I dreaded the most
was the doldrums. I had no confidence that I could get through it. I
thought that I could only accurately navigate if I had visual celestial
clues and that when I got into the doldrums there would be a hundred
percent cloud cover, and I would be blind. And that's what happened.
we arrived in the doldrums, the sky was black. It was solid rain. The
wind was switching around. It was about twenty-five knots, and we were
moving fast. That's the worst thing that can happen-you are going fast
and you don't know where you're going. The guys steering the canoe were
looking for direction and that increased the pressure, especially
because it was my first voyage. I couldn't tell the steersmen where to
steer. I was very, very tense. To prevent fatigue, you cannot allow
yourself to get physically tense, but I couldn't stop feeling tense.
was so exhausted that I backed up against the rail to rest. Then
something happened that allowed me to understand where the moon was,
without seeing it. When I gave up fighting to find the moon with my
eyes, I settled down. I suddenly felt this warmth come over me and I
knew where the moon was. The sky was so black, I couldn't see the moon,
but I could feel where it was.
the feeling of warmth and the image of the moon came a strong sense of
confidence. I knew where to go. I directed the canoe on a new course and
then, just for a moment, there was a hole in the clouds and the light of
the moon shone through-just where I expected it to be. I can't explain
it, but that was one of the most precious moments in all my sailing
experience. I realized there was some deep connection I was making,
something very deep inside my abilities and my senses that goes beyond
the analytical, beyond seeing with my eyes. I cannot explain what this
is from a scientific point of view. But it happened. And now I seek out
these experiences. I don't always have them. I have to be in the right
frame of mind and beyond that, internally, I have to be able to enter
into a kind of spiritual realm. I don't want to analyze these
experiences too much. I just want to make them happen more often. I
don't think there's an explanation for them. There are certain levels of
navigation that are realms of the spirit.
that happened, I tended to rely on math and science because it was so
much easier to explain things that way. I didn't know how to trust my
instincts. They were not trained enough to be trusted. Hawaiians call it
na'au-your instincts, your feelings, rather than your mind, your
star compass is the basic mental construct for navigation. We have
Hawaiian names for the houses of the stars-the place where they come out
of the ocean and go back into the ocean. If you can identify the stars
as they rise and set, and if you have memorized where they rise and set,
you can find your direction. The star compass also reads the flight path
of birds and the direction of waves. It does everything. It is a mental
construct to help you memorize what you need to know to navigate.
cannot look up at the stars and tell where you are. You only know where
you are in this kind of navigation by memorizing where you sailed from.
That means constant observation. You have to constantly remember your
speed, your direction and time. You don't have a speedometer. You don't
have a compass. You don't have a watch. It all has to be done in your
head. It is easy-in principle-but it's hard to do.
memorization process is very difficult. Consider that you have to
remember those three things for a month-every time you change course,
every time you slow down. This mental construct of the star compass with
its Hawaiian names is from Mau. The genius of this construct is that it
compacts a lot information and enables you to make decisions based on
do we tell direction? We use the best clues that we have. We use the sun
when it is low down on the horizon. Mau has names for the different
widths and the different colors of the sun's path on the water. When the
sun is low, the path is narrow, and as the sun rises the path gets wider
and wider. When the sun gets too high you cannot tell where it has
risen. You have to use other clues.
is the most important part of the day. At sunrise you start to look at
the shape of the ocean-the character of the sea. You memorize where the
wind is coming from. The wind generates the waves. You analyze the
character of the waves. When the sun gets too high, you steer by the
waves. And then at sunset you repeat the process. The sun goes down-you
look at the shape of the waves. Did the wind direction change? Did the
swell pattern change? At night we use the stars. We use about 220,
memorizing where they come up, where they go down.
it gets cloudy and you can't use the sun or the stars all you can do is
rely on the ocean waves. That's why Mau told me once, "If you can
read the ocean you will never be lost." One of the problems is that
when the sky gets black at night under heavy clouds you cannot see the
waves. You cannot even see the bow of the canoe. This is where
traditional navigators like Mau are so skilled. Lying inside the hull of
the canoe, he can feel the different wave patterns as they come to the
canoe, and from them tell the canoe's direction. I can't do that. I
think that's what he started learning when he was a child with his
grandfather, when he was placed in tide pools to feel the ocean.
1979, when Mau was confident that I could guide the canoe by myself, he
said, "Now I am going to go to sleep; you follow this star
path." And like an overly eager student, I wanted to try sailing in
a different direction to experience what the wave patterns felt like
when I changed directions. I thought he wouldn't notice because he was
sleeping inside the hull. When morning dawned, he came up and said,
"Okay, what course did you sail last night? What star bearing did
you hold?" He knew I had changed course. Lying in the hull, he
actually knew the course I had steered; he challenged me to tell him in
order to make sure that I knew where we had gone.
is smaller than Maui and it is a hard target to hit from 2500 miles
away. Even hitting a target as large as the Big Island from that
distance is outside of the accuracy of our navigation. When we go down
to Tahiti, we have a mental image of our course line plotted for the
trip. We try to stay on this course and end up in what I call a box.
This box is large enough to compensate for any errors in our
navigation. In this box there are many islands. All we have to do is to
find one of them, and from that island we can find the others. For
example, the target when we sail to Tahiti is a box four hundred miles
wide, from Manihi in the Tuamotu islands to Maupiti in the leeward
Tahitian islands. The first part of the journey to Tahiti is not trying
to get to Tahiti but to make sure that we sail into this box and find
an island. On different voyages, we have found Matahiva, Tikehau, and
Rangiroa-all islands in the box. Since these are coral atolls it is
very difficult to tell one from the other, so sometimes we have to land
and ask the people what island it is that we've found. From any of
these islands, we know Tahiti is only about 170-180 miles away and our
navigation system is accurate enough to find it from that distance.
consider another navigational problem-finding Hawai'i from Tahiti. The
Hawaiian islands are 315 miles wide, from Ni'ihau to Kumukahi on the Big
Island, but if you approach them from the southeast they are a narrow
target because they are aligned southeast to northwest. The technique we
use is to sail up to the latitude of Hawai'i on the east side of the
islands, using the stars to tell our latitude. When we determine we are
at the mid-latitude of Hawai'i, 20.5 degrees N, we turn west and try to
sail into the islands on this side, 240 miles wide-the sight distance
from South Point on the Big Island [18.5 degrees N] to the sight
distance from Hanalei on Kaua'i [22.5 degrees N]. Again, our navigation
system is accurate enough to hit this target.
Southern Cross is really important to us in determining latitude. It
looks like a kite. The top and bottom stars in the kite always point
south-Gacrux on top and Acrux on the bottom. If you are traveling in
a canoe and going south, these southern stars are going to appear to be
moving higher and higher in the sky. If you went down to the South Pole,
these stars are going to be way overhead. If you are sailing from Tahiti
north to Hawai'i, the Southern Cross gets lower and lower the farther
north you go. At the latitude of Hawai'i, the distance from the top star
to the bottom star is the same distance from that bottom star to the
horizon about 6 degrees. This configuration only occurs at the latitude
of Hawai'i. If you are in Nukuhiva in the Marquesas Islands and looking
at the Southern Cross, the distance between the bottom star in the
Southern Cross and the horizon is about nine times the distance between
the two stars.
atolls, which are very low, is extremely difficult, but there are a lot
of clues to the presence of islands. The wave patterns change when an
island is near. The behavior of animals in the sea, such as dolphins,
will change. Mau can read these clues. The main guide is sea birds.
There are two general types of seabirds that Mau taught us about. There
are the pelagic seabirds-after the young are hatched and learn to fly,
they go to sea and stay there, normally sleeping on the water or in the
air and fishing until they become adults; then they come back to land to
nest. The 'iwa bird is pelagic and we see it all the way across the
ocean. Following these birds will not help you find land. The other type
of birds are those that sleep on islands at night and at dawn go out to
sea to fish. These land-based birds include the manu
o ku (white tern) and noio
(brown tern). Noio go about 40 miles out; the manu o ku go about
120 miles out. The Tuamotus are filled with these birds. After we sail
about 29 days down from Hawai'i and staring seeing these birds, we know
the islands are close even though we can't see them. When the manu o ku
is fishing, it flutters above the ocean surface, but when the sun starts
to go down, it will rise up from the water so it can see farther, and it
will head straight back to land. When we see these birds in the day we
keep track of them and wait for the sun to get low and watch the bird;
the flight path of the bird is the bearing of the island. Then we turn
on that bearing, sail as fast as we can, and at sunset we climb the mast
to see if we can find the island. And if we can't see it, we heave to
until the morning.
my first voyage in 1980, we saw two birds after the 29th day and I was
extremely relieved. At least we were in the ball park. I did everything
that I was taught to do and the birds did everything that they were
supposed to do. They went up high and they flew away and we sailed in
that direction. We couldn't see the island at sunset, so we took the
sails down at night and we waited. The next morning we looked for the
birds to see what direction they were coming from. In the morning they
go back out to the fishing ground, so the direction they are coming from
is the direction to the island. We had a great crew of 14 and we made a
ring around the canoe before dawn. We waited for the first bird. All
hands on deck. Not a single bird. I was in near trauma-my first voyage,
in my early twenties. Mau was very calm and didn't say anything. We
waited and waited. The canoe was just sitting dead in the water, facing
south. One of the canoe members was in the back of the canoe and a bird
flew right over his head. The night before we saw the birds flying south
so how could it be that late in the morning with the sun very high, this
bird was also flying south? That would suggest that we passed the island
during the night and now the island was back to the north. In my panic,
I told the crew we should turn the canoe around and go north-to look for
the island the bird was coming from. They turned the canoe around-and
now we are sailing north, back toward Hawai'i. Now Mau has always said
that his greatest honor would not be as a navigator but as a
teacher-that he would come with us to make sure that the voyage to
Tahiti would be safe, but if he didn't have to tell me anything, the
honor as a teacher would be his. But after I started to sail north he
came to me and said, "No." It was the first time that he
interrupted the trip. He said, "Turn the canoe around and follow
the bird." I was really puzzled. I didn't know why. He didn't tell
me why, but we turned the canoe around and now we saw other birds flying
south. Mau said, "You wait one hour and you will find an
about an hour, Mau, who is about twenty years older than me-my eyes are
physically much more powerful than his-got up on the rail of the canoe
and said, "The island is right there." We all started looking,
and we couldn't see it. Vision is not so much about just looking, but
knowing what to look for. It's experience. Mau had seen in the beak of
the bird a little fish, and he knew that the birds were nesting, so they
had flown out earlier that morning and were taking food back to their
young before they fed themselves. He just did not tell me that in our
everybody can navigate. We have some great navigators in Hawai'i-Shorty
Bertelmann from the Big Island; my brother-in-law, Bruce Blankenfeld
from O'ahu; and Chad Baybayan from Maui. We base our projected course
line before the voyage on average winds and sea conditions for 24 hours,
but these are never average. The majority of navigation is observation
and adjusting to the natural environment. The rougher the weather, the
more the navigator needs to be awake and the less he can leave the crew
on their own. We estimate that our navigators stay up between 21 and 22
hours a day, sleeping in a series of catnaps.
says the mind doesn't need much rest. But the physical body does. When
the navigator is on the canoe, the crew does the physical work. When he
is tired, he closes your eyes. Mau told me that for him maybe his eyes
are closed but inside here, inside his heart, he is always awake.
navigator sleeps whenever his mind needs to rest. You work until you
can't think, basically, then you lie down. I close my eyes and go to
sleep. I have no dreams in the beginning. My first dreams are fire. I
see reds and oranges. Then I get up when my mind is awake again. I do a
series of those catnaps. The main thing is to make sure that your
physical body doesn't do any work because then you get sick.
I depended on geometry and analytic mathematics to help me in my quest
to navigate the ancient way. However as my ocean time and my time with
Mau have grown, I have internalized this knowledge. I rely less on
mathematics and come closer and closer to navigating the way the
after year Mau came and took us by the hand as we prepared for our
voyages. He cares about people, about tradition; he has a vision. His
impact will be carried beyond himself. His teaching has become his
legacy, and he will not soon be forgotten.
the 1980 voyage to Tahiti Mau Piailug made a fundamental step. He
became, instead of the navigator, our teacher. This was an incredible
feat, considering he could barely speak English. He was the one who came
to Hawai'i and made this enormous cultural jump. I believe that the
great genius of Mau Piailug is not just in being a navigator, but that
he could cross great cultural boundaries and help us find our way at
sea. All of this came from a very powerful sense of caring on his part.
the end of the 1980 voyage, Mau told me, "Everything is there in
the ocean for you to learn, but it will take you 20 years to see."
Mau is right. For me to learn all the faces of the ocean, to sense the
subtle cues, the slight differences in ocean swells, in the colors of
the ocean, the shapes of the clouds and the winds, and to unlock these
clues and glean information from them in the way Mau can, will take many
also told me,"Because of your age, you'll never see it all. If you
want Hawai'i to have a navigator that knows all and sees all, send your
is one of the last. He's 64 years old now. He was initiated in the
ceremony called po, which is for the graduation of deep sea navigators.
Not mastery. And let's keep in mind, I'll make it real clear right now.
I'm not a master navigator, not by a long shot. I'm just a student. Mau
graduated because he could sail long. But mastery is only something that
is bestowed upon a deep sea navigator at the death of his teacher. Mau
became a master navigator when his grandfather died. Mastery is not
accomplishment, it's responsibility. He had the responsibility to carry
on the survival of his people-an unbroken tradition three thousand years
worries about the future of his way of life. He is one of five master
navigators left in Micronesia. He's 64 years old, and he's the youngest.
Outside influences are changing the way young people in Micronesia look
at life; it is a very confusing, turmoiled time. Young people are not
learning the old ways. One of the things that he told me years ago is
that a master navigator's life is not fulfilled until there is someone
to carry on his legacy after his death. That's Mau's concern: he has not
trained someone among his people in navigation. Every time Mau came
unselfishly to Hawai'i to teach us about the old ways, we'd sit down and
talk about that concern. Then in 1994, he came and told me. "It's
too late. I am too old, our children have too much to learn, and it's
too late." That's something I never wanted to hear. But he said,
"It's okay. All navigators find a way out. When they put me in the
ground, it's all right because I already planted a seed in Hawai'i. When
my people want to learn, they can come to Hawai'i and learn about
me." Mau does not see navigation as cultural revival; it's his way
of life. His people will never come to learn from him until they want to
live that way again.
The following short biography of Nainoa's early life is from "The
Ocean Is My Classroom" by Gisela E. Speidel and Kristina Inn (The
Kamehameha Journal of Education, Fall 1994, 11-23).
grew up on his grandfather's dairy and chicken farm in Niu Valley on the
island of O'ahu-when the valley was still all country. It was Yoshio
Kawano, the milkman, who introduced the ocean to Nainoa. Dawn would
often find Nainoa sitting on Yoshi's doorstep, waiting for Yoshi to take
him fishing. Yoshi would bundle Nainoa into the old car, and off they'd
go to fish in the streams or on the reefs. He came to be at home with
the ocean, feeling the wind, the rain, the spray against his body. To
the five-year-old Nainoa, the ocean was huge, wild, free, and open. The
ocean and the wind were always changing; this was so different from the
serenity of the mountains and the farm. Nainoa came to sense and feel
the tune of the ocean world, developing a personal relationship with the
sea. These early experiences, Nainoa thinks, were an essential
preparation for becoming a navigator: "We learn differently when we
are young; our understanding is intuitive and unencumbered."
learned from Yoshio; he learned from Dad, from Mom, from Grandma and
Grandpa; he learned from those who loved him and showed him kindness.
all changed with school! How different learning was in school! Teachers
were not close personal friends who cared for you, whom you trusted. One
grade-school teacher made him stand the whole period in the back of the
classroom with his face against the wall. More than 30 years later,
Nainoa remembers sharply his mortification; what he doesn't remember is
what he did to deserve that punishment.
recalls, "My family didn't push competition. The idea of
competition didn't make sense to me. Why should I compete with my
friends, the guys I liked and played with? The idea of grades didn't
make sense. What do grades have to do with learning. Learning should be
something very special, very exciting. Rather than learning eagerly, I
found that I was spending my energy avoiding bad grades. School should
be relevant, exciting, and interesting. I used to ask, 'Why are we
reading this book? Why are we reading about dead people in faraway
it the teacher who had made him stand facing the wall who told his
parents she worried that Nainoa was mentally slow? Or was it the tester
who tested him for entry into Punahou School at third grade? Nainoa
hadn't answered any of her questions because, as he explained to his
dad, "I didn't know who she was." Whatever the cause, Dad
decided to have Nainoa's intelligence tested by a psychologist-a family
friend, a friend whom Nainoa trusted. Result: Nainoa scored off the top
of the intelligence scale. But the psychologist sensed Nainoa's need for
trusting and caring teachers and predicted trouble for Nainoa's learning
under typical classroom conditions.
now realizes this: "It was really important to me that I could
trust a teacher and feel the teacher cared for me. Mrs. Hefty was great!
She was my fifth-grade teacher. She was so understanding and sincere;
she cared for me. Intuitively, she knew how to reach out to me. With
her, I had no fear of failing; I could learn anything from her."
Mrs. Hefty must have, indeed, been special. She lives on the mainland
now, but Nainoa still corresponds with her, and whenever he comes back
home from one of his long and dangerous voyages on Hokule'a, a letter is
there from Mrs. Hefty to welcome him back and to congratulate him.
Nainoa explains the scientific and cultural motivation for voyaging:
"About forty to fifty thousand years ago, when the earth was colder
and much of the ocean that we know today was trapped in the polar caps,
the sea level was lower by about a hundred meters, three hundred feet.
Australia, Melanesia, and Indonesia were connected to the Asian
continent. The first explorers into the Pacific came by foot and they
walked out of the South China Sea area and occupied the land mass in
Australia. As our ancestors went south, other people went to the north
and crossed the Siberian Peninsula on foot and occupied North and South
the earth got warmer, the polar caps melted, sea levels rose and the
people in Melanesia became islanders. We believe that they were able to
island hop across short distances. Maybe they didn't even need to sail.
They could have done it on crude rafts; they could have paddled. The
longest distance between two islands in Melanesia was only eighty-seven
miles. The islands farther east -Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa-were then found
and settled. There the people became island-locked; to make the jump
from Western Polynesia-Tonga and Samoa-into what we call Eastern
Polynesia took them a thousand years. They had to develop the voyaging
canoe, navigational systems, and the ability to sail long distances.
Once they were able to make this crossing, the expansion of Polynesia
was quick-Hawai'i to the north, Rapa Nui in the east, and Aotearoa in
are taught in our history books today that the inhabitants of the
Polynesian triangle were a people of common language, of common
ancestry, of great achievements in exploring the earth. Consider the
fact that there was no other culture in their time that was ocean-going
... deep sea ocean-going. In my opinion, these voyagers were the
greatest explorers on the earth at the time. If you exclude the total
land mass of Aotearoa, there is three hundred times more water than
there is land ... ten million square miles of ocean. And that is what
makes their achievements more amazing. This is geographically the
largest 'nation' on earth. It's bigger than Russia.
did the Polynesians do it? How did they build canoes from limited
resources on small islands? How did communities come together to combine
resources, material, and manpower, to build and sail these voyaging
canoes? How did they navigate? How did they guide themselves across
ocean expanses of 2500 miles? And how did they transport all the food
resources necessary for societies to flourish on uninhabited
See Ben Finney's Hokule'a: The Way to Tahiti, which describes the first
voyage to Tahiti. For an account of Mau's navigation from Hawai'i to
Tahiti, see David Lewis' We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of
Landfinding in the Pacific, 2nd Edition, pp. 313-336.
For Ben Finney's account of the blows on the canoe, see Hokule'a: The
Way to Tahiti, pp. 240-248. Some thought the crew was too inexperienced
to deal with the hardships and discomforts of a long voyage on an open
canoe. Crew member Billy Richards explains the incident this way:
"The conflict stemmed from two very different views of the voyage:
for some, the voyage was a scientific experiment to learn the techniques
by which Polynesians had explored and settled the Pacific; but for some
of the Hawaiian crew members, the voyage was a highly emotional journey
toward cultural reawakening. The crew's frustrations in preparing for
Hokule'a's first long voyage, and the hardships and inequities during
that voyage aggravated the differences."
Will Kyselka recalls his first meeting at the planetarium with Nainoa:
"what was surprising to him was that the moon rose several degrees
south of where the sun had risen that morning. For this he was not
prepared. It made no sense. He could not understand it.
in the darkness of the planetarium, he could see in a flash what might
have taken years of observing the sky to comprehend. He had expected the
sun and the Full Moon to rise at the same point on the horizon; but he
found that was not necessarily so. Sun and Full Moon are 180 degrees
apart; they take opposite positions in the sky. When the sun sets 4
degrees north of west (as it does in early April), the Full Moon rises 4
degrees south of east. Immediately he saw why the picture of the
sun-moon relationship he had been carrying in his head did not fit the
reality of the event he had witnessed on that most perplexing night at
Will Kyselka's "An Ocean in Mind," 3-104, for full account of
Nainoa's training and preparation for his first voyage to Tahiti.