Hawaiians Prove to Be Polynesian Navigation Stars

Modern-day Polynesian navigators continue to sail and thrive across the vast Pacific Ocean and beyond.

Since today’s society relies heavily upon the advances of technology, especially when it comes to GPS navigation, it’s almost inconceivable to believe that humans once sailed blindly across the immense watery world of the Pacific Ocean by solely using their hands and feet and the stars in the sky. Western advances such as the astrolabe, quadrant, sextant and even a compass were unknown among ancient Polynesians. Instead, clues about their location, direction and distance from final destination came from the positioning of the stars, the rising and setting of the sun and moon and patterns from the ocean and birds flying above.

“As long as your foundation is solid, you can never be lost,” said Kalani Nakoa, Nakoa Foundation executive director.

The organization teaches students and visitors about the history and culture of Native Hawaiian navigation while aboard the sailing canoe known as the Kini Kini.

“Everything you need to know about life, you can learn on the canoe. Your life is the canoe. Only you can steer your canoe. If you run into foul weather, reset your sail. Change your course. Move forward,” Nakoa said.

Astronomists study the stars during nightfall.
Astronomists study the stars during nightfall. (Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority(HTA)/Dana Edmunds)

Like most experienced navigators who have had the privilege of learning the logistics and culture of Polynesian navigation, Nakoa and many of his peers are still in awe of what ancient Native Hawaiians have once done before them.

“Navigation is about observation,” he said. “The amazing thing about our people and our culture is that there was no written language. So the information that was passed from generation to generation was all [done] orally. So you have to be in that very place. Be present. You have to feel it. Taste it. Hear it.”

The experience of navigation, said Nakoa, is unlike anything you would read in an instruction manual.

“It’s all about nature,” he added. “It’s the stars and then swell in the ocean … Birds in the area, which are partial to the land. It’s cloud formation. It’s the current. The canoe becomes your compass. You can place yourself in a relevant manner to your surroundings. With that, everything is fluid. Everything is moving. Even you.”

In 1973, as a way to prove Polynesians’ adept knowledge of navigation and dismiss theories of the accidental settlement of Hawai‘i, three men from Honolulu—anthropologist Ben Finney, artist Herb Kawainui Kane and waterman Charles "Tommy" Holmes— established the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS). Their goal: sail a modern-day replica of an ancient voyaging canoe without the use of modern navigational instruments.

On May 1, 1976, the PVS sailed off on the 62-foot, twin-hulled vessel, named Hōkūle‘a (star of happiness), with a crew of 17 men and a small number of animals—representing the living cargo that had once accompanied early Polynesian voyagers to Hawai‘i. Under the teachings of Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug, the crew successfully made landfall at Papeete, Tahiti, one month later, proving that ancient wayfinding methods were still indeed possible and credible.

Navigators of Hōkūle'a sail across the ocean during sunset hour.
Navigators of Hōkūle'a sail across the ocean during sunset hour. (Courtesy 'Oiwi TV)

Today, with ancient navigation skills passed on to master navigator Nainoa Thompson (who helped lead the 6,000-mile, round-trip feat from Hawai‘i to Tahiti), the Hōkūle‘a has sailed over 150,000 miles and is currently on a mission to circumnavigate the globe along with its sister ship, Hikianalia. With his own experience aboard the Hōkūle‘a and having taught thousands of students aboard his own canoe, Nakoa is excited to see what the future will hold for generations to come.

“As we raise awareness about our place in the universe, a broader consideration is going to be propagated through our surroundings,” Nakoa said. “Now, more than ever, the world is growing smaller along with our resources. With the attention brought upon Hawaiian navigation and astronomy, we’re able to reach out to other people and cultures that draw their teachings from their ancestors.”

“That is only going to benefit the evolution of humans,” Nakoa continued. “That we can consider our surroundings. Pay attention. It’s also to recognize patterns and most importantly to trust your na‘au (instincts). Listen to what it says. Sometimes there are no stars. Sometimes there is no moon. And you have to go on what your na‘au tells you.”

For information about the Nakoa Foundation, visit www.ekacanoeadventures.com. To sail aboard Kini Kini, go to www.sheratonkona.com/culture/kinikini.