Polynesian Wayfinding is the ancient navigation skill of the Pacific Islands.

I am almost old enough to remember the excitement surrounding the voyage of Thor Heyerdahl and his Polynesian replica boat called the Kon-Tiki, in 1947. It seemed like an impossible tale at the time, and Thor, himself, seemed like a type-cast character out of a Hollywood movie. He was trying to prove that Polynesia was settled from South America by intrepid sailors who drifted west on the Pacific currents. Today, with DNA testing available, his theory has been mostly discredited.

     However, I have just read a report that places the settling of Polynesia in a more solid historical context.

     The article documented the voyage of the Hōkūle‘a, a Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoe.

     “Time stood still as Hōkūle‘a’s scarlet sails pierced the Pacific horizon, painting an ancient scene long absent from Tahiti’s shores. It was June 4, 1976 as Hōkūle‘a neared Tahiti’s Pape’ete harbour after 33 days at sea. Elders wept on the beach, absorbed by the moment’s enormity. Children scaled trees to snag views of the history that would soon unfold.

     Hōkūle‘a carried a crew of a dozen Hawaiians and one Micronesian, who had used the ancient Polynesian skill of “Wayfinding” – navigating by stars, sun, wind, waves, wildlife, and no instruments – to travel 3,862km from Hawaii to Tahiti. It was the first voyage on this route using traditional Polynesian navigation in centuries.

     To an outsider, the idea of non-instrumental oceanic navigation may sound like a hair-raising and foolish challenge, but for Polynesian “Wayfinders”, it involves a deep and sacred connection to the Earth, and a fluency in the planet’s movements and patterns. “Wayfinders” see constellations as navigational guardrails, and seabirds as clues to what lies ahead.

     Polynesians perfected non-instrumental deep-sea navigation more than 3,000 years ago – well before early European explorers reached the Pacific with their compasses and sextants. Polynesian “Wayfinders” successfully migrated among, and settled, more than 1,000 scattered islands across the Polynesian Triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island. However, after the European and U.S. colonisations in the late 1800s, history classes throughout Polynesia told a different story. Children were taught that “Wayfinding” long distances was impossible without instruments. They were told that ancient Polynesians drifted directionless, accidentally stumbling upon, then settling, the Pacific islands. That was the theory that prompted Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage.

     Nainoa Thompson, is a native Hawaiian, and master navigator certified through the sacred pwo ceremony, a ritual initiating students as deep-sea navigators. Thompson is also president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the Hawaii-based organisation that oversees Hōkūle‘a, and her sister canoe, Hikianalia. “Hōkūle‘a first voyage was like a match that lit the flame of the Hawaiian renaissance,” said Thompson.

     However, in the sea of revelry after the historic landing in Tahiti, one important crew member was missing: Mau Piailug, a master navigator from Satawal, a tiny atoll in Micronesia. He was the only crew member fluent in the art of Wayfinding, and by 1976, he was one of few master navigators left in the world.

     The Satawal people still relied on Wayfinding for sustenance, and Piailug had started his training in tidepools with his grandfather, also a master navigator, before he could walk. That’s why Hōkūle‘a’s crew sought him out for their inaugural expedition. However, Piailug was so disgusted with the antics of his crew during the voyage that he hurried home to Satawal as soon as Hōkūle‘a entered Pape’ete harbour. He left one parting gift: an eight-track cassette tape with return-voyage instructions, and a final, fiery message: “Don’t come look for me. You will never find me.”

     Thompson was determined, despite the loss of his only navigator, to pursue his exploration of Polynesian origins, and the almost extinct skill of “Wayfinding”. He flew to Micronesia to search for Piailug, as soon as he could.

     “Mau was there waiting for me,” he recalled. “We sat on a driftwood log by the beach, and I asked him, ‘Can you come back? Will you teach us?’,” That last question hit home for Piailug, who, in 1978, was just shy of 50 years old. “Mau needed to go down the end of his life knowing Wayfinding navigation would not go extinct, because “If one day there are no navigators, we will be people no more,” Piailug stated.

     As a result of Piailug’s and Thompson’s commitment, countless Wayfinding teachers have since passed this baton further, with monumental initiatives, such as Hōkūle‘a’s round-the-world navigation from 2013 to 2017, inspiring more than 200 crew members, including female navigator Tamiko Fernelius, who volunteered for several stints of the worldwide voyage.

     Soon, Tamiko will navigate part of Hōkūle‘a’s next major mission: a six-year, 65,983km circumnavigation of the Pacific. They plan to set sail in spring 2022, with the goal of spreading the ancient art of Wayfinding, while elevating and unifying underrepresented Pacific Island voices, particularly in the fight against climate change.

     It’s an inspiring story.

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