The Wayfinding system that Pacific Islanders used as a basis for their navigation, using only cues found in the environment, may seem irrelevant in today’s world of GPS, but natural navigation still holds surprising lessons.

       On 1 May 1976, a large crowd gathered at Honolua Bay on Maui’s northwestern shore to see the newly built Hokule’a – a handsome replica of the voyaging canoes from days gone by.

       The air was heavy with anticipation. After close to a decade of careful planning, the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) was about to launch Hokule’a on her first long voyage. There was a sense of nervous excitement. The crew was to forgo modern navigational instruments and, instead, rely on the traditional wayfinding techniques of their forefathers to guide them to Tahiti, some 2,400 miles (3,862km) away. Could they pull it off?

       Wayfinding – the art of navigating using the wind, stars, ocean swells, and other environmental cues – was how sailors from the Marquesas Islands first discovered Hawaii more than 1,500 years ago. Over time, however, wayfinding all but vanished throughout the Pacific, in large part because colonial powers banned canoe travel, or forced compasses, and other navigational tools, onto their subjects. By the time the Hokule’a was seaworthy, it had been over 600 years since Hawaiians regularly practiced Wayfinding.

       The 1976 voyage, thankfully, had a linchpin in the form of Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the Micronesian island of Satawal, one of the few places in the Pacific where Wayfinding remained preserved. The PVS had persuaded Piailug to lead the Hokule’a to Tahiti and, despite never having sailed those waters before, he successfully guided the canoe to its destination in 34 days – a feat that sparked a resurgence in traditional voyaging and Wayfinding across the Pacific. I reported this achievement in a blog some time ago.

       Since that epic voyage in 1976, Wayfinding skills have helped to restore a sense of pride in Pacific Island culture and heritage but, beyond that, Wayfinding holds surprising relevance for the rest of us land-lubbing urbanites, even if we have no intention of crossing vast oceans in a canoe.

       “We’re always so grateful to Papa Mau for sharing his knowledge to recover this skill,” says Ka’iulani Murphy, a lead navigator at PVS, who currently teaches voyaging at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

       Today, there are numerous organisations throughout the Pacific dedicated to the art of canoe making, open ocean voyaging, and Wayfinding. “It’s about making sure that the knowledge that we’ve gained over the years from Mau, and all the other voyagers, is going to carry on to the next generations,” says Junior Coleman, who is in charge of sailing and seamanship at one such society, called 500 Sails, which is based in Saipan.

       Wayfinding is how humans have found their way for most of our existence. It’s what enabled the Aboriginals, Arab nomads, and Inuits to journey across monotonous yet shifting landscapes of land, desert, and ice. But it was the sailors of the South Sea – those from Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia – whose voyages were most impressive in terms of distance. Despite being spread across a bewilderingly vast ocean, three times the size of Europe, Pacific Islanders regularly journeyed in their canoes to fish, trade, and discover new lands.

       Traditional navigation is about “using everything that’s provided to you in nature”, says Coleman, who travelled to Satawal when he was 18 years old to study under Piailug. “We use all the elements and forces in nature – the Sun, stars, moon, waves, currents, clouds, and different animals. All of those.” Wind direction is an important cue, as are certain species of bird, which allow you to estimate how close you are to land. The brown noddy, a type of tern, has a foraging range of under 40 miles (64km), for instance, while its cousin the white fairy tern can fly three times as far. “They help us hone-in on our target because when you see them at sunrise or sunset, they’re either flying from an island [to their fishing grounds] or back to it,” says Murphy.

       Another cue is ocean swells – waves formed by permanent weather systems, such as trade winds. Subtle changes in their refraction patterns can indicate an island and its location. But learning to “read” such swells is one of the hardest skills to master – navigators often speak of lying down on their canoes to feel, rather than see, such waves. Whatever the cues, the key to successful Wayfinding is to pay attention to your surroundings.

       “Human beings are in this cell phone-induced fog, they look like zombies walking around,” says physicist John Huth at Harvard University. As part of a natural navigation course he teaches each autumn, Huth gets students to guess where west is, and to walk in that direction for 20 minutes before estimating the distance they’ve covered (his tip is that one mile roughly equals 2,000 steps). He also takes them up to the roof of Harvard’s Science Centre to observe the stars overhead. “For a lot of students, it’s a real epiphany because all of a sudden, you’re looking at the world differently,” he says. “The nice thing about Wayfinding is that it’s right there in front of your face.” The important thing is to impart the importance of observing things for yourself rather than placing blind faith in technology. 

       Wayfinding and its associated skills can also boost brain health. “When we’re learning an area, trying to put together a new route, or figuring out how far apart things are,” we rely primarily on the hippocampus, says Liz Chrastil, an associate professor of neurobiology and behaviour at the University of California, Irvine. The hippocampus, a pair of seahorse-shaped masses located towards the back of your head, is responsible for orientation, spatial cognition, and memory. In one famous study, researchers discovered that London cab drivers – who have to memorise the city’s 25,000 sprawling streets, and their associated landmarks, to qualify for a license – have much larger hippocampi compared to non-cab drivers. “This suggests that adding wayfinding elements into regular workouts could be beneficial over a lifetime,” says Jennifer Heisz, an associate professor of brain health and ageing at Canada’s McMaster University, who led the study.

       Part of the solution lies in “tapping back into our native knowledge about how we care for the environment,” agrees Murphy. Which is why, 47 years after her first voyage to Tahiti, the Hokule’a is now on a 47-month circumnavigation of the Pacific that will cover 43,000 nautical miles (79,600 km) and call in at 345 ports. A key aim of the trip, she explains, is to “deepen our values in the voyage” and move beyond exploration, to embracing our mālama (caring) and kuleana (responsibility) towards protecting our planet. Once more, Hokule’a shows us that ancient wisdom still holds lessons for us, even thousands of years on.

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