Hokulea: How to navigate without instruments

In less than three weeks, Hokulea and Hikinalia will set sail on the international portion of their voyage around the world. Their first stop will be Tahiti after a roughly 25-day journey, navigated without instruments.

Watching the brightest star in the sky rise and set generally tells a navigator east or west. But as night falls, the heavens fill with thousands of points of light. They too rise east and set west, but to harness this astronomical chaos and pull them to an earthly order, the navigator uses a star compass.

Mau, and his ancestors for centuries before him, used this fiercely protected teaching tool to organize the sky. It is the foundation of celestial navigation.

“It is a beautiful gift that (Mau) gave to us because I believe that the Hawaiians had a star compass,” said master navigator Nainoa Thompson.

Adapted to Hawaii with concepts of math and science on the ocean, the “compass” utilizes the canoe’s 360-degree horizon divided into 32 parts or houses where stars live. Navigators memorize about 220 stars and their houses.

“The best way to prepare academically for navigating to Tahiti would be memorizing the houses that these stars we’re going to see would be rising from or setting into,” explained Hokulea navigator Kaiulani Murphy.

Starlines based on Hawaiian stories help to further make sense of the stars. “When you teach that to a child or to a crew member, they remember the story and then they remember the patterns in the sky,” Thompson said.

For all the emphasis on stars, Thompson says, on average, navigators see and use the stars only about 20 percent of the time.

“When you don’t have the stars or it’s daytime and the sun is high, you really have to rely on your confidence on your ability to read the wave,” said Murphy.

“Like Mau would say, ‘If you can read the wave, you’re never lost,’” Thompson said. “So your job, if you’re heading to Tahiti and you’re heading south, you want to have the wave come from the east.”

As you think you’re approaching land, you look for certain birds. “Every morning, they come out from land to go fish and every sunset time, they’ll go back, generally,” Thompson said. “All the signs of nature are there to tell you how to find Tahiti. You need to be able to read it.”

Navigating isn’t just moving toward your destination, but remembering from where you came — how far you’ve traveled, what direction, in what amount of time, all without watches or instruments, and all without sleep. Crew members get maybe two hours a day, taken in short 10-20-minute catnaps.

“I imagine it comes with experience of being out on the water and that knowledge of your kuleana is a heavy one,” Murphy said.

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