Rediscovering the Past

Rediscovering the Past:

the Revival of Polynesian Voyaging Traditions.


Hele ‘e ka wa‘a.

The speed of a canoe.

Said of a fast traveler.

                                    Pukui: 736-81


[Photograph: Hōkūle‘a Voyaging Canoe]


The Hōkūle‘a Voyaging Canoe

In the 1970s, members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society constructed a wa‘a kaulua (Hawaiian double-hulled voyaging canoe) called the Hōkūle‘a to show that migrating Polynesians were able to sail east against the prevailing winds and settle the “Polynesian Triangle,” a region that covers approximately 10 million square miles (25,900,000 sq. km). 

The Society’s founders who initiated the Hōkūle‘a’s construction were Hawaiian artist Herb Kane, seaman Tommy Holmes, and anthropologist Ben Finney.  The Hōkūle‘a was launched on March 8, 1975, and completed its first voyage, to Tahiti, in 1976.

The Hōkūle‘a is comprised of two 62-foot (18.9-meter) long kuamo‘o (hulls), eight ‘iako (crossbeams) joining the two hulls, pola (decking), and two kia (masts).  The voyaging canoe weighs about 8 tons (7.3 mtons) and reaches speeds up to 12 knots.

The Hōkūle‘a can carry more than 5 tons (4.5 mtons), including 12 to 16 people with supplies. 


Hōkūle‘a—The Voyages

The Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage, to Pape‘ete, Tahiti, left the Hawaiian Islands (Honolua, Maui) on May 1, 1976 and was navigated by master Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug (see below).  The Hōkūle‘a returned to the Hawaiian Islands in July.  On the return voyage modern navigational instruments were utilized.

A second journey to Tahiti began on March 16, 1978 but ended when the Hōkūle‘a capsized in the Moloka‘i Channel.  The crew was eventually rescued, except for 31-year-old Eddie Aikau who had paddled a surfboard toward land to get help and was never seen again. 

As Waimea Bay’s first lifeguard in 1968, Eddie Aikau saved the lives of many people, and he was voted Lifeguard of the Year in 1971.  Eddie later appeared in surf movies and was a talented musician, writing songs and playing slack-key guitar.

Eddie Aikau lost his own life trying to save others, and his bravery is now immortalized in the saying “Eddie Would Go,” which is often heard throughout the Islands. 

Each year a surf contest entitled the In Memory of Eddie Aikau Invitational is held in honor of Eddie Aikau, and the competition only commences if the waves reach the giant heights worthy of the Aikau name.  The first Eddie contest in 1987 was won by Eddie Aikau’s brother, Clyde Aikau. (See Eddie Aikau section.)

When Nainoa Thompson led the Hōkūle‘a crew that left the Hawaiian Islands on March 15, 1980 and sailed to Tahiti, he became the first Hawaiian to navigate a voyaging canoe in more than 600 years.  The 33-day journey to Tahiti was completed without modern navigational tools.

The next major voyage of the Hōkūle‘a departed the Hawaiian Islands on July 10, 1985 on a journey to New Zealand (Aotearoa) including some 16,000 miles (25,750 km) throughout Polynesia, with visits to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Sāmoa, and Tuamotu.  Nine legs of the voyage were navigated by Nainoa Thompson.  The Hōkūle‘a returned to the Hawaiian Islands on May 21, 1987.

The Hōkūle‘a left the Hawaiian Islands again on June 17, 1992 to sail to Rarotonga before returning to Tahiti.  This journey also included a visit to the Cook Islands. 

Students in the Hawaiian Islands were able to monitor the canoe’s progress through daily radio reports, and the canoe established a direct connection with the space shuttle Columbia orbiting Earth.

The Hōkūle‘a’s next voyage left the Hawaiian Islands on February 11, 1995 with a team of navigators who sailed the canoe to the Marquesas Islands, including Nukuhiva and Ua Pou, and then on to Tahiti.  The Hōkūle‘a was accompanied on this voyage by the Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe and the Makali‘i voyaging canoe.

The Hōkūle‘a left the Hawaiian Islands on May 27, 1995 and traveled the West Coast of the United States.  On this journey the Hōkūle‘a was accompanied by the Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe. 

Upon reaching the continental United States, the Hawai‘iloa traveled north to the Alaskan villages that had given them the large trees needed to build their canoe (see below), while the Hōkūle‘a sailed south from Seattle as far as San Diego.

In 1996-1997, the Hōkūle‘a crew sailed around the Hawaiian Islands and allowed thousands of school children to visit or sail on the vessel.

Leaving the Hawaiian Islands again on June 15, 1999, the Hōkūle‘a utilized the skills of five separate crews to sail to the extremely remote and isolated island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) including many stops along the way.

In 2002, the Hōkūle‘a underwent a complete restoration that was finished in January, 2003 after nearly a year of work.  The restoration included replacing approximately 5 miles (8 km) of ropes and cordage that held the canoe together.

In September, 2003 the Hōkūle‘a sailed to Mokumanu (Nihoa Island), 150 miles (240 km) north-northwest from Hanalei, Kaua‘i, carrying a cultural protocol group that conducted ceremonies on Nihoa. 

Nihoa is the site of ancient Hawaiian agricultural terraces and home sites, and was inhabited in ancient times though not inhabited at the time Captain Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. (See Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Chapter 2.)

In June, 2004, the Hōkūle‘a sailed from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i’s Hanalei Bay before continuing on to complete a 2,400-mile (3,862-km) round trip through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to Kānemiloha‘i (Kure Atoll) and back. 

The Hōkūle‘a arrived on the island of Kaho‘olawe on October 20, 2004 along with the voyaging canoes Makali‘i and Hōkūalaka‘i.  The visit celebrated the end of military bombing on that island and the return of Kaho‘olawe to Hawaiians as a place to relearn old traditions.

Ancient chants have revealed that a spot at the 1,444-foot (440-m) elevation on a Kaho‘olawe mountain called Moa‘ulaiki was a place where Polynesian ocean navigators were trained in the arts of celestial navigation, using stars to guide them over the vast Pacific Ocean. 

Moa‘ulaiki provides a panoramic view of the sky and as well as views of Maui, Lāna‘i, Moloka‘i, and Hawai‘i Island.  Also visible from Moa‘ulaiki and particularly important to ocean navigators are the currents in the channels between the islands.[i]  

Currents on the ocean’s surface are created by winds as well as variations in the water’s pressure and temperature.  Around the Hawaiian Islands, the general flow of surface currents moves westward at a speed of about .4 knots.

A stone shrine at the summit of Moa‘ulaiki is called Pohaku ahu ‘aikupele kapili o Keaweiki or “Stone of deep magic of Keaweiki.”[ii]

More than 500 archaeological sites, including at least 3,000 archaeological features, have been identified on Kaho‘olawe, although many of the island’s native sites were destroyed by years of bombings. 

The United States Navy transferred control of access to Kaho‘olawe to the State of Hawai‘i on November 11, 2003, and the whole island is now designated as a State of Hawai‘i cultural reserve. (See Kaho‘olawe, Chapter 2.)

The Hōkūle‘a returned to Mokumanu (Nihoa) on the Summer Solstice of 2005 along with the voyaging canoe Hōkūalaka‘i, bringing a cultural protocol group that conducted ceremonies on the island.

Voyagers have now sailed the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe well over 120,000 miles (185,200 km), which is equal to more than four times completely around the Earth

[Photograph: Hōkūle‘a]


Maluna mai nei au o ka wa‘a kaulua, he ‘umi ihu.

I came on a double canoe with ten prows.

I walked.  The “double canoes” are one’s two feet

and the “ten prows” are his toes.

                                                            Pukui: 2131-232


Voyage to MicronesiaHomage to Mau Piailug

From January to April of 2007 the Polynesian voyaging family undertook a mission to perpetuate their cultural heritage by completing an ocean journey to Satawal, the homeland of Micronesian master navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug in the Micronesian state of Yap. 

On the voyage to Micronesia, the Hōkūle‘a was accompanied by a new wa‘a kaulua (Hawaiian double-hulled voyaging canoe) named Alingano Maisu (pronounced mai-shu), which is 56 feet (17 m) long. 

The Alingano Maisu was built for Mau Piailug as a gift to thank him for sharing his navigating knowledge with the Polynesian people and reintroducing Hawaiians to the ancient skills of non-instrument navigation.

The voyage of the Hōkūle‘a and the Alingano Maisu to Mau’s homeland in Micronesia was named Ku Holo Mau / Sail On, Sail Always, Sail Forever, signifying the perpetuation of ancient navigating skills and the legacy of Mau Piailug.

A Hawaiian proverb states: “‘A‘ohe e pulu, he wa‘a nui.” (“One will not be wet on a large canoe.”), which is explained to mean, “One is safe in the protection of an important person.”[iii]  Mau is just such a person.

The voyage to Micronesia was a partnership between the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Nā Kālai Wa‘a Moku o Hawai‘i (“The Canoe Builders of the Island of Hawai‘i”).  The group previously built the Makali‘i voyaging canoe, which was used to sail Mau home to Satawal in 1999.


The Alingano Maisu

Construction of the Alingano Maisu voyaging canoe was initiated by two of Mau’s students, the late navigator Clay Bertelmann and his brother Shorty Bertelmann, and completed by Nā Kālai Wa‘a Moku o Hawai‘i and a group of Micronesians from Satawal led by Mau’s son, Sesario Sewralur.  Construction of the Alingano Maisu took five years and involved hundreds of people.

The Alingano Maisu has a single mast, and the hulls were cast from the same molds as the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūalaka‘i.

The name Maisu is a Satawalese term referring to the custom that allows anyone to pick up the fruit of ‘ulu (Artocarpus altilis, breadfruit tree) when high winds cause the breadfruits to fall to the ground.  In this same way the Alingano Maisu voyaging canoe will be available for the people of the region, particularly the youth, so they may gain canoe navigating knowledge and continue the cultural traditions of their ancestors.

Mau describes how the meaning of the word maisu relates to the canoe: “When it stay breadfruit season in our island, and a strong wind coming and shake all the breadfruits down, then you can go and collect it, even if it is not your tree.  We call that maisu.”[iv]

The Alingano Maisu voyaging canoe is now home-ported on the island of Yap and operated as a floating ocean academy that travels to different islands.  An escort vessel will travel with the Alingano Maisu, and the academy will teach traditional navigation skills, resource stewardship, and Pacific Islander cultural values. 

The canoe, according to Mau, will always available to “teach the kids navigation.  They can come any time; the canoe is gonna be there waiting.”[v]

When the Hōkūle‘a and the Alingano Maisu arrived on Satawal, the traditional navigators of the Micronesian Weriyeng school of navigators bestowed the title of “pwo” upon five men from the Hawaiian Islands: Shorty Bertelmann, Nainoa Thompson, Bruce Blankenfeld, Chad Baybayan, and Chadd Paishon. 

The pwo designation recognizes the men as qualified non-instrument navigators.  Their teacher, Mau Piailug, belongs to the Weriyeng school.


The Voyage to Japan

After presenting the Alingano Maisu to Mau, the Hōkūle‘a traveled on to Japan, arriving in Okinawa on April 23, 2007.  The name of the voyage to Japan was Ku Holo La Komohana / Sail On to the Western Sun, referring to komohana (the western sun) on the Hawaiian star compass, which points toward Japan from the Hawaiian Islands.

One of the reasons for Hōkūle‘a’s visit to Japan was to honor historical ties between the people of the Hawaiian Islands and Japan, which began with the mass immigration of Japanese laborers to work on Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations in the late 1800s.  This influx of Japanese workers was facilitated by King Kalākaua [David La‘amea Kalākaua], who visited Emperor Meiji in Japan in March of 1881. 

King Kalākaua asked Japan’s Emperor Meiji to allow workers to come to the Hawaiian Islands because there was a shortage of laborers to work on the sugar plantations.  The two leaders signed a treaty in 1885 permitting the large-scale immigration of sugar plantation laborers.

The first official (government sponsored) Japanese contract workers to come to the Hawaiian Islands were 676 Japanese men and 158 Japanese women who arrived in Honolulu on the City of Tokio on February 8, 1885, resulting in approximately 70,000 Japanese coming to the Hawaiian Islands. (See Immigrant Laborers, Chapter 12.)


[Note: Account of Japan Leg of Hōkūle‘a Journey to Be Added Here in June, 2007.]


The Hawai‘iloa Voyaging Canoe

The Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe is named after an ancient voyager who, according to tradition, was the first discoverer of the Hawaiian Islands. 

The Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe is 57 feet (17.4 m) long, and is the first of the Hawaiian voyaging canoes to be built almost entirely out of traditional materials.  In comparison, the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe was built using modern materials, though it was built to be as performance accurate as ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoes.

  In ancient times, koa (Acacia koa) was the wood preferred for making canoes.  The canoe’s outriggers were traditionally made of wiliwili (Erythrina sandwicensis, coral tree) and hau (Talipariti tiliaceum).

An ancient Hawaiian saying is: “Ka ulu koa i kai o Oneawa.” (“The koa grove down at Oneawa.”), which comes from the legend of Pele’s sister, Hi‘iaka, and refers to the fact that “Canoes are sometimes referred to as the koa grove at sea, for canoes in ancient times were made of koa.”[vi]

Unfortunately there were no longer any koa trees in the Hawaiian Islands large enough to build the Hawai‘iloa, so the builders of the voyaging canoe had to acquire old growth Sitka spruce trees (Picea sitchensis) from southeast Alaska.  The use of Sitka spruce may be considered traditional, since ancient Hawaiians sometimes used drift logs to make canoes, and those driftlogs may have come from Alaska.

The Sitka spruce used for the kuamo‘o (hulls) of Hawai‘iloa came from two 400-year-old trees, each about 200 feet (61 m) tall and 7 feet (2.1 m) in diameter.  Koa wood was used for the manu (bow and stern pieces), the mo‘o (sideboards), and wae (braces), as well as the steering paddle and steering blades. 

The Hawai‘iloa’s seven ‘iako (crossbeams) were made from ‘ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros species), as were the two kia (masts), the two ‘ōpe‘a (spars), and the two pumi (booms).  Wood of hau (Talipariti tiliaceum) was used to construct the railings, and synthetic cordage was used for the Hawai‘iloa’s lashings and riggings. 

Tools used to construct voyaging canoes and their various components in ancient times included the stone adze and the bone gouge.  Coral files were also used, as well as sharkskin for sanding. 

Though modern tools were used in the construction of the Hawai‘iloa, traditional materials were used whenever possible.  Every attempt was made to build an accurate replica of a traditional voyaging canoe.

[Photograph or illustration: Stone adze; bone gouge; coral file.]

The Hawai‘iloa builders attempted to recreate the sennit cordage that Polynesians once made from olonā (Touchardia latifolia) as well as from the fiber of the husk of niu (Cocos nucifera, coconut).  Using only contemporary techniques, however, the canoe builders were not able to sufficiently replicate the methods and materials of the ancient canoe builders. 

The skills of creating traditional cordage and certain other canoe components have yet to be duplicated to the quality level of the ancient sailors, and so modern materials were instead used for some parts of the Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe due to safety concerns.  Sails were woven from lau hala, the leaves of hala (Pandanus tectorius, screwpine), and tested for use on the Hawai‘iloa, but did not meet the standards required.

An ancient proverb states: Nakaka ka pua‘a, nahā ka wa‘a; aukāhi ka pua‘a mānalo ka wa‘a.” (The pig cracks, the canoe breaks; perfect the pig, safe the canoe.), which is said to mean:Whenever a new canoe was launched, a pig was baked as an offering to the gods.  If the skin of the roasted pig cracked, misfortune would come to the canoe; but if it cooked to perfection the canoe would last a long time.”[vii]

The Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe was launched in 1993, then modified and launched again in 1994, making its first voyage in 1995.  With no navigational instruments, the crew sailed the boat more than 6,000 miles (9,660 km), from the Hawaiian Islands to Tahiti and the Marquesas, and then back to the Hawaiian Islands.  

[Photograph: Hawai‘iloa]


The crews of the Hōkūle‘a and Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoes recovered the art of non-instrument wayfinding used by Polynesian voyagers (see below), and this revival of ancient traditions continues today.

Nearly a dozen more wa‘a kaulua (Hawaiian double-hulled voyaging canoes) have now been built or are under construction, including the Makali‘i, the Nāmāhoe (on Kaua‘i), and the Hōkūalaka‘i (used by the Aha Punana Leo Hawaiian immersion education program).

The growing fleet of traditional voyaging canoes is helping Hawaiians to continue their quest for traditional knowledge and their ongoing rediscovery of the ancient skills of non-instrument navigation. 

At least a dozen people in the Hawaiian Islands have been trained in the skills of reading the stars and other traditional techniques of deep-sea voyaging.  Modern navigators such as Nainoa Thompson have also given new Hawaiian names to important navigational stars whose correct Hawaiian names are unknown.


Ancient Voyagers

The average Westerner seeking to understand the world of the ancient Pacific voyagers should remember that Polynesians and Micronesians are island people from island cultures, and they have lived for thousands of years in a different paradigm from people and cultures who live on continents—to the islanders, the ocean is their continent.

Afloat upon the surface of the ocean in their voyaging canoes, the islanders are in a dynamic world of stars and sea, moving currents of wind and water, and an ever-changing sea and sky populated by fish and whales, sea turtles and seals, and innumerable birds coming and going in every direction. 

Traditional navigators absorb the meaning of everything in their environment—the rising and setting points of the sun, moon, stars, and constellations; rolling movements of waves and swells; the flight patterns of birds; plants floating on the ocean; reflections of light off the sky, clouds and water; and even phosphorescence on the surface of the sea. 

Although the environment provides a complex matrix of navigational clues, the master navigator possesses a natural ease and intuitive sense as he or she sails their vessel to a distant destination across the vast ocean. 

Indeed the very concept of sailing the canoe may be a Western paradigm, not necessarily applicable to island cultures.  For island people, the ocean is their continent.  It is said that the master navigator upon the ocean just points the canoe in the right direction and then simply waits for the distant islands to come to him or her.   

The Polynesian sea voyagers who discovered the Hawaiian Islands likely began their west-to-east journeys when westerly winds replaced the prevailing easterly trade winds.  If they failed to find land, then they could wait for the trade winds to return and carry them home.

Without the use of modern instruments such as the compass, sextant, timepiece, and now the Global Positioning System (GPS), the Polynesian ocean travelers of ancient times sailed the Pacific using only natural clues as aids to navigation.  These traditional navigating skills were revived in the Hawaiian Islands in recent decades with the help of Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug, who shared his knowledge with Hawaiians.


Pius “Mau” Piailug—Master Navigator

Micronesian master navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug was born in 1932, and grew up on the island of Satawal in the state of Yap in Micronesia.  Satawal is only about ½-mile (.8 km) wide by 1 mile (1.6 km) long, and home to about 300 people. 

As a young child, Mau was chosen by his grandfather to become the master navigator for his people.  He began sailing with his grandfather at age four, and by age five Mau had committed to memory a “star compass” consisting of 32 stars corresponding to points around the horizon. 

“Mau learned to turn the clues from the heavens and the ocean into knowledge,” said Nainoa Thompson.[viii] 

Mau’s star compass is oriented east-west rather than north-south.  This orientation is due to the prevailing westerly direction of the sun and stars as they make their way across the visible sky.[ix]

As a young man, Mau became highly skilled in the arts of navigating canoes, and at age 20 he went through the initiation ceremony to become a “full-fledged navigator.”[x] 

Mau means “strong,” and it was the name given to Pius “Mau” Piailug when he was growing up because he was known to stay at sea for a very long time, even in very bad weather. 

“By growing up at the side of his grandfather,” said Nainoa Thompson, “he [Mau] 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 information.’”[xi]


Kihe ka ihu i ka ‘ale.

One who sneezes when the spray from the surf rises

at the bow of the canoe.

Said of one who braves danger with indifference.

                                                            Pukui: 1789-192


The wayfinding knowledge that Mau received from his grandfather was passed down through a long line of Micronesian navigators in an unbroken tradition spanning more than 3,000 years.  Sharing such traditional knowledge with others was considered kapu (forbidden).  Mau stated that “the chiefs (on Satawal) were mad at me for teaching.”[xii]

Mau believed, however, that breathing new life into the ancient skills of non-instrument (e.g., celestial) navigation was the only way to perpetuate these important cultural traditions.  Canoe navigating skills were disappearing in Mau’s own homeland—he is the youngest of just five remaining Micronesian master navigators—and the younger generation was not acquiring the knowledge.

In the Hawaiian Islands, traditional navigating skills had already disappeared.  Mau taught his skills to Hawaiians—Nainoa Thompson and others—who were interested in reviving the ancient Polynesian traditions of navigating voyaging canoes using only the stars and other directional clues provided by the natural world to sail across the Pacific Ocean.

“The star compass is the basic mental construct for navigation...if you can identify the stars, and if you have memorized where they come up and go down, you can find your direction.  The star compass is also used to read 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.”

                                                                                    Nainoa Thompson


For helping the Hawaiians revive the traditional skills of non-instrument navigating and for his role in the overall revival of Hawaiian canoe culture, Mau was honored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.  “My grandfather tell me not to hold the knowledge to myself,” said Mau, adding, “I have to pass it on.” [xiii]

Mau and his son, Sesario Sewralur, have formed an organization called the “Mau Piailug Society” which is dedicated to perpetuating traditional navigation skills and fulfilling the vision of Mau Piailug to create “one united cultural Family throughout the Pacific dedicated to the proposition that in our hearts we are all one people.”[xiv]


Non-Instrument Navigation

To navigate a canoe across the ocean, a master navigator utilizes many different directional clues in the natural environment.  These navigational clues include the positions and movements of the sun, moon, stars, and constellations, as well as prevailing winds and seas, the movements of birds and clouds, and other natural signs.

Directional information is also provided by ocean swells, which are large, organized systems of waves that travel far from the storm systems that generate them.  Swells may persist for days or even weeks. 

Northern Pacific storms generate north swells that reach the Hawaiian Islands each winter just as south Pacific storms generate south swells during the summer months.  Northeast and southeast swells are also generated by northeast and southeast trade winds.   

Swells have a general direction that is more stable and consistent than localized waves.  Due to this consistency, swells are particularly useful to the ocean navigator when the sun and stars are not visible. 

The direction of a swell may vary over a period of days or hours if the storm generating the swell is moving (and it usually is), so the navigator must regularly determine the swell direction in relationship to a known direction (e.g., the rising or setting points of a known star).

Islands also have effects on swells, which either reflect off an island or refract around it.  A master navigator may discern the existence and the bearing (direction) of an unseen distant island by noticing its subtle effects on the swell pattern.

The navigator may use the wind’s direction to hold a course by keeping the wind at a constant bearing.  However, the wind is even less stable than swells, and so the navigator must be vigilant about regularly checking the wind’s direction against more reliable clues (e.g., the direction of a known star).

Other navigational clues important to traditional voyagers are sightings of “seamarks” such as flocks of seabirds or particular forms of marine life such as jellyfish, porpoises, flying fish, sharks, and other species that may indicate to the navigator a particular latitude or location in the ocean.

Other potential seamarks include rafts of driftwood, floating land plants, or other natural debris afloat on the ocean.  Particular sea and sky conditions also reveal to the navigator familiar locations along their ancestral ocean pathways.  “Mau can unlock the signs of the ocean world,” said Nainoa Thompson, “and can feel his way through the ocean.”[xv]


“If you can read the ocean, you will never be lost.”

                                                            Mau Piailug


Traditional ocean voyagers also observe cloud formations (clouds tend to pile up over islands) as well as shades of color in the sky and water.  Moa‘e (trade winds) blow off the ocean onto islands.  The winds rise up the mountain slopes where the warm, humid air cools and condenses into windward and mauka showers.

Clouds have a distinctive shape over land, and may reveal to the trained eyes of the navigator the presence of a distant unseen island.  Land also reflects light, and the color of the sky may reveal a distant island.

Also noted by navigators is the overall “shape of the ocean—the character of the sea,” as Nainoa Thompson calls it, as well as any changes that may be occurring in the water or sky.  Light on the underside of clouds may reveal reflections off shallow waters.

Many other less tangible clues also provide directional information to the master navigator.  Some of these subtle clues may be perceived only after many decades of ocean traveling, and are based on the ancient knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation through the millennia.

A proverb from ancient times states: “He kau aune‘i i ka lae ‘a‘ā.” (“Watch out lest the canoe land on a rocky reef.”), which is explained to mean, “Watch out for trouble.”[xvi]


The Role of Birds as Guides to Navigation 

Ancient Polynesian ocean navigators also utilized their knowledge of the daily and seasonal cycles of birds. 

Migratory birds, such as the kōlea (Pluvialis fulva, Pacific golden plover) and the ‘akē‘akē (Arenaria interpres, ruddy turnstone) revealed to ancient mariners that there was land somewhere to the north or northeast.  The birds winter on islands in the Central Pacific and then head back to their arctic breeding grounds in April or May.

Also helpful to the sailors were the flight directions of pelagic (oceanic) birds, such as petrels, shearwaters, and albatross, which spend most of their time over the ocean seeking food including fish, squid, and crustaceans, and then return to land during the nesting season. 

Non-pelagic birds such as ‘a (boobies), noio (noddy terns), koa‘e (tropicbirds), and manu-o-Kū (white terns, also called fairy terns) all feed over the sea by day but return each night to their island homes.  Navigators watched for these species at dawn (when birds were leaving islands) or at dusk (when birds were returning), because sighting them meant land was near.  All of these natural clues used by the ancient navigators are still used today. 

Different species of birds provide different information to the navigators.  For example, the white tern is known to travel about 120 miles (193 km) from land while the noddy tern ranges only about 40 miles (64 km).[xvii] 

Particular bird behaviors may also be revealing.  For example, if a bird has a fish in its mouth it is likely returning to land.

Birds congregating over feeding areas reveal locations where fishing will be productive, helping the voyagers sustain themselves on their long ocean journeys.  An ancient proverb states: “I wawā no ka noio, he i‘a ko lalo.” (When the noio make a din, there are fish below.”), which is said to mean: When the people gossip, there is a cause.”[xviii]


Orienting the Canoe

Sunrise and sunset are considered the most important times in regards to navigation, and at these times of the day the navigator fixes in his or her mind the direction of the wind and ocean swells in relation to the location of the sun or stars.  This information is then used to orient the canoe in the right direction.

The location of the sunrise or sunset is aligned by the navigator to marks on the railings on each side of the canoe (eight marks on each railing).  Each of the marks is paired to a point on the stern of the canoe to provide bearings in two directions.  This results in a total of 32 bearings corresponding to 32 directional houses of the Hawaiian star compass.[xix]

During its annual cycle, the sun’s direction ranges from 23.5 degrees south on the winter solstice to 23.5 degrees north on the summer solstice and then back, crossing the equator on the spring and fall equinoxes.

When clouds block the sun in the daytime or block the stars at night, other signs of the natural environment are used by the navigator to guide the canoe.  It is then that the true skills of a master navigator (such as Mau Piailug) are revealed.

“He can be inside the hull of the canoe and just feel the different swell patterns moving under the canoe,” Nainoa Thompson said of Mau, adding that “he can tell the canoe’s direction lying down inside the hull of the canoe”[xx]


Hōkūpa‘a, Hōkūle‘a, and the Star Compass

One star that was particularly important to the ancient Polynesian voyagers was the star that Westerners call Polaris (also called the North Star), which was used by the Polynesians to determine the direction toward the Hawaiian Islands. 

The ancient Hawaiian navigators called this most northern star Hōkūpa‘a, which means “Fixed Star,” or “Stationary Star,” referring to its location, which is (nearly) due north at the very center of the circumpolar stars and very near to the North Celestial Pole. 

To an observer on Earth looking north, Hōkūpa‘a appears “fixed” or “stationary” in the sky, and doesn’t change position in the sky like all other stars (due to the Earth’s spin, or rotation).

The North Star of today, however, will not always be the North Star.  That is because the Earth wobbles on its axis in a process called precession.  One complete wobble occurs every 26,000 years. 

To an observer in the northern hemisphere, including the Hawaiian Islands, the altitude of Hōkūpa‘a above the horizon is approximately equal to the latitude of the observer.  The altitude of the Hawaiian Islands ranges from 18.5º to 22.5º.

Hōkūpa‘a is about 1.8 degrees from the actual North Celestial Pole.  As the Earth turns, Hōkūpa‘a inscribes a small circle around the actual northern pole.

If you are in the Hawaiian Islands, the “circumpolar stars” such as Hōkūpa‘a are those which are less than 18.5º to 22.5º degrees from the North Celestial Pole.  These stars do not rise or set, instead circling the North Celestial Pole as the Earth rotates. 

As Earth rotates to the east at the equator, the circumpolar stars circle the North Celestial Pole in a counter-clockwise path.


[Photograph: Nainoa Thompson]

“At night we use the stars.  We use about 220 stars by name-having memorized where they come up, where they go down.”

                                                                        Nainoa Thompson[xxi]


The time it takes a circumpolar star to make one complete circle around the North Celestial Pole is 24 hours, so the ocean navigator may gauge the movement of these circumpolar stars to determine how much time has passed.  One of these circumpolar stars is Holopuni (known to Westerners as Kochab).  Holopuni means “To sail or travel around, circumnavigate.”[xxii]

Like the sun, stars rise in the east and set in the west at the same spot each night.  In Hawaiian, hikina (east) means “to come,” as in stars “coming up” from the east, and komohana (west) means “to enter” as in the stars “entering the horizon” as they set.

 Another star important to the ancient Polynesian navigators was the orangish-red star referred to by Hawaiians as Hōkūle‘a (“Star of happiness”),[xxiii]and known to Westerners as Arcturus (Latin name Alpha Bootis).

Voyagers sailing to the Hawaiian Islands from the Marquesas or Tahiti needed to determine how far north to sail.  They knew that at the latitude of Hawai‘i Island, the star Hōkūle‘a, the highest star in the northern hemisphere, would be directly overhead (a zenith star). 

Hōkūle‘a was a celestial beacon representing their northern destination.  At the high point of its nightly arc across the sky, the star Hōkūle‘a points the way to the Hawaiian Islands. 

The star Hōkūle‘a is found in the sky by following the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper, which is known to Hawaiians as Nā Hiku (“The Seven”), referring to the seven stars in the Big Dipper’s shape.  The two stars at the end of Nā Hiku’s bowl point to Hōkūpa‘a (the North Star).

South of Hōkūle‘a, in the constellation Virgo, is a bright, blue-white star called Hikianalia, known to Westerners as Spica.  Even farther south and slightly west of Hikianalia are four stars forming a rectangle that is known as Me‘e, and known to Westerners as Corvus, the Crow.

Also providing ocean navigators with directional information is the kite-shaped constellation called Hānaiakamalama (“Cared for by the Moon”), known to Westerners as the Southern Cross.

Hānaiakamalama rotates around the Southern Celestial Pole, which is not visible from the northern hemisphere.  Observers in the northern hemisphere will see Hānaiakamalama traveling in a low arc over the southern horizon.

Hānaiakamalama stands upright as it transits the meridian dividing east and west.  As Hānaiakamalama crosses the meridian, the constellation’s height in the sky reveals the latitude of the observer. 

Hānaiakamalama’s bottom star is known as Ka Mole Honua (called Acrux by Westerners), and the top star is known as Kaulia (called Gacrus by Westerners).  Mole means “base, root,”[xxiv]and honua means “land, earth.”[xxv]  Kaulia is known as the “chief of the month Ikiiki, because it appears in that month.”[xxvi]

As seen from the Hawaiian Islands, Hānaiakamalama’s bottom star, Ka Mole Honua, is about six degrees above the horizon while the constellation’s top star, Kaulia, is about six degrees above the bottom star.  Only at the latitude of the Hawaiian Islands are these two distances the same (equidistant).[xxvii] 

In the Hawaiian Islands, Hānaiakamalama sets just after dark in late June.  Soon after that it cannot be seen in the evening hours until the following year.


The Moon and Planets

The Hawaiian term for planets is hōkū hele (“traveling stars”) or hōkū ‘ae‘a (“wandering stars”).  The rising and setting points of the visible planets (as well as the moon) vary nightly.

The ocean navigator aligns these rising and setting points with known locations of rising and setting stars, and this allows the navigator to use the moon or planets to hold a course.

As the moon and sun traverse the sky they are positioned to the east and west of each other.  This means that, to an observer on Earth, the moon’s boundary line between light and dark is aligned approximately north to south.

Some of the visible planets have more than one Hawaiian name, and some names for planets vary depending on when the planet is appearing in the sky.  For example, the Hawaiian names for Venus are Hōkūao “Morning Star,” Hōkūahiahi (“Evening Star”), Hōkūloa “Long Star,” Hōkūali‘i (“Chiefly star”), and Hōkūali‘iwahine (“Chiefly [Female] Star”).[xxviii]

Saturn is known as Makulu (“A drop of mist”).  Mars is known as Hōkū‘ula (“Red star”) and Holoholopīna‘au, ‘Aukelenui-a-iku (“Great travelling swimmer son of Iku.”)

Jupiter is known as Aohīkū (“Starlight”), ‘Iao (“Dawn”), or Ikaika (“Strong”).[xxix]  Mercury is referred to as Ukaliali‘i (“Following the Chief”) (“chief” refers to the sun). 


Kaho‘olawe—The Departure Point

The westernmost point of the island of Kaho‘olawe is known as Kealaikahiki, and is a location known from ancient times as a training ground for ocean navigators.  According to tradition, it was at Kealaikahiki that “voyages to foreign lands (Kahiki) were begun,”[xxx] and also the spot to which they returned.  Kealaikahiki means “the way to foreign lands,” [xxxi] and “the pathway to Tahiti.”[xxxii]

“The spirits are waiting,” Mau says of Kaho‘olawe, “waiting for the canoes to come; to go.”[xxxiii]

Mau had previously sailed to Kaho‘olawe in 1980 on the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe.  When he visited the island again in 2004, Mau stated that Kaho‘olawe was “for navigation.  It has some spirit about sailing.  When I come here, I feel something.  We talk story to the spirits, they look at us when we talk, but we never see them.”[xxxiv]

Mau recalled that Kaho‘olawe has traditionally been a “guidepost for Pacific travelers,”[xxxv]and noted that his own ancestors “would come here [Kaho‘olawe] first, and they talk to the spirit of this place.”[xxxvi]  “They come here with blessings,” said Mau, “and when they leave, the sprit of this place goes with them.”[xxxvii]

From Lae o Kealaikahiki (“Point of Kealikahiki”[xxxviii]) the northern and southern horizons are visible, allowing navigators to see both Hōkūpa‘a (the North Star) and Hānaiakamalama, the Southern Cross.  The Polynesian Voyaging Society has rededicated Kealaikahiki as a training ground for ocean navigators and a place to restore and perpetuate the cultural traditions of deep-sea voyaging.

Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli, the chairman of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission and one of the first protesters to occupy the island on January 7, 1976 (see Kaho‘olawe, Chapter 2), stated that Kaho‘olawe will become the piko (center) of Hawaiian sovereignty, and “a place where the culture will continue to be seeded and grow.”[xxxix]

 “Young kids can come to this island,” sail Aluli, “and learn how to feel more Hawaiian and fish and share and bring their experiences to their communities.”[xl]


“This will be a piko of the culture”

                                                            Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli [xli]

[i]Lum, Burt.  Kaho‘olawe and the Makahiki Ceremony: The Healing of an Island.  Californian Journal of Health Promotion 2003, Volume 1, Special Issue: Hawaii, 25-33.

[ii]Lum, Burt.  Kaho‘olawe and the Makahiki Ceremony: The Healing of an Island.  Californian Journal of Health Promotion 2003, Volume 1, Special Issue: Hawaii, 25-33.

[iii]p. 17, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 136.

[iv]p. 3, Papa Mau’s Legacy.  Ka Wai Ola: The Living Water of OHA.  Office of Hawaiian Affairs [OHA].  Internet site:, 3/13/2006.

[v]Ku Holo Mau / Sail On, Sail Always, Sail Forever: 2007 Voyage to Micronesia for Mau Piailug.  Maisu: A Gift for Mau.  Internet site:, 9/07/2006.

[vi]p. 175, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 1623.

[vii]p. 243, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 2227.

[viii]p. 2, Ku Holo Mau / Sail On, Sail Always, Sail Forever: 2007 Voyage to Micronesia for Mau Piailug. Pius Mau Piailug; and Reflections on Mau Piailug, by Nainoa Thompson (1996)., 9/07/2006.

[ix]p. 4, Mau’s Canoe. Internet site:, 9/18/2006.

[x]p. 1, Papa Mau’s Legacy.  Ka Wai Ola: The Living Water of OHA.  Office of Hawaiian Affairs [OHA].  Internet site:, 3/13/2006.

[xi]p. 2, Ku Holo Mau / Sail On, Sail Always, Sail Forever: 2007 Voyage to Micronesia for Mau Piailug. Pius Mau Piailug; and Reflections on Mau Piailug, by Nainoa Thompson (1996)., 9/07/2006.

[xii]Krauss; The Honolulu Advertiser, 4/02/2006.

[xiii]p. 1, Papa Mau’s Legacy.  Ka Wai Ola: The Living Water of OHA.  Office of Hawaiian Affairs [OHA].  Internet site:, 3/13/2006.

[xiv]p. 2, Papa Mau’s Legacy.  Ka Wai Ola: The Living Water of OHA.  Office of Hawaiian Affairs [OHA].  Internet site:, 3/13/2006.

[xv]p. 2, Ku Holo Mau / Sail On, Sail Always, Sail Forever: 2007 Voyage to Micronesia for Mau Piailug. Pius Mau Piailug; and Reflections on Mau Piailug, by Nainoa Thompson (1996)., 9/07/2006.

[xvi]p. 76, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 677.

[xvii]p. 8, Kawaharada, Dennis.  Polynesian Voyaging Society: Wayfinding, or Non-Instrument Navigation.  Internet site:, 9/07/2006.

[xviii]p. 137, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 1267.

[xix]p. 1, Kawaharada, Dennis.  Polynesian Voyaging Society: Wayfinding, or Non-Instrument Navigation.  Internet site:, 9/07/2006.

[xx]p. 1, Kawaharada, Dennis.  Polynesian Voyaging Society: Wayfinding, or Non-Instrument Navigation.  Internet site:, 9/07/2006.

[xxi]Kawaharada, Dennis.  Polynesian Voyaging Society: Wayfinding, or Non-Instrument Navigation.  Internet site:, 9/07/2006.

[xxii]Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H.  Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

[xxiii] Hōkū means “star,” and le‘a means “happiness” or “joy”).

[xxiv]Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H.  Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

[xxv]Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H.  Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

[xxvi]Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H.  Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

[xxvii]p. 2, Kawaharada, Dennis.  Polynesian Voyaging Society: Wayfinding, or Non-Instrument Navigation.  Internet site:, 9/07/2006.

[xxviii]Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H.  Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

[xxix]Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H.  Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

[xxx]Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini.  Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[xxxi]Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini.  Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[xxxii] Wilder, Kathryn.  The Fall and Rise of Kaho‘olawe.  The Spirit of Aloha, March/April, 2006.

[xxxiii]p. 4, Mau’s Canoe. Internet site:, 9/18/2006.

[xxxiv]Griffith, Lesa.  Kaho‘olawe: Return of the Warriors.  Honolulu Weekly, 11/16/2004.  Internet site:, 9/21/2006.

[xxxv]Viotti, Vicki.  Kaho‘olawe embraces voyagers.  The Honolulu Advertiser, 10/23/2003.  Internet site:, 9/21/2006.

[xxxvi]Viotti, Vicki.  Kaho‘olawe embraces voyagers.  The Honolulu Advertiser, 10/23/2003.  Internet site:, 9/21/2004.

[xxxvii]Kubota, Gary T.  Kahoolawe: a solemn return, an ambitious future: Hawaiians celebrate the importance of Kahoolawe in native navigation.  The Star Bulletin, 10/23/2004. Internet site:, 9/21/2006.

[xxxviii]Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini.  Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[xxxix]Viotti, Vicki.  Kaho‘olawe embraces voyagers.  The Honolulu Advertiser, 10/23/2003.  Internet site:, 9/21/2004.

[xl]Viotti, Vicki.  Kaho‘olawe embraces voyagers.  The Honolulu Advertiser, 10/23/2003.  Internet site:, 9/21/2004.

[xli]Griffith, Lesa.  Kaho‘olawe: Return of the Warriors.  Honolulu Weekly, 10/16/2004.  Internet site:, 9/21/2006.