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Hōkūle‘a: The Art of Wayfinding (Interview With a Master Navigator)

In preparation for the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s (PVS) departure from Hawaiʻi to sail around the world for five years aboard the traditional canoe Hōkūle‘a, it is important to take a closer look at one aspect of the voyage that truly makes this endeavor unique in modern times: navigating without instruments.

In today’s society, where so many of our daily tasks are aided by technology, the idea of setting sail for weeks without a GPS, or even a compass, seems insane. Keep in mind though that the ancient Polynesians and Pacific Islanders mastered these techniques long ago and used them to explore and settle the widespread islands of Pacific. For some of them, navigating the oceans was just as familiar as navigating the land, and despite the inevitable dangers that were associated with being out at sea for long stretches, it was merely a way of life.

To get a better understanding of traditional navigation, I sat down to talk story with Chad Kālepa Baybayan, one of the ‘pwo’ (master) navigators for PVS. Kālepa is currently the Navigator in Residence at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawaiʻi in Hilo, and has been involved with PVS for over 35 years.

As one of the pwo (pronounced “poh”) navigators, Kālepa has sailed numerous voyages on Hōkūle‘a and is heavily involved in the Worldwide Voyage. His first solo navigation was from the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia to Hawaiʻi in 1995, which is a distance of approximately 2000 nautical miles in open ocean.

Chad Kālepa Baybayan (Courtesy of the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center)
Chad Kālepa Baybayan (Courtesy of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center)

DL: Just what exactly is this type of navigation? 

CB:  ‘Wayfinding’ is what it’s called. We used to call it ‘non-instrument navigation’ but as we started to get a deeper understanding of the process, we came to find out that it’s about stewardship of the canoe, the resources, and the people. So it’s basically taking care of everything and everyone involved – that’s the job of the navigator.  So it’s more holistic and that’s how the term ‘wayfinding’ came to be. Wayfinding is a natural orientation process that uses surrounding environmental clues – sun, moon, stars, waves, and animals – to help set direction.

DL: How long did it take you to reach a point where you could consider yourself a navigator?

CB:  35 years! I’ve been involved with the Polynesian Voyaging Society for over three decades and I’m learning all the time. In that regard, I will never be a “master” because there will always be more to learn.

Pwo navigator, Bruce Blankenfeld, shows apprentice navaigator, Lehua Kamalu, and long time crew member, Kaleo Wong, the signs in nature that will help them with the voyage.
Pwo navigator, Bruce Blankenfeld, shows apprentice navaigator, Lehua, and long time crew member, Kaleo, the signs in nature that will help them with the voyage. (Photo by ‘Aina Paikai, courtesy of ‘Oiwi TV)

DL:  You are considered to be one of the few pwo navigators in the world for this type of navigation. People may look at you and say “You’re a master navigator; you can take us on a voyage to anywhere.” What is your view on that?

CB:  I just think I’m a student of navigation. I’m always learning and always hoping to learn more. Really, the idea of “pwo” is based on a 2000 year-old tradition. What it truly is, is a mechanism to get people to commit to the notion of stewarding the community – to go out and search for food, and be a provider to the people. So they vet you and publicly ‘ordain’ you [*chuckles*] but the hook is: “Now you’re a full navigator, so go feed us and take care of us!” So that’s what it’s really about.

DL: Tell me about the navigation training process. What was it like to learn from other pwo navigators?

CB:  I first started learning from Nainoa [Thompson] and then through Mau [Piailug]. Nainoa re-engineered the art of wayfinding through academics, because he navigated [Hōkūle‘a] in Mau’s absence. So our navigation method is really a hybrid because it’s grounded in modern science. It’s still non-instrument navigation but with more calculated planning and precision. After [Nainoa] had re-engineered the art, he felt that something was missing so he went back to Micronesia and invited Mau to return and round out his teaching. But in the evolution of re-creating the art of wayfinding, what Nainoa was actually doing was reaching back and tying it to a deeper tradition, because when Mau came to Hawaiʻi and observed the Hawaiian star compass, it was based upon the same system and principles that were used in Micronesia. In essence, Nainoa was validating the tradition of navigation.

Pius "Mau" Piailug teaching a young navigator with a star compass on the island of Satawal, in Micronesia
The late Pius “Mau” Piailug teaches a young navigator with a star compass on the island of Satawal, in Micronesia. Mau is considered to be one of the best traditional navigators of our time. (Photo by Na’alehu Anthony, courtesy of O’iwi TV)
Ka'iulani Murphy, a navigator and instructor, teaching her college class about the Hawaiian star compass
In Hawai’i, wayfinding is taught in the formal classroom setting as well.  Here, Ka’iulani Murphy, a navigator and instructor, teaches her college class about the Hawaiian star compass.  (Photo by Daniel Lin)

DL:  In today’s modernized world, where do you see wayfinding fitting in? Where can this knowledge go and why is it important?

CB: It really is a pretty unique set of skills that one would aspire to becoming proficient at. What it truly does is sharpen the human mind, intellect, and ability to decipher codes in the environment. It’s also incredibly rewarding to navigate and make a distant landfall. For me, it’s the most euphoric feeling that I have ever felt.

DL:  When you’re out on a long sail and you’re the navigator, what goes through your mind? Are you scared? Confident? Excited?

CB:  Well, the first time I navigated, I was scared. I was terribly frightened. But now I’m more confident because I understand the process. After being successful at doing it once, the principles become entrenched and then you understand what it takes to make a landfall. From there, each wayfinding skill that you are proficient at only further enables your ability to find your destination.

Master navigator, Lorenzo Sartilug, patiently observes the sky to determine the weather for the upcoming day.  Just like with any trip, looking at weather forecasts is a critical part of knowing when it is safe to sail.
Pwo navigator, Lorenzo Sartilug, patiently observes the sky to determine the weather for the upcoming day. Just like with any trip, looking at weather forecasts is a critical part of knowing when it is safe to sail. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Master navigator, Francis Sermanyoung, displaying two forms of his 'pwo' status: amulets worn around the wrist given by his teacher, Mau, and; an official certificate of competency given by government of the Federated States of Micronesia.  (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Pwo navigator, Francis Sermanyoung, displays two forms of his ‘pwo’ status: bracelets made of coral and feathers given by his teacher, Mau Piailug, and an official certificate of competency given by government of the Federated States of Micronesia. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

For more information about Hōkūle‘a and how you can support the Worldwide Voyage, visit www.hokulea.org

Further readings:   Hōkūle‘a – Getting Ready for the Voyage of a Lifetime

 

Comments

  1. Lorenzo Sartilug
    Yap Island
    March 31, 11:00 pm

    Dan, thank you so much for the article. I will send copies to our friends in Satawal especially Pwo Francis Sermanyoung to read.

  2. Zayin
    Australia
    March 4, 12:43 am

    What an incredible set of skills– it is wonderful that these arts are being passed on.