The Polynesians were good seaman and navigators who sailed the seas in voyaging canoes hundreds of years before the Europeans.  The Pacific ocean covers one-third of the Earth's surface and the Polynesians live on islands surrounded by this vast ocean.  The ocean is integrated into the Polynesian culture.  

Polynesian navigators did not use maps, sextants or compasses.  They used the paths of the stars, the winds and rhythm of the ocean by night and the color of the sky, the sun, the winds, the shapes of clouds and the ocean currents during the day.  The swells and the presence of birds told them there was land ahead.  Navigation was a precise science that was passed on verbally from one navigator to another for countless generations.

From Hawaiians as Navigators and Seamen.  

A priestly astrologer, the kilo hoku gave the important prospective trips a good clearance, or held the boat for a better day and mixed his rites were the realties of keen weather observing. If the rainbow stood arched in the wrong quarter, if the clouds were flying in scattered fragments, the wind and sea from the wrong direction, the sailing was delayed. But if the indications were fair the astrologer completed the prognosis with an inspired dream, and the voyage was well begun.

The canoe captain, the ho'okele then took command. He knew the different waves with their specific names, equivalent to our own cross sea, following sea, head sea, etc.; and the winds of many kinds, each with its name and peculiar characteristic; and he knew his boat, and how it should be handled under every condition, even to righting it if overturned. To make the desired landfall the ho'okele first located the North Star, in Hawaiian, Hokupa'a, or fixed star, and kept it on the proper bearing; and then selected from the heavens the steering star, the star from among many that would carry him safely to his port. If the little star near Na Hiku (The Seven, or The Dipper) was seen to wink frequently, or if other signs were present, a storm was approaching, and he steered for a safe haven.

The navigator knew his astronomy, Ka 'oihana kilokilo, and his geography, kukulu o kahiki, and became he ho'okele-moana, a deep-water sailor. His chart might be the circular base of a gourd, lines burnt in to show the meridian of Hawaii, and the tropics. From Hokupa'a, the North Star, to Newe, the Southern Cross, was the Hawaiian Greenwich; the northern tropic was Kealanui Polohiwa a Kane, the black shining highway of the s un; the southern tropic was Kealanui ka piko o Wakea, the highway to the middle of the earth. The east was Keala'ula a Kane, the red track of the sun; and the west was Kealanui ma'awe'ula a Kanaloa, the wide red track of Kanaloa. In the celestial sphere s o bounded moved the stars, na hoku pa'a o ka 'aina, among them the navigational stars (na hoku ho'okele); and the planets, na hoku hele (moving stars). Beyond were strange stars, na hoku o ka lewa. Of the planets the Hawaiians knew five: Mars as Hoku 'ula , the Red Star; Venus as Hoku loa, the Great Star; Jupiter as Ka'awela, the Brilliant One; Mercury as Ukali, the [Sun] Follower; and Saturn as Makulu. Of the stars a great many were listed in the old instructions and mele (songs), many not identified toda y. Besides the North Star and the Southern Cross, Altair, Vega, Sirius, Orion, the Pleiades, the Dipper, Castor and Pollux, and others were known and studied.

The Hawaiians used a calendar based on the moon.  They corrected its error by reference to the stars, named each month, and each night of the month by the characteristics of the moon, and judged the hour closely by the stars at night, or the sun by day. Thus equipped many brave chieftains of the olden times made the great voyage to Tahiti and back. How they provided sufficient food and water, how they survived storms and calms and submerged reefs and lee shores, is but briefly known from the chants that have come down to us. What captains failed and died unsung will never be known. But we do know of many who succeeded, and brought back new chiefs and priests to Hawai'i, new customs and ideas, dances and drums, plants and dresses, and started ferment in Hawaiʻi nei that did not end until Kamehameha the Great ruled supreme over the eight islands.

Of Hawai'i specifically, such names as Pa'ao, Kaulu-a-Kalana, Paumakua, and the famous old sea-going family headed by Mo'ikeha and including his foster son La'a, named La'a-maikahiki, the son Kila, and the grandson Kaha'i, have come down to us as great vo yagers of a later period, when Hawai'i and the southerly islands revived the old bond, and exchanged ideas and peoples, after several centuries had been allowed to elapse since the original settlers had come north to "Green-backed Hawai'i" as they called it.

As mariners came to rely on Western technology, these navigational skills and the double canoes that the Polynesians used to traverse the Pacific Ocean disappeared until the 1970ʻs.  See Hokūleʻa. 

Of interest on the Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions website is Traditional Tahitian Navigation by Andia Y. Vareia.  I found it interesting because it was published in The Quest and Occupation of Tahiti by Emissaries of Spain during the years 1772-6 (3 vols.), B.G. Corney (ed.), London: Hakluyt Society, 1913-1919, Vol. II, 284-287).  At that point in history, the Polynesian method of navigation had not yet been replaced by Western technology.


Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions, A website that houses materials related to the revival of voyaging and non-instrument navigation led by the Polynesian Voyaging Society and its voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a.

Hawaiians as Navigators and Seamen, Samuel Wilder King, From the Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society, 1925, 11-14 - Never Lost 

PBS - Polynesia's Genius Navigators 

Mau Piailug - The Navigators Pathfinders of the Pacific; A Bridge Between Cultures 2012 

Coffee Times - Star Struck by Wayfinding

—————————————— Published Oct 2015 —————————————— 

©Feb 2018                       Honolulu County Coordinator Doreen Harunaga-Ewing