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Tracking the stars above and islands below

The sun, stars, waves and birds are used in Hawaiian navigation, says Iosepa’s Captain Mark Ellis

Hawaiian star wayfinding map
A Hawaiian star navigation map
Photo by Camille Jovenes

The ancient art of wayfinding was retaught to Hawaiians by a man from Micronesia who had faith in his ancestors’ knowledge. The lessons learned in navigation apply to our lives, as well as to sailing, said Mark Ellis, the director of Voyaging Experiences at the Polynesian Cultural Center and the captain of Iosepa.

Thousands of observations are made on the deck of a canoe every day, such as where the sun is setting or where the wind is heading, said Ellis. Those observations help make hundreds of choices, such as how to steer the canoe and whether to put up a bigger or smaller sail. “At sunrise and sunset, during the transition time of dawn and dusk, we answer two questions: Where are we in the phase of the earth? And what direction are we going?” he continued.

The only way to know where you are is to know where you sailed from, said Nainoa Thompson, the CEO of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Ellis said all the concepts used to sail can be applied to life.

Mark Ellis stands by a small canoe exhibit
Mark Ellis stands by a small canoe exhibit
Photo by Camille Jovenes

Preserving traditional wayfinding

Ellis said he learned how to navigate from several people, but the Hawaiians first learned how to navigate from a man named Pius “Mau” Piailug, who was from Satawal, Micronesia. The first modern canoe was called Hokule’a, he said. “The Hawaiians built the canoe to prove the fact that our islands and our ancestors purposely navigated throughout Polynesia and the Pacific,” said Ellis.

The Hawaiians had a canoe but no navigator, he said. They searched the Pacific for a teacher and finally found Piailug, who agreed to teach them, said Ellis. “The Hawaiians asked Mau if he had been to Tahiti before, to which he answered, ‘No, but I trust in the teachings of my ancestors. I am only courageous because I have faith in the teachings of my ancestors. The concepts and my faith in my ancestors are what’s going to take us there,’” said Ellis.

Ellis said Piailug took the canoe and taught the crew members wayfinding using a Micronesian star compass that separates the horizon into 32 points. Ellis said navigators stay awake up to 20 hours to monitor and observe their surroundings. He said a Hawaiian named Nainoa Thompson, who Piailug taught, gathered his knowledge and created the Hawaiian star compass, making it easier to understand. “We have this compass, and it teaches us how to put things in order,” said Ellis.

Relying on nature and celestial bodies

On the Polynesian Voyaging Society website, Thompson says, “You cannot look up at the stars and tell where you are… It all has to be done in your head.” He said the principle is easy, but it is difficult to do. The North Star, or Hokupa’a in Hawaiian, will always be in the North, said Ellis. If the canoe is heading towards Hokupa’a, you are going North, he explained. If it is behind you, you’re heading South. If you look at Hokupa’a and stick out your right hand, to the right of your hand will always be East, and the left will always be West, he said. “This is a simplified concept of how we use the stars [to navigate],” said Ellis.

In the daytime they navigate by the sun, Ellis said. He said, “The sun rises typically in the East and sets in the West.” If you want to go North, the sun should rise on your right and set on your left, he explained.

When the clouds cover the sky or the sun is too high, Ellis said they use the wind and waves to navigate. He said the wind creates swells in the ocean. “If the sun is coming up and we still want to head North, we notice the wind coming from the East.” The wind causes the waves to pick up and drop the canoe, creating a rhythm, Ellis explained. He
said, “When I was heading down to Galapagos Island from Panama on Hokulea, there were some big swells that were coming from the South. We were able to identify and hold onto that swell to tell our direction.” Thompson said Piailug told him, “If you can read the ocean, you will never be lost.”

Ellis said when they are getting closer to the islands, they look for land-based seabirds. He explained, “These birds live on land and fly out to the sea to eat, but every night, they return home.” He said if they spot this kind of bird and the sun is setting, it means the birds are going home. “We follow that bird to the island. In the morning, the birds wake up and
head out from the island to fish and eat. So we go in the opposite direction,” he continued. Ellis said when birds are spotted, they start their search for an island. He said there are navigators on board who keep track of where they are heading and the crew member’s job is to steer the canoe in the right direction.

Learn more

According to the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s website, its mission is to “perpetuate the art and science of traditional Polynesian voyaging and the spirit of exploration through experimental educational programs that inspire students and their communities to respect and care for themselves, each other, and their natural and cultural environments.” Ellis said they offer classes and training and you can find more about it at