by Betty Fullard-Leo
Hundreds of years before European seafarers sailed
into Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, early Polynesians
systematically navigated through 16 million square miles
of the Pacific. These voyages of discovery are thought
to have begun as early as 300 AD, dwindling off about
1000 AD and ceasing about 1200 AD.
Until 1976 when the ancient water routes were retraced
through modern "voyages of discovery," historians
speculated about the origins of Hawai'i's first settlers.
In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl built the balsa-wood raft Kon-Tiki
and sailed from Peru across 4,300 miles of open ocean
to test his hypothesis that aboriginal South Americans
could have settled the Pacific Islands. But today, Polynesians
and most historians believe the journeys of three significant
voyaging canoes, the Hokulea, Hawai'i Loa, and Makali'i,
have proven that Hawai'i's original settlers came from
the Marquesas and other southwesterly points of the
Pacific. Archaeologists point to clues such as similar
one-piece bone fishooks found in New Zealand, Easter
Island, the Cooks, the Societies and the Marquesas.
Stories of the god Maui are also shared by many of the
people of Polynesia. In addition, only Hawaiians and
the Marquesans used an identical lure for catching octopus,
and most conclusive of all, are shards of Lapita pottery
made 3,000 years ago and brought by Polynesia's earliest
settlers which indicate a trail of settlement from the
west through Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. When the main Polynesian
voyages of discovery ceased, the sextent was still 500
years from being developed, and Christopher Columbus
had not yet ventured across the Atlantic. Yet, scholars
believe the ancient Polynesians made repeated trips,
even sailing against the prevailing winds-wayfinding
by memorizing the movements of the stars and by observing
wind, waves, currents, clouds and seabirds. Until recently,
these early navigational skills were lost to modern
On the beach at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, master
navigator Clay Bertleman stands beside a star compass,
a raised stone platform used to identify and reflect
the path of the stars above. A dozen young people listen
intently as he leads a star identification class, describing
how most stars rise at particular points in the east
and set at corresponding points in the west. "This
was the way our ancestors navigated during their voyages
of discovery undreds of years before Europeans came
to Hawai'i," explains Bertleman.
Long before he became head of the Wayfinding Program
for the resort's Interpretive Center, Bertleman learned
to navigate in the way of his Polynesian ancestors through
hands-on experience captaining the sailing canoes Hokule'a
and Makali'i during several voyages between Hawai'i
and Tahiti. He and his brother Shorty, as well as a
number of other Hawai'I navigators, learned star-based
wayfinding techniques from Mau Piailug. Piailug was
one of the only master navigators who knew the old methods
when he was discovered in the mid-1970s by members of
the Polynesian Voyaging Society living on Satawal in
the Cook Islands.
Piailug's students absorbed all they could about stars,
waves and ocean currents, simultaneously memorizing
the names and movements of stars important in wayfinding.
Many of these Hawai'i students sailed with Nainoa Thompson,
another early student of Piailug's who was instrumental
in guiding voyages of the Hokule'a, the Star of Gladness,
in 1976, 1980, 1985-87 and 1992. This double-hulled
voyaging canoe was built to replicate as closely as
was known the design of ancient canoes, though its hulls
were made of fiberglass.
In 1993, another voyaging canoe, Hawai'i Loa, was completed
of natural materials and successfully sailed to the
Society and Marquesas Islands without the use of modern
navigational equipment. In 1995, the Bertleman family
with the help of members of the Big Island community
built the 54-foot Makali'i. For the Bertlemans, it was
the culmination of a long-time dream. Over the years,
Clay Bertleman, his brother Shorty, and Chad Paishon
continued to study navigation and sail together. Four
years ago, Thompson launched a program for Big Island
youngsters called Moku O Hawai'i Na Haumana Kelo, whose
translated name tells it all-"From the Islands
of Hawai'i, these are the children who sail." When
he became overloaded with duties on O'ahu (such as a
navigational program he started at the University of
Hawai'i-Windward Campus), Bertleman stepped in to develop
and guide the Big Island program.
Last year 156 students from eight Big Island high schools
of all ethnic backgrounds completed a week-long training
session during spring break, then sailed for nine-days
on the Makali'i along the Kona-Kohala coast from Mahukona
to South Point. They learned about Hawaiian culture;
they learned teamwork, critical thinking, menu planning,
geography and mathmatics. Explains Bertleman, "It's
important that they learn about the Hawaiian culture,
but it's about even more than that. They learn cultural
values-it's a whole self esteem thing."
Bertleman introduces students to Hawaiian concepts
of deep ocean navigation, a skill that might take months
to learn and much longer to perfect during actual sailing
expeditions. It is likely that early voyaging Polynesians
determined their position on the ocean by picturing
their canoe in the open ocean at the center of a huge
circle, or star compass, similar to the one at Hualalai.
Their navigators knew the rise and set points of the
sun and the moon, plus those of countless stars and
planets. The stars trace arcs on the sky as the earth
rotates. Long arcs form at the equator where stars pass
across the sky most rapidly, shorter arcs form in polar
regions, while circumpolar stars near the celestial
poles do not rise or set.
Initially, 36 stars were identified and used on star
compasses to give 72 rising and setting points that
allowed Hawai'i's early navigators to orient the whole
compass with respect to a canoe even if only one star
were recognizable in a cloudy sky. If the navigator
saw the culmination point of a rising star, he knew
either true north or true south lay directly beneath
it. North-south lines of direction can also be determined
by pairs of stars on the same celestial longitude and
by extending an imaginary line dividing day and night
on the moon, particularly during its crescent phase.
Half-a-dozen equally complex ways exist for estimating
latitude. Stars such as Arcturus (Hokule'a in Hawaiian),
Sirius (A'a), Polaris, (Hoku-pa'a, the unmoving star),
and constellations like the Southern Cross, the Big
Dipper (Nahiku) and the Pleiades, called Na-huihui-a-Makali'i
which translates to "cluster of little eyes,"
furnish important signposts during long voyages. Today,
Bertleman can identify and use 119 stars.
Stars are only a small part of navigation, however.
Assessments must be made at sunrise and sunset, speed
and time need to be noted, as well as the direction
of swells and where the wind is coming from.
When the celestial star compass disappears on a cloudy
night, ancient-and present day wayfinders-were forced
to rely solely on the surface of the sea. Mau Piailug,
like his ancestors, is so attuned to the sea, he can
recognize five different swells, or long waves generated
by pressure systems far beyond the horizon. Swells pressed
onto the ocean by trade winds might remain the same
for weeks and months at a time. By hearing and feeling
the way the swells slap against the bow and how the
canoe rocks, navigators can keep the direction steady.
Once near land, natural signs help to pinpoint an island.
Birds that go out to sea in the morning to feed and
return in the evening are welcoming sights for any voyager
as they indicate the nearness of land. Rapidly moving
clouds propelled by trade winds indicate open ocean,
contrasting with high stationary clouds that collect
over land. And when a light green color is reflected
on the underside of a cloud, it might indicate a shallow
lagoon protected by an island land mass.
Today, traditional navigation skills have been recovered,
but the goal now is to perpetuate them by practicing
them and passing them on to younger generations. For
Pacific Islanders the recovery of these amazing navigational
techniques provides proof of their origin, a seafaring
heritage deserving of pride and honor that surpasses
the skills of much later explorers. As Clay Bertleman
puts it, "For me, this work is a lifetime commitment."
may submit editorial comments to any of our stories
by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback
to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest."
appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and
appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or
reprinting of these stories without the expressed written
consent of the author is prohibited.