The Wayback Machine -
The Navigators of Oceania

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The skills of the navigator are part of our Pacific Island heritage. It is the last legacy of uncounted generations of the great captains of all mankind. They have learned to steer by star horizon courses, by cloud formations, bird zones and the wave patterns broken by islands. In many areas, they enjoy greater prestige than the local village chiefs. They were men of rare, unusual and impressive talent and skills. It is to be hoped that these are not lost to future generations. (from The Art of the Navigators by Jane Resture)


The peopling of the Pacific basin, which occupies one-third of the earth's surface was a unique maritime achievement. The precise details have been lost in time although archaeology, linguistics and other studies are revealing the full story. That our ancestors entered Oceania from points in southern Asia is no longer in doubt with Heyerdahl's dissenting view seeming no longer tenable in the face of the accumulated evidence. One cannot deny, however, the distinct possibility of secondary contact having taken place with the Americas, either by Peruvian balsa or Polynesian canoe.

The ancient voyagers who undertook these long journeys were guided in their endeavours by the navigators who utilized a range of techniques in order to arrive at their destinations. The following is a summary of the basic techniques:


The early navigators used some simple techniques as an aid to their navigation. The first of these was the occurrence of trade wind clouds over invisible islands over the horizon. What the navigator could see was the reflection of the island in the under surface of the cloud - an obvious sign to the navigator that there was land ahead.

The second, the movement of the birds could be followed. Such birds as the frigate bird and the tern roost ashore and then feed at sea. Dawn and dusk flight paths pointed the way to land.

When travelling greater distances, the early navigators steered by the stars. They directed their canoes towards a particular star in the constellation Leo and when that star moved too high and too far to the left, they followed the next star that rose from the same point on the horizon. Then the next and after that the next and so on until dawn broke.

The star-compass technique is still practised over much of the Pacific. What is more impressive, however, is the island navigator's uncanny skill to steer by wave motion - swells reflected from islands beyond the horizons. The skilled navigator comes to recognise the profile and characteristic of particular ocean swells as he would the faces of his friends, but he judges their direction more by feel than by sight. The complex patterns produced by swell reflected and refracted among the islands are recognised by navigators throughout Oceania.


In examining and highlighting the techniques used by the navigators, we will bring together the range of techniques, how they interpolate and how they are refined depending upon conditions. In the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), the skills of the navigator are handed down from grandfather to grandson. In navigating by the stars, they are often trained by their grandfather in the classical maneaba tradition which allows voyages to be made without the use of navigational aids by simply following the stars.

The first requirements of any system of navigation is to enable the voyager to take his departure and continue towards his objective in the right direction. In this respect, the most accurate direction indicators for Pacific Islanders, still used in many parts of Oceania, are stars low in the sky that have either risen or are about to set. The canoe is steered towards whichever star rises or sets in the direction of the island they wish to visit. 

As the earth rotates, each star appears to come up over the eastern horizon at its own special point, describes its arc across the sky and sets on its precise westerly bearing. If it rises in the northeast, for example, the arc it follows is inclined towards the north and it will set in the northwest.

When the star has risen too high for convenience, or too far to one side or the other side of the correct bearing, the next star to rise or set at the same point, is used in its place. If a suitable substitute is not immediately available, the course is maintained by allowing for the original star's increasing displacement.

During the day, when steering by stars is not a possibility, the four points of the compass are indicated by the sun in the course of each day. There are the easterly and westerly bearings of sunrise and sunset that require periodic comparison with stars, and north and south can be precisely determined at noon.

Knowing the sun's bearings, at sunrise and sunset and its track across the sky, the navigator is able to make the almost automatic mental interpolations necessary for steering by the sun. In practice, the navigator is naturally checking its bearings all the time from the swells and the wind as well as the sun.

The ocean wave and swell pattern is almost always a complex one, with several systems that differ in height, length, shape, and speed, moving across each other from different directions at the same time. It follows that every island navigator must select those swells that he considers most significant and reliable.

Swells from relatively distant origins are long in wavelength from crest to crest and move fast with the slow swelling undulation, while wind waves and swells from nearby sources are shorter and steeper. Waves thrown up by the immediate wind tend to be temporary as well as having breaking crests and other recognizable characteristics, a distinction that is well recognized by Pacific Island navigators.

A Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) navigator, when heading for somewhere far away, would go in the general direction and then look for signs of land. It would be the stars that set the course for his travels but the landfall was determined by the very important land signs, especially clouds, waves and birds. Quite often, the navigator would, on a long voyage, head for a cluster of islands, and then locate the one he wanted by land signs.

In this respect, the navigator considers birds are his very best friends. Birds are particularly useful as they have up to twice the sight range of an island from a canoe. The sight range of land is about ten miles and that of the birds is about twenty miles. The birds which are most significant are terns and noddies. It is in the early morning when the sea birds fly out to their fishing ground and towards the evening when they return home again, and at these times only, do their flight paths indicate the direction of land. For example, towards evening, the frigate birds will be seen to abandon their leisurely patrolling, climb even higher and set off in one direction, probably homing by sight. About the same time, the boobies will tire of their inquisitive inspections and fly low and arrow-straight for the horizon. As the noddies depart, they will weave slightly in and out between the crest of the larger waves, while the terns will be flying a little above them, but all will be following a very exact path towards their home island.

The important point for the navigator, is, that their habits are the same and they provide reliable and consistent land indication morning and evening up to twenty miles off shore, or twice the sight range of an atoll or canoe.

Another technique for locating land is the use of land clouds. As you approach land from a distance, the land cloud at first lies on the horizon like the other clouds, but as the hours go by, the navigator will notice that he either stays in the same place or reforms continually over the one place. During times when it is calm and there are no other clouds, the navigator may see a pair of clouds low on the horizon of the type called te nangkoto, which are like a pair of eyebrows. In the presence of wind and other clouds, a vee-shaped cloud will indicate the presence of land below the horizon. The other clouds in the proximity will drift around but the vee-shaped clouds will not.

One of the very few individual voyages to have been recorded from early last century was made by the Tongan chief, Kau Moala. We owe this record to an English youth named Will Mariner (see Web site - Recollections Of An Early Visitor To Tonga), a survivor of the taking of the privateer Port au Prince at Ha'apai, who was adopted by the Tongan chief Finau. Kau Moala was one of the specially accomplished navigators known as kaivai or "water eaters". He was also the son of Akau'ola, High Navigator of Tonga.

Kau Moala was returning from Fiji towards the Tongan island of Vava'u, a passage of 250 miles of open sea. He had sighted his objective when the sea became turbulent and he was obliged to change course and run for Samoa, which is over three hundred miles from Vava'u. The wind soon increased to a heavy gale which drifted him to the island of Futuna. Futuna is about 300 miles from Samoa and 340 from Vava'u. His canoe with its load of sandalwood was taken from him and a new one built according to normal Pacific Island custom.

About a year later, he set out once more with 39 companions including four Futunans who had wanted to go with him so that they might visit distant countries. They touched at the solitary island of Rotuma, 295 miles to the westward, and thence sailed 255 miles south to Fiji, ultimately returning to Tonga. It was only the accident of Mariner's presence on the scene when Kau Moala returned to Tonga that allowed these remarkable voyages to be recorded.    

Art of the Navigators
Polynesian Voyaging
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(E-mail: -- Rev. 1st February 2005)