Steering by the Stars

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 Image courtesy of the Bishop Museum

Image courtesy of the Bishop Museum

In 1976, Hōkūle’a–a replica of an ancient Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoe, the word’s first catamaran–set sail from Hawaii for Tahiti, navigated by Mau Piailug, a practitioner of the traditional art of finding land without a chart, compass or sextant. Arriving in Tahiti after 31 days at sea, the passage proved not only that such vessels were fast and seaworthy, but that the time-honored skills of the ancient navigators made it possible for them to navigate thousands of miles by following only the wind, wave and stars. On the return trip to Hawaii, a young new Hawaiian crewmember, Nainoa Thompson, also set about mastering the seafaring skills of his ancestors. In the process he learned a number of invaluable lessons about Hōkūlea, the sea and himself. [As retold in an excerpt from the recently published book, Hawaiki Rising]

Hōkūle’a forced her way north, close-hauled, into a 20-knot easterly wind. Her crew watched the mountains of Tahiti sink slowly below the horizon. Clouds were stacked up over the mountains and the light, reflecting from the lagoon, painted their underbellies a faint blue-green.

Leaving Tahiti was more difficult than Nainoa imagined. “The people have so much feeling that it was hard to say goodbye,” he wrote in his log. “I’m learning to grow and express my feelings without being embarrassed. They have so much love. I have learned that it’s not the head that must be strong to keep you going—it’s the heart—from Puaniho.” Nainoa cried openly for the first time he could remember. Why so much emotion? he wondered. I just met them. I spent so little time with them. “It’s the bond between us,” he concluded. “It is ancient. We are family. We’re descendants of the same ancestors.” In his notebook he drew a simple diagram:

Tahiti <—> Hawai’i

Now in her element, Hōkūle’a rode easily over ponderous swells. When she had set out from Hawai’i, no one really knew if she could withstand the rigors of such a long voyage. That she did so, and admirably, comforts her crew. Still, for all of them, it was a voyage into the unknown.

Nainoa Thompson at sea. Photo by Dr. Ben Young

Nainoa Thompson at sea. Photo by Dr. Ben Young

Eleven men were aboard: Snake Ah Hee, Andy Espirito, Kawika Kapahulehua, Mel Kinney, Kainoa Lee, Kimo Lyman, Gordon Pi’ianai’a, Leonard Puputauiki, Nainoa Thompson, Maka‘ala Yates and Dr. Ben Young—and two women, Penny Rawlins and Keani Reiner. Kawika was captain. Gordon replaced Wally as first mate. Kimo and Lele would navigate, this time with compass, map and sextant, Mau [the Micronesian-born navigator on the first passage] having departed. Of the 13 crew, only five had been to sea before. The others were familiar with the near ocean, but they had never spent more than a few days beyond sight of land. And this voyage might last a month or more.

By almost any standards, conditions aboard Hōkūle’a were primitive. The crew bathed in saltwater from a bucket. To relieve themselves, they grabbed a rail and hung over the side, always watchful of large swells that might sweep them overboard. They slept in a small lauhala (pandanus leaf) hut amidships—eight berths, four over four. Rain and spray seeped between the lauhala mats and into sleeping bags. “Water seemed to come in everywhere. We were wet all the time,” recalls Dr. Ben Young, the canoe’s resident physician. “There was only one entrance to the hut,” Nainoa recalls. “It was claustrophobic. I slept with my hand sticking out through the lauhala matting so if we capsized I could find my way out.” On deck, there was no protection from the elements. Many were seasick. “When we left Tahiti I didn’t know how I would be,” Snake recalls, “especially on a long voyage. I got sick on the first day. Then right after that I got my sea legs.”

Nainoa served as what merchant mariners call an “ordinary seaman,” the lowest-ranked sailor in a long hierarchy of ranks. But even that term, given his lack of deep sea voyaging, was optimistic. He needed time to adjust to the open decks, the motion, the spray. Like the rest of his crewmates, his first priority was to endure these rigors. But unlike them he had an additional mission—to learn as much as he could about the ancient way of navigating. He began by making a list of what he wanted to accomplish:

Write up changes in the stars
Orient myself with as many guides as possible
Use swells as guide
And sounds the canoe makes in that particular direction to the swell
Set of sails give clues to direction

Nainoa stood his first watch. Concentrate on steering, he told himself. Pay attention to the swells and stars. Get a feel for the wind. Off watch, he wrote in his log: “Didn’t feel too good. Took things slow including eating. Night was pretty cold and a little wet. Stars were good—really dig them.” He reminded himself to look for patterns. When do the stars rise and set? How do their paths across the sky change with latitude? How to use all this to navigate? Without Mau, he must teach himself. He had read everything he could find about Mau’s star compass. “I knew the compass as a concept,” he recalls, “but I didn’t know how it worked. It was an intellectual idea. I knew there would be problems trying to apply it on the ocean.”

The concept was straightforward—stars rise in the east, arc overhead, and set in the west, defining points on the horizon to steer by, or “houses,” as Nainoa called them. He had observed this on land, but could he actually find his way at sea by a heavenly compass? He decided to experiment during this first evening watch. The canoe moved easily into a gentle wind—nicely balanced—just a touch of the steering paddle to keep her on course. Nainoa observed the magnetic compass dial—20 degrees. Big Dipper was to port, its handle almost vertical to the horizon. He aligned stars in the handle with Hōkūle’a’s shrouds. The Southern Cross was astern, the Scorpion on the starboard quarter. He covered the compass with a T-shirt. Okay now, Hōkūle’a, let’s see what we can do.


Clouds sailed across the Big Dipper so he steered by the star Mau called Mailap, also known as Altair, just forward of the starboard beam. Hold her there. When the clouds hid Mailap, he found the Southern Cross astern. Right where she should be. Hōkūle’a moved on, riding gentle crests. Time, measured by the hands of his wristwatch under a flashlight, ticked by. Fifteen minutes. He uncovered the compass. Twenty degrees, right on course. A small beginning perhaps, but it proved he could find direction by the stars alone. Still, there were problems.

It was easy to steer by a star low on the eastern horizon, hovering just above the house from which it had risen, but after an hour or so, it was too high to be an accurate guide. Confounding the problem, he knew the stars rose four minutes earlier every day, so a star rising at sunset when the canoe departed would be useful for only a week or so. If I’m going to use the star compass, I’ve got to memorize lots of stars, Nainoa thought. As the canoe sailed north, crossing parallels of latitude, the houses where the stars rose and set shifted on the horizon. “The angle of their arc, the time at night when they rise, their path in the sky, the amount of time they are in the sky all change,” he wrote in his log. “So it’s very hard to use the stars unless you have a magnetic compass to check them by.” Observing the sky and testing his understanding of celestial motion, Nainoa began translating data into knowledge—a distinction he would use all his life. Data are facts—the stars rise in the east and set in the west. Knowledge is applying those facts to a practical end—finding your way across a vast ocean. “I learned so much on that voyage,” Nainoa recalls, “because I was prepared to learn from my collection of academic ideas by putting them into practice—until it became knowledge.”

“Nainoa was always looking at the sky,” Snake recalls. “He was always holding on to something and looking this, looking that. I never asked him about it because that’s the way I do it. If you are learning something you don’t tell anyone, you just do it yourself.”

Nainoa observed first mate Gordon Pi‘ianai‘a and navigator Kimo Lyman. They were old salts. These guys are amazing, he thought. They feel everything on the canoe. It takes a lot of experience to be like them.

As first mate, Gordon carried out the captain’s orders and maintained discipline. During the first week at sea, he had carefully observed his crew. “I didn’t sleep too much that first week because I didn’t know what kind of crew I was sailing with, but at the end of the week I slept when it was time to sleep. I had a lot of confidence in everybody.”

“I was concerned at first,” Snake recalls, “because of all the trouble the other crew had. But everybody helped on the canoe. Whatever you needed to do, people were there to make it easier.”

On July 10th, six days out, the wind piped up. “Made good mileage today,” Nainoa wrote. “The canoe is really flying. Passed the halfway point to the equator yesterday.” Overhead, the Milky Way was a glowing ribbon matched by phosphorescent fire in Hōkūle’a’s wake stirred by swarms of darting squid. They sailed on a beam reach, the wind steady from the east-southeast. Nainoa lifted the sweep to bring the canoe into the wind, put it down to steer off. Sometimes he steered by the clouds. While this may seem improbable, the atmosphere in the Pacific is so clear you can see cloudbanks far away and their motion, pushed along by steady trade winds, is so predictable you can adjust for it. Must know the speed of the clouds and the direction they are moving and estimate how far away they are. Plus they change.

Nainoa was now at home aboard Hōkūle’a, constantly jotting in his notebook. He wrote about ways to improve the rigging. He considered the cut of her sails, how to properly use the sweep, the shape of its blade and how to make it better. He observed the booms bending where the sheets were attached. Can the pulleys, or blocks as mariners call them, be moved to better guide the sheets? The closer you haul in—the closer the angle to the mast step the sheet line should be. When you let the sail out—the farther the sheet line should be from the mast step.

“Fish on the line!”

Lures trailed in Hōkūle’a’s wake, tended by Maka‘ala and Ben, who were engaged in a friendly competition to see who could catch the most fish.

“My lure, my lure!” Ben yelled as he rushed aft.

Ben had never been to sea before. He was concerned about boredom and the frustration that it might bring, especially in the Doldrums. He kept busy. He made mental lists of what to do in emergencies. He played chess and studied medical books. During the evening, he played harmonica and guitar in an impromptu Hōkūle’a band. “The time,” he recalls, “just zipped by.”

In proper maritime parlance, Hōkūle’a is a double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe, but any yachtsmen would immediately recognize her as a catamaran. Catamarans are considered a recent innovation inspired by racing sailors seeking speed. But in Polynesia, such craft were invented thousands of years ago—during a time when ponderous single-hull vessels were evolving in the western world. Limited by stone and shell tools and the lack of iron fastenings, Polynesians could not fashion large European style plank-on-frame ships. Small outrigger canoes would not be seaworthy for long voyages, nor could they carry the cargo and people necessary to settle new islands. Large outrigger canoes would be unwieldy. So someone, thousands of years ago, thought of bridging two canoes with a solid deck. An advanced sailing craft was born out of necessity confronting the limits of a primitive technology.

“I’ve been on a lot of vessels but Hōkūle’a is the most stable and best riding vessel I’ve ever sailed,” Gordon Pi‘iana‘ia says.
A sailing vessel with a single hull heels away from the wind, so monohull sailors must constantly deal with a tilted world that, over many days at sea, produces fatigue. Because Hōkūle’a distributes the wind’s torque across two hulls, she does not heel, providing a stable and comfortable living platform in even the most terrific of winds. And her hulls are lean and narrow, so she does not pound into the waves. She slices through them with what can only be described as grace. The contrast in oceangoing comfort between one hull and two is like that on land between a truck and a Cadillac. And as the voyage progresses, Hōkūle’a demonstrated more than her inherent seaworthiness—the canoe’s twin hulls allowed her crew to deploy subtle human senses to determine direction at sea.

Arriving in Honolulu after a successful passage from Tahiti. Photo courtesy Phil Uhl

Arriving in Honolulu after a successful passage from Tahiti. Photo courtesy Phil Uhl

Hōkūle’a invited her crew to dance—and she danced differently in a single set of waves than she did in two—or three. She danced one way if she was running with the wind and another if she was sailing into it. The possible combinations are infinite, so the choreography was complex. Hōkūle’a demanded attention from her human partners. If they faltered, she reminded them. She turned up into the wind and slowed and shook her sails. “Listen to me,” she said, “can you hear it?” An alert helmsman knew to push the paddle down to help her fall off the wind. Or she might turn downwind, speed up and pull at her tiller. “Pay attention,” she said. All these were clues to maintaining a steady course, an important task for any navigator, but particularly so for one finding his way without instruments. Determining longitude depends on dead reckoning, and dead reckoning, in turn, depends on keeping track of your course.

As Nainoa became more familiar with the canoe and the ocean around him, he recognized three patterns of swells—from the northeast, east and southeast. Standing at the steering sweep, he studied the canoe’s motion as she sailed through them. Steering almost due north, he noticed that when he fell off the wind only a few degrees the canoe quieted down. The eastern swell no longer slaps the side of the windward hull and the southeast swell picks up the canoe’s stern and helps her surf through the water, he thought. Turning further downwind, with the breeze now off the quarter, the canoe assumed a gentle corkscrew motion: one half of the front hull riding up the face of the wave, one half of the back hull sliding down the face of the wave, with the lee hull digging in. Turning back into the wind it got noisy, the ride became ragged—the canoe pitched and rolled, she took spray over the windward hull and Nainoa felt her pound in the soles of his feet. Under a totally cloudy sky, when no celestial clues were observable, the canoe provided plenty of information to sail a steady course. Any vessel will do this but none so completely as a catamaran. Twin hulls, each reacting separately to the shape of the ocean, tell sailors much more than a single hull can. The double canoe, shaped by a long evolution, communicates almost perfectly with a sensitive human being.

The days merged in an easy rhythm of rising and sinking suns and of spinning stars. Nainoa was comfortable with all of his crewmates, but he felt a special connection with his old friend Snake Ah Hee. Snake was generous to a fault, naturally caring and considerate. He worked hard and said little, except to smile and make light of some difficult moment. And what a smile! Snake’s serene face broadcasts good will when he’s happy, or telling a joke—which he did often—accompanied by soft laughter. He’s comfortable at sea. And there were many aboard who could cook—Keani, Penny, Lele and Maka’ala among them—but if a vote were taken for best cook it would be Snake. “You got to sail with the guy to really appreciate him,” Gordon recalls. “He cooked and stood his watches. I told him I would take him off the watch list but he said no.”

“I had prepared myself intellectually to be able to ask questions of the ocean and the canoe,” Nainoa says. “Snake is much more intuitive. Snake is the epitome of the true ocean man. You can see it in his eyes, you can see it in his hair, in his skin. He is a quiet man, very thoughtful, deep. Most of the crew members would focus their steering on the compass. They would watch that needle. They would not pay that much attention to the rest of the world around them. Just hold that needle in its place. But Snake would watch it the least. He used all his senses to steer the canoe. When he held the paddle it was like he was holding the canoe through the shaft of that paddle. His steering was very soft. He made very small corrections. Some people pulled the paddle up quickly to let the canoe run up into the wind then pushed it down hard to bring it off. Snake’s corrections were always very small and they were very soft. When he steered, the canoe was quiet.”

Snake also liked to play cards, so from time to time, he and Nainoa broke out a frayed pack and slapped them on the deck. Their talk shifted into the easy patois of schoolyard pidgin.

But often Nainoa found himself alone with his thoughts, which now, halfway home, turned back to the village of Tautira, in Tahiti. Later, when he described the place to his family it would take on a mythic quality. A village under sharp mountains. Waterfalls. Gentle winds. He took them on the journey from Papeete to Tautira— the bustle of the city dropping away as you traveled, the houses becoming few and tiny and set off from the road. The feeling of the jungle encroaching and of a growing serenity. Then the road degraded. It became dirt. And in Tautira, it ended. The place was, “the edge of the old times,” as he once described it. “The people of Tautira are so powerful,” he wrote in his log. “A power I don’t understand. They just open their hearts and if you have enough within you— you will receive... Beauty is simple—so make your life beautifully simple.”

The voyage helped Nainoa simplify. The sea imposed discipline. It slowed things down. You cannot go faster by applying pressure to a throttle; you must deal with what nature provided. That’s why he so constantly thought of efficiency—of trimming the sails, steering accurately. Paying attention was more than just a commitment to doing the job well. It was making the best of nature’s gift. And nature, Nainoa began to realize, had a sense of irony.

A stretch of fair wind and clear skies, for example, might seem a gift, but it was the opposite. It lulled the crew—made them complacent. Nature’s true gift was a stiff headwind because it forced them to focus. First, there was the noise—the constant wind whistling in their ears; the whooshing of water funneling between the hulls; the thud of waves breaking against the bow. The wind stirred the sea into lather and brought tendrils of spray across the decks. So it was cold and wet. But most insidiously, the wind tried to head the canoe, to steal away her course toward landfall. The sailors must learn to “lean on the wind” to help their canoe to windward. They must pay attention. But occasionally, and to Nainoa’s disgust, the crew lost their focus. Whether from fatigue, boredom, carelessness—whatever—the result was a penalty in distance made good, or course made good, or both. Not paying attention was an affront to the high purpose of the voyage. We are on a mission, Nainoa often thought—always to himself—and the mission is to learn. And there was so little time to do it—so each moment was special, hard won and easily lost.

The crew greets the dawn of another day at sea. Photo by Dan Lin

The crew greets the dawn of another day at sea. Photo by Dan Lin

Sometimes when reading Nainoa’s log it’s hard to remember how young he is. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore it. The man he will be is there. The disciplined observer puzzling out patterns in the sky, watching the swells, always seeking signs. The loner is there too, the man who chooses solitude. Aboard Hōkūle’a, Nainoa bent his loneliness to his task. He stared into the sky for hours. Did Sirius set before Pollux? Would a line drawn from Gacrux to Acrux point to the south celestial pole? How does the arc of rising Altair tend? Straight up; to the right; to the left? Hōkūle’a sailed in an era before psychologists gave meaning to a term now common—“the zone”—yet Nainoa was clearly in one when he observed the heavens and the ocean, and it colored his observations of his crewmates. Why don’t they pay attention to steering? Can’t they see the sails are luffing? Can’t they hear Hōkūle’a speaking to them? During one night watch, he went forward and found a hatch had been carelessly left open. Because Nainoa was not blessed with the easy ability to explain himself to others, he did it in his notebook. “I must write these negative feelings so that I may reduce the things I have been holding in and also take time to understand that when I make a mistake to learn from it.”

On Wednesday, the 14th of July, Hōkūle’a approached what Nainoa considered her first real test. “Doldrums,” he wrote, “five to eleven degrees north.” On the trip down, the canoe languished in the Doldrums for a week of unpredictable calms under blistering sun followed by howling squalls. From all reports, one of the crew nearly went mad. Nainoa braced himself. “Keep busy,” he wrote, “stay out of people’s way. Be courteous. What is a sailor?” he wondered. “And how will I measure up?”

On Thursday, during the early morning watch, Hōkūle’a’s sails fell slack. She encountered pockets of deathly calm. She sailed on slowly, stalled for a time, sailed on. The Doldrums. If this is the Doldrums it’s a screwy place. The wind is changing all over the damn place—northeast, southeast, east. For a time, fluking winds forced Hōkūle’a to sail south—away from Hawai’i. In squalls she picked up speed and the crew enjoyed freshwater showers. Then, once again, the winds died and the sky cleared. The canoe wallowed. This place is like limbo. During the day—the heat. It’s just too hot. I become lazy. Days merged. The canoe moved listlessly north, surrounded by dark knots of squalls. The rainsqualls have become like clockwork. For the past three days they have come every morning at dawn and again just as the sun sets. Tonight they came again. At 8:30 last night a dark line stretched all across the horizon to the south. The first part of the night it was clear. Then you see this dark line coming. Get your foul weather gear on. It passes overhead. Dark. July 17th. July 18th. Hōkūle’a sailed on. The mind reacts to the weather. The body reacts to it. In the Doldrums I don’t think. I just sit. I don’t want to do anything. It’s depressing. During the afternoon of the 18th, Hōkūle’a began to pitch to a different swell. There’s something there alright, Nainoa thought. It looks like the northeast swell is coming in.

An astronomer reads flickering starlight to decipher the history of the universe, the birth and death of heavenly bodies millions of light years away. A navigator reads the ocean in the same way, to tell the genesis of winds by the shape of swells. “Watch the waves,” Tahitian crewmember Lele Puputauiki told Nainoa. “The closer the intervals between the swells—the closer you are to the wind source.”

If that’s true, Nainoa thought, we’re going to be hitting the northeast trades pretty soon, and we’ll be blasting home.
On the 19th, the winds accelerated from the northeast. We’re definitely out of the Doldrums. Nainoa wrote. It’s a good feeling. We’re going home.

Ed. Note: For more on Sam Low and Hōkūle’a, or to order a copy of Hawaiki Rising, visit

MHS Fall 2014


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