The 2012–2013 voyage of the Waka Tapu closed the Polynesian triangle. This confirmed that it is possible to successfully and deliberately travel great distances by canoe while navigating without instruments.
In these articles, navigator Jack Thatcher describes his waka hourua voyage from New Zealand to Rapanui (Easter Island) and back. Waka voyages had already traversed the Pacific from New Zealand to the northern and central areas of Polynesia, but it was this journey to the east and back that completed the triangle.
Navigating without instruments
Modern navigation is heavily reliant upon technology. Jack and his crew used traditional techniques to navigate the Waka Tapu. Traditional wayfinding involves observing and understanding nature.
Astronomical techniques involve knowledge of the night sky and are described in these articles:
- The star compass (kāpehu whetū) uses cardinal directions and 220 stars to show where stars will rise and set on the celestial equator.
- The celestial sphere uses reference points like the horizon, the zenith and stars’ altitude to determine direction.
- Navigating with Sun, Moon and planet looks at how the rising and setting of the Sun and Moon and recognisable planets are useful for wayfinding.
Closer to home, navigators use these navigation aids:
- Ocean swells, which are regular and stable waves that can be felt as well as seen.
- Cloud formations that help navigators predict weather while out at sea.
- Biological factors such as vegetation and seabird behaviour that indicate the proximity and direction of land even when it is not visible.
Reviving an ancient art
There has been renewed interest in the ancient art of wayfinding over the last 30–40 years. Read about the history and adventure behind this fascinating rediscovery with the articles Wayfinding revival and Waka revival, then learn about the modern construction and crewing of waka hourua.
Take up the challenge
Related student activities involve legends, compass skills and cloud observation:
- Constellations in the night sky looks at star legends from cultures around the world.
- Kupe and modern voyaging uses the legend of Kupe to compare ancient and modern navigation techniques.
- How’s your memory? involves the memorisation of the star compass components – just like the real navigators.
- Navigating by the stars introduces students to traditional navigational skills – using the cardinal directions and the Southern Cross.
- Compass treasure hunt uses knowledge of the Sun and Moon to make compass directions and uses these directions in a treasure hunt.
- Clouds and the weather observes cloud types and how they help predict the weather.
Cross-curricular learning activities
Puzzling out Pacific migrations is a ready-to-use cross-curricular teaching resource. It uses the Connected article The long pause as the starting point.
Nature of science
Science, social science and cultural knowledge come together in these articles and activities. Navigational techniques of ancient voyagers are part of scientific explorations of the celestial sphere and the natural world of the navigator. Navigators use these techniques today, showing that successful and deliberate Polynesian migration was quite feasible.
Watch as Dr Pauline Harris and David Perenara-O’Connell discuss space whakapapa and tātai arorangi and their links to navigation.
Puzzling out Pacific migrations is a ready-to-use cross-curricular teaching resource. It uses The Long Pause Connected article as the starting point.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society’s website includes educational resources from around the world that support voyaging education. Our articles covering navigating without instruments have strong links to these resources and the Society’s stories about voyaging.
In this 2017 article from the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Atholl Anderson discusses how perspectives of Māori voyaging technologies have changed since the 19th century. Since this article, investigations using wind tunnels and towing tank experiments have found that Pacific craft from the 15th century could sail to windward. Explore this further in The sailing performance of ancient Polynesian canoes and the early settlement of East Polynesia, Archaeology in Oceania, Vol. 0 (2022): 1–17. DOI: 10.1002/arco.5277.
In this article, from the University of Waikato, meet Dr Haki Tuaupiki, who is researching ancestral ocean navigation. His research explores traditional narratives in te reo, including waiata, karakia and whakataukī, to understand how the sun and stars, the movement of wind and clouds, ocean currents, bird and whale migration and seasonal patterns helped to guide ancient ancestors. Included is a video Ancestral ocean navigation.
See the book Pathway of the Birds – The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors, (Bateman/University of Hawaii Press, 2018), Andrew Crowe.