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  • 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 voyagers 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.

    Rights: The New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute

    Waka Tapu

    The Waka Tapu refers to the voyage undertaken by Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti – waka hourua that sailed from Aotearoa to Rapanui and back. Both waka were built by Hekenukumai Busby. Navigation was without instruments.

    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:

    Rights: Te Aurere

    Star compass

    This star compass (kāpehu whetū) shows some of the stars as they align with their houses. The star compass shows where the stars will rise and set on the celestial equator – slightly different for our horizon in Aotearoa.

    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.

    Rights: Fraser Gunn

    Matariki (Pleiades) star cluster

    Wayfinders have used the stars as a compass for millennia.

    Tāwera, Te Aramahiti

    Survival, rediscovery, and the restoration of pride and dignity is echoed in the story of the re-emergence of traditional navigation and voyaging right across Polynesia.

    Jack Thatcher and Jeff Evans

    This theme underpins the article Tāwera, Te Aramahiti – The Morning Star Guides Eastward: Reviving Traditional Navigation Knowledge in the Pacific (PDF, 5.74 MB). The article provides extensive background information regarding early Pacific navigation. It also revitalises kōrero with the stories of Tāwhaki, Tāne, Māui, Kupe, Kuramārōtini and Rata. The article features knowledge contributed by Master Navigator, Jack Thatcher and was written by Jeff Evans. It was commissioned by the New Zealand Commission for UNESCO.

    Take up the challenge

    Related student activities involve legends, compass skills and cloud observation:

    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.

    Related content

    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.

    Useful links

    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.

      Published 13 November 2014, Updated 20 June 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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