Add to collection
  • + Create new collection
  • There has been renewed interest in the ancient art of wayfinding over the last 30–40 years. Wayfinding or navigating without instruments is about ocean voyaging using the stars (more on the star compass here), the Sun, the Moon, the ocean swells and other natural signs for clues to direction and location.


    Waka builder Hekenukumai Busby

    The organisation Te Tai Tokerau Tarai Waka Inc. was formed in the late 1980s, where Hekenukumai Busby was able to pass on knowledge in waka construction, sailing and traditional navigation.

    The Polynesian Voyaging Society

    It had been debated whether the ancient seafarers found lands such as Aotearoa (New Zealand) by accidental discovery or by carefully thought-out navigation. In 1973, Dr Ben Finney, an anthropologist from California, Herb Kane, a Hawaiian artist, and Tommy Holmes, who loved the sea, established the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Their purpose was to show that ancient Polynesians could have purposefully navigated, without instruments, over huge distances in double-hulled canoes to find new lands. A replica of an ancient voyaging canoe (the Hōkūle’a) was constructed (the first of its kind in 600 years) and launched for its maiden voyage on 1 May 1976.

    Mau Piailug (1932–2010)

    The Polynesian Voyaging Society had difficulty finding a navigator who had the knowledge necessary for the voyage that would trace a traditional migratory route from Hawaii to Tahiti. Eventually, they found Mau Piailug – a Micronesian navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal. Mau’s navigation system was acquired through rote learning passed down in teachings by the oral tradition. Mau shared his knowledge with the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

    Rights: Sam Low

    Mau Piailug

    Mau Piailug was a Micronesian navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal, best known as a teacher of traditional, non-instrument wayfinding methods for deep-sea voyaging.

    Through his successful navigation of the Hōkūle’a, Mau provided evidence for intentional voyaging throughout Oceania. This trip and Mau’s knowledge contributed to the revival of traditional wayfinding and canoe building in Hawaii, New Zealand, Rarotonga and Tahiti. Mau was known as a grandmaster navigator. He received an honorary degree from the University of Hawaii and is recognised for his contributions to maritime history. Mau died in 2010, but his legacy continues to be remembered by the indigenous peoples of Oceania.

    Voyages of rediscovery

    A number of voyages have taken place since 1976. In 1985–87, for example, the Hōkūle’a made a 25,700 km journey along ancient migratory routes from Hawaii to the Society Islands, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga and Sāmoa. This voyage showed it was possible for voyaging canoes to navigate without instruments and that, contrary to popular theories, it was possible for traditional voyaging canoes to sail against the prevailing winds by taking advantage of seasonal wind shifts.

    Rights: Polynesian Voyaging Society


    Polynesian voyaging vessel Hōkūle’a in 1976. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded for the purpose of scientific inquiry and exploration. The Hōkūle’a was a replica of ancient voyaging vessels built to explore the oceans as ancestors would have done.

    By the year 2000, the Hōkūle’a had covered 160,000 km of the Polynesian triangle, and other voyaging canoes/waka had joined the exploration and rediscovery of navigating the Pacific.

    New Zealand joins the revival

    New Zealand joined the wayfinding revival in the 1990s with the building of the voyaging waka Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti. Both waka were built by Hekenukumai Busby (Pūhipi).

    Te Aurere, built in 1991–92, has now sailed over 30,000 nautical miles (55,560 km) in the Pacific. It has visited Hawaii, the Cook Islands (twice), French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island (twice) and has made four circumnavigations of the North Island of New Zealand.

    Rights: Gringer

    The Polynesian triangle

    The Waka Tapu completed the last leg of the Polynesian triangle from Aotearoa to Rapanui and back in 2013. All three sides of the Polynesian triangle have now been navigated, linking Aotearoa, Hawaii and Rapanui.

    In 2012–2013, over a period of 10 months, Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti sailed from Aotearoa to Rapanui and back, completing an epic 10,000 nautical mile (18,520 km) journey. This was the last leg of the Polynesian triangle to be sailed in this way. All three sides of the Polynesian triangle have now been navigated, linking Aotearoa, Hawaii and Rapanui. The sailors navigated without instruments, instead using the Sun, stars, Moon, ocean swells and marine life to guide their way.

    Related content

    Find out more about The Waka Tapu voyage – navigator Jack Thatcher commanded the waka hourua that sailed from Aotearoa New Zealand to Rapanui Easter Island and back, completing the Polynesian triangle and proving the Pacific can be navigated without navigational instruments.

    Activity ideas

    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.

    Compass treasure hunt uses knowledge of the Sun and Moon to make compass directions and uses these directions in a treasure hunt.

    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.

    Useful links

    Video clip of Pakake Winiata recalling how those on Te Aurere got themselves out of a storm after following Mau Piailug’s traditional knowledge.

    The Hōkūle’a and a sister vessel set sail for a 3-year trip around the world in May 2014. Read about this wayfinding voyage and listen to the story using this link.

    Read the story of the Hōkūle’a and the beginnings of the wayfinding voyages of rediscovery. Explore the site for voyage tracking maps, learning journeys, videos, teaching activities and more related to the art and science of Polynesian voyaging.

    Watch the video Papa Mau: The Wayfinder, it documents the legacy of master navigator Mau Pialiug who revived the art of traditional voyaging and reawakened cultural pride throughout Polynesia.

      Published 13 November 2014 Referencing Hub articles
          Go to full glossary
          Download all