Wayfinding Home: Circumnavigating the globe without a compass

By Steve Beard

For three years, they were ultimately voyaging back home. Along the way, they circumnavigated the globe – without so much as a compass. The crew of the Hokule’a, a 62-foot-long Polynesian sailing canoe, traversed more than 40,000 nautical miles in its epic journey with no engine or modern navigational instruments. Having set sail in 2014, the crew returned to Hawaii in July 2017. Guided only by their assessment of the sun, moon, stars, wind, swells, and sea life patterns, the Polynesian Voyaging Society accomplished a global trek that most people thought was impossible.

In an era enamored by technological pinnacles, chalk this extraordinary triumph up to the ancient South Pacific ways.

In order to grab hold of the wow-factor behind this feat, forget about touristy ocean cruising. On the Hokule’a (ho-koo-lay-ah, “Star of Gladness” in Hawaiian), there was no midnight buffet, ice sculptures, or cocktails on the lido deck. There was no refrigeration, restroom stalls, or internet café on the catamaran-style vessel. The showers were buckets of seawater and the canvas-covered sleeping quarters were 6 foot segments marked out in the hulls where the 12-member crew slept head-to-foot. Spartan conditions. Spectacular adventure. 

Nainoa Thompson speaks to teachers about the world wide voyage. YouTube.

Participating in month-long shifts, there were more than 250 different volunteer sailors. “They strapped on safety harnesses to change sails and tighten lines; hauled heavy anchors out of the water; loaded bulky supplies; cooked hearty meals for a dozen people using a camping stove,” Marcel Honoré reported in the Honolulu Star Advertiser. 

Once again, the entire trip was conducted without compasses, maps, or GPS. The navigators, reports Richard Shiffman of Scientific American, relied on observing the “position of celestial bodies, the direction of waves and the movement of seabirds to set its course. To accurately maintain their bearing at night, the Hokule’a navigators had to memorize the nightly courses of more than 200 stars, along with their precise rising and setting locations on the horizon.” Shiffman continues: “The crew was also taught to read cloud patterns, sunset colors and the size of halos around stars to learn what such phenomena might portend about approaching weather.”

Throughout the journey, the crew visited more than 150 ports in 23 countries and territories. “You have to be on your feet, and to be able to feel one wave when it comes through from one foot to another,” master navigator Nainoa Thompson told NPR. “You only know where you are by memorizing where you come from.” Thompson has dedicated his life to honoring the voyaging tradition of his ancestors. The ancient highly-nuanced navigation skills were taught to Thompson by Mau Pialug, a wayfinder from a tiny island in Micronesia. “If you can read the ocean,” Mau said, “you will never be lost.”

In her book Malama Honua: Hokule’a – A Voyage of Hope, Jennifer Allen describes Mau’s other-worldly skills: “Mau could read and discern eight separate patterns of ocean swells. Lying inside the hull, feeling the various waves hitting it, he could determine the direction of the winds and the direction to steer the canoe. At dawn, he would study the horizon and predict the weather for the day to come. At dusk, he would predict the weather for dawn. And in the midst of a gale-swept, stormy night, days away from any safe harbor or land, Mau could steady the mind of any novice navigator – he could look the man in the eye, and with an unflinching gaze, tell him, ‘You are the light, you have the light within you to guide your family home.’”

Mau taught Thompson the ancient Polynesian ways. “Positioning stones, shells, and palm fronds in the sand, Mau recreated a star compass for Nainoa,” Allen writes. “Mau taught him how to identify the stars as they rose up out of the ocean and then dove back in. Mau showed him how to decipher wind systems, how to understand sea birds flying to and away from land, how to interpret clouds. Mau taught him how to study the shape of the ocean and read the ‘character’ in the waves. Mau taught him how to distinguish the varying widths and hues of the sun’s path along the waves.”

Thompson was being tutored on interpreting the “talk of the sea.”

The awe-inspiring journey around the globe – launching from Hawaii and cutting a trail through the South Pacific, the Indian and Atlantic oceans, the Caribbean, before returning home to the Pacific – was a deeply spiritual and environmental odyssey for the crew.

“The voyage is about sailing on the core set of values we believe in,” Thompson said. “The sail plan of humanity is off course. But there is a movement of kindness and compassion that is happening around the world in response to the damage to our Earth. Hokule’a is a needle sewing a lei of flowers around the world as an act of peace … and that is why we sail.”

It was also a voyage fraught with life-threatening risks. “But what is more dangerous,” Thompson responded in Costal Living.“The hurricanes, the pirates, the mosquitoes, and the rogue waves? Or … to keep the canoe tied to the dock because you’re afraid to go?”

Tied to the dock

Along these same lines, the greatest spiritual advice I ever received came from my mom, Joann Beard. Most memorably she told me during a time of indecision: “God cannot steer a boat that is tied to a dock.” We were created to explore.

Two decades ago, I heard a sermon from retired Bishop Al Gwinn when he was pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. His message was about one’s place in this enormous and chaotic universe – and how we are never out of God’s sight or reach.

Bishop Gwinn shared about a fishing trip with two friends in the Gulf Stream, 30 or 40 miles off the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida. When they left the dock, it was a gorgeous day to land some big fish. Once they got out to where the emerald green water magically turns deep blue, they failed to get a single bite. This went on for several hours. A large canopy of dark clouds formed overhead and stretched above them until not a sliver of sunlight was peaking through. Although they had left knowing that their navigational device was not functioning, they mistakenly thought that there was a compass in one of the boat’s nooks. They never assumed that getting home would be an issue.

It just happened to be one of those days when the fish were not biting, the sun was not shining, and now the three fishermen were simply lost at sea. They zig-zagged within the Gulf Stream in one direction and then in another, all in hopes of spotting land. No luck.

Each man had a different gut-feeling about which direction they should go. “It’s this way,” said one as he pointed in a direction. “No, it’s this way,” said another as he pointed the opposite way. Bishop Gwinn believed they were both wrong. All they knew for sure is that they would soon be stranded in the dark. Dejected and alone, the men knew they would be bobbing up and down in the open ocean throughout the night, hoping and praying that the off-shore squalls would not capsize their boat.

Suddenly, as if out of some kind of Hollywood blockbluster movie, a United States Navy submarine emerged – right next to them! Three Navy officers popped out of the hatch and asked the lost fishermen where they were headed. The submarine had been watching them via radar from below and was perplexed about their directionless movements. When they admitted they had no working navigational device or even a compass, the Navy officers pointed them in the correct direction of land. Instead of being lost at sea in the dark, Bishop Gwinn and his friends were heading home because of the U.S. Navy.

While the Lord may work in “mysterious ways,” I would much rather sail with Nainoa Thompson’s Polynesian crew than with Gwinn’s friends. During those hours in the Gulf Stream, I think even Bishop Gwinn would have agreed.

“Voyaging is a metaphor for life – at its core,” apprentice navigator Celeste Manuia Ha’o said in Malama Honua. “That is its greatest value. How do you set your course plan? Do you know where you are going? Once you do, you can figure out what stars you want to follow. If you can just pick out one point of light, then everything else will fall into place. But when I say point of light, I’m not talking about stars. I’m talking about people, family, friends, places, things that will guide you home …. Because once you can do that, you will never be lost.”

The spirit of exploration launches you into the deep. It is the ancient skill of wayfinding, however, that brings you back home.

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck Media Syndicate. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Good News Magazine.

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