Navigating the Pacific

Friday, July 4, 2014
Waka Quest’s double-hulled voyaging waka Haunui

According to the Tahitian story, the ancient king and voyager Tumu-nui listed eight dangers of the sea: long-wave, short-wave, isolated-coral-rock, fish-shoal, sea-monster, animal-with-burning-flesh, crane-empowered-by-Ta'aroa [the supreme god of creation], and giant-clam-opening-at-the-horizon. Tumu-nui’s nephew Rata succeeded in destroying six of these dangers so that only two remained – long wave and short wave.

The early explorers of the Pacific Ocean would have faced the many dangers of the open sea, extreme weather, and the unknown of new territories in their journeys. The thirst for exploration and discovery, knowledge of the sea, and the courage to leave their home lands to seek others, meant these dangers were worth facing.
Modern research places the origins of the Pacific peoples in Island South-East Asia. Around 4000 or 5000 years ago they began their migration to hundreds of islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean, settling Polynesia and ending with the settlement of New Zealand over one thousand years ago. The experience, knowledge and navigational skills of the Pacific voyagers, gained over time, were essential in voyaging the Pacific, the largest body of water on Earth.
The course of a journey would have been determined using: knowledge of tides, currents and ocean swells; the location of the sun and planets; wind direction; the movement and shape of clouds; and the migration patterns of birds and whales.
At the core of Pacific navigation was knowledge of the stars and their movements. By sighting a single star the navigator could orientate himself and confirm his course.
Years of experience and training from a young age meant the Pacific navigator could identify land and route indicators, including over 150 stars and constellations, and their relation to each other and the horizon, in a star compass. In many islands navigational knowledge was kept within particular families, having originally been learnt through trial and error, passing down and being refined through the generations.
Waka for short journeys around islands were adapted to meet the demands of long distance travel in the open sea – outrigger or double-hulled canoes, about 20 metres long, were developed for migration.
Once the settlement from the long voyages had been established, and after the Europeans colonised the Pacific, the knowledge and practice of Pacific navigation dwindled. The late 20th century saw a renewed interest in the traditional navigational techniques and voyaging vessels of the Pacific.
A model of a Tongan Tongiaki, a double-hulled voyaging canoe. The waka that brought Maori to Aotearoa were possibly rather like this. On display at NZ Maritime Museum (1993.168)