Ka’iulani Murphy’s star compass helps navigate oceans

Murphy talks about “non-instrument” navigation, steering a double-hulled canoe across the sea with only celestial bodies and waves to guide it.

Ka’iulani Murphy: A modern ship might have a magnetic compass on board and steer their course by looking at that compass. Whereas when we are sailing our voyaging canoes, we’re just going solely off of clues in nature.

Ka’iulani Murphy is talking about traditional Hawaiian navigation. Murphy is a student of what she calls “non-instrument” navigation, steering a 60 foot – or 18 meter – long, double-hulled canoe across the sea with only celestial bodies and waves to guide it. On the canoe, a “star compass” replaces the magnetic compass.

Ka’iulani Murphy: The basic aspect of the navigation is this idea of a star compass. You have your circle of horizon. Different points along this circle mark star paths. So you’re watching for stars that rise from these points on the horizon, and that’s how you know your direction.

The star compass is a mathematical way of dividing up the horizon. It was adapted from the techniques of a Micronesian master navigator in the 1970s, when a group of Hawaiians decided to do an experiment to find out how their ancestors may have crossed the sea.

Ka’iulani Murphy: We learn what stars rise and set. So when we see one star, we have one given direction, and we can orient ourselves based on that.

Navigators memorize the position of the stars along their course before they set off on their voyage, Murphy said. Murphy said that navigators also rely on the sun, moon, planets, wind, and ocean swells to keep track of the direction and speed of the canoe. But not every day provides perfect conditions for navigating.

Ka’iulani Murphy: A cloudy night is probably most difficult time for navigation. During the day, if it’s cloudy, you can at least see the ocean, and that’s sometimes all you have. So you look at the swells to be able to keep yourself on course. There’s more than one swell, but at sunrise you are looking for the dominant swell(s) that will last throughout the day. If the swell is coming from the direction the sun rose, due east, then you know you have an east swell and you keep your direction that way. During the day, the only star you have is the sunl.

She said that during a cloudy night, intuition is the most important tool.

Ka’iulani Murphy: If it’s cloudy you don’t have star clues, you have to rely on the ocean swells to keep your course. But it can be very difficult if everything is just black. The hardest time is at night when there’s cloud cover. You really rely on your feel of the ocean and the swells going underneath your canoe.

Murphy said modern non-instrument navigation is a combination of ancient and modern knowledge and techniques. Hawaiians had stopped voyaging for whatever reasons, hundreds of years ago. But in the 1970’s a group of people came together as the Polynesian Voyaging Society and found a teacher in Mau Piailug, a master navigator from Micronesia.

Ka’iulani Murphy: I believe we were lucky to have Mau Piailug to show us how ancestors may have sailed. The way he navigates, it’s very intuitive; he’s very close with nature. The way he looks at the world, the eyes he looks through are very different than the eyes we look through the world with. In our developing of our system of wayfinding that works for us today, it’s incorporated a lot of the things we learned in our schools.

Murphy and other Hawaiian navigators are currently preparing for a voyage around the world. She said that the Hawaiian voyagers hope to spread a message about taking care of the Earth, as they must take care of their canoe and its resources to survive while on a voyage.

Ka’iulani Murphy: Beyond the navigation, what we’ve learned with our voyages, is that we learn how to better live on our island by the lessons we learn by living on our canoe.

Our thanks today to NOAA Pacific Services Center – linking culture, science, and people to build resilient Pacific Island communities.101025murphy-90

Lindsay Patterson