Master Navigators

The thought of those stupendous ocean voyages from the east coast of the Pacific Ocean, bring up the critical question which Niobe Thompson asked, “Are those skills of the master navigators still alive today?” When settlers reached Hawaii they were 4,000 miles from the nearest land. What could be more remote than that? According to Niobe Thompson, “it may have been the most dangerous voyage of discovery Polynesians ever took. Find land or die at sea. When Europeans arrived that incredible story was almost forgotten.” It may have been the most dangerous voyage anyone ever took anywhere anytime! That is a story that should never be forgotten.  It was truly an epic voyage—perhaps like none other the world has ever seen.

By the 20th century traditional sailing was dying in the Pacific. Of course, why sail when you have found paradise? I know I would have been tempted to stay put. Things don’t get much better anywhere than they do in the South Pacific.

In 1975 Hawaiians discovered a man living on one of the most remote islands of Micronesia. He was the last of the master navigators who could sail across the Pacific without modern instruments or maps. He was “living proof that Polynesia was discovered by master navigators.” It was no accident. How did he do it? He relied on watching the location of the moon, planets, and stars at different times. They paid particular attention to the rising of the sun and moon and used this valuable information to navigate across thousands of miles of oceans without charts, books, records, or instruments. He relied on what he had memorized.

Oceanic people know that they did not discover the islands of the Pacific by accident. As anthropologist Sam Low said, “for oceanic people to set out on the Pacific like that required almost ‘super heroic’ people. It was one of the greatest migrations of humans in the history of humankind.” We have a lot to learn from people like that. That is what is important in this story.

For many people it is very natural to go to the sea.  It took a 1,000 years for humans at the end of Asia to decipher star maps and learn to sail the open ocean.  Thompson said, “Once they did, the South Pacific was theirs.” Yet, the human odyssey was far from over.  What about the second half of the planet?  What about the Americas?

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