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Tahiti and back — It’s in the stars 

By Staff | Jan 21, 2016

Kala Baybayan (right) explains the star compass calendar voyagers use to navigate to Tahiti. Students are also learning how star line maps are used.

LAHAINA – Maui would not be Maui without the Tahitians who discovered this place 1,300 years ago and returned again and again with new people and their pigs, fruits and vegetables to populate and flourish on these islands. The fascinating big question is: when they went back home, how were they able to find their way back to eight Hawaiian Islands stretching across 325 miles when they started 2,500 miles away?

Apprentice Navigator Kala Baybayan, daughter of Master Navigator Chad Kalepa Baybayan, crewed one leg of the Hokule’a voyaging canoe’s Worldwide Voyage now circling the globe.

At a community outreach event on Jan. 9 at Hui O Wa’a Kaulua, she explained how crew members on the Hokule’a employ the same techniques the Tahitians used to go back and forth from Hawaii to Tahiti.

Some people know that voyagers used stars to guide them. But how did they use them? Three main concepts are at the core of the navigation method used by modern day wayfarers, some from Lahaina, according to Kala.

The voyagers commit to memory four star lines – four segments of the sky, horizon to horizon, that include the constellations. They memorize the key stars within the constellations they will use as the directional guideposts for the courageous journey.

Eighth-graders at Sacred Hearts School, who are following the Worldwide Voyage closely, have taken four swatches of black velvet and placed on them the key stars within each star line.

Essential to knowing which direction to sail is the star compass. The sun sets in the west, so you know that way is west. You also know that in a straight line behind your back is east, where the sun comes up. Knowing both, you also know that if you tilt your head halfway between the two points, that is the direction of north. If you tilt it half way the other way, that’s south and the approximate route to Tahiti.

However, you cannot reach Tahiti by just going straight south. This is why the star compass is divided into 32 different directional lines called houses. The four key houses are Hikina (east), Komohana (west), Akau (north) and hema (South). The approximate route to Tahiti is southwest.

As a navigator, you keep the lines of the imaginary houses that will get you to Tahiti in your head. But it is not that simple. What if there is a storm and you are thrown off course? What if there is a strong wind that is pushing the canoe ever so slightly in the wrong line?

Master navigators have to know many things. How fast bubbles pass the length of the canoe helps calculate speed. They need to recognize the currents and how are they affecting direction.

Master navigators have many other tricks. Many birds at sunset return to land and in morning fly back. Watch some kinds of birds, and you will know the direction to land.

Nainoa Thompson, now a legendary master navigator who heads the Hokule’a’s voyage, explains the challenges on a Polynesian Voyaging Society website that includes rich educational materials being used in schools to tell the voyaging canoe’s story and how it relates to Hawaiian culture.

So, how did Thompson and his predecessors on the first voyage in 1976 learn all of this about the star lines, the star compass and how to use stars, currents and wave patterns to get there? On any voyage, all of these variables need to be committed to memory.

The answer is that they were taught. These navigation methods have been passed on from generation to generation for 1,300 years. The Polynesian Voyaging Society found a man named Pius “Mau” Piailug on island of Satawal in the state of Yap, Micronesia. He was one of the few people alive who knew the techniques of the early Tahitians.

At first Mau was reluctant to give up the navigation secrets, but soon he agreed. He taught and trained the new voyagers and told them when they were ready to navigate by the stars – just as their ancestors had.

There is much more to the Hokule’a story – how it is teaching new generations about how Hawaiians got here, how voyaging is part of Hawaiian culture and how Hokule’a is bringing the message of sustainability and the spirit of aloha to the world.

One small boy at the community open house summed why he was there: “My hope is to keep my Hawaiian tradition.”

Columnist’s Notebook: Go to hokulea.com to learn more, read blog posts from the crew, pinpoint where the canoe is now and provide dollar support for the effort.