Becoming a Navigator

Becoming a wayfinder GLOSSARY wayfinder – navigator in the Pacific is a lifelong experience. Learning happens in many places (the home, the vaka house, the sea) and in many ways.

On Satawal, everyone learns some things about vakas and sailing from a young age – for example, by playing with model vakas. Children, including girls, learn mostly from their father or uncles. If their mother is a wayfinder’s daughter, she teaches them what she knows too.

But there is also a lot of secret knowledge. This includes knowledge about navigation, vaka building, the weather, and even knot divination GLOSSARY divination - fortune-telling . The knowledge is like property. Secret navigational knowledge is passed on only through certain families. In the past, a tribal group without a navigator would sometimes pay to have a student trained. Some young men learn in the school of a reb (master navigator). They are initiated through a pwo (initiation ceremony for navigators). There were once many traditional schools in the central Carolines, but only two remain – Warieng and Faaluur.

In the Marshall Islands, navigational knowledge is considered a sacred gift from the ancestors. Only some families have access to it. Polynesian people say that knowledge is mana – the power to change. In Tonga, there were special navigator tribes like the Haa Fokololo oe Hau, who navigated the kalia (double hulled vakas) of the tui Tonga (kings). A young boy from a high family was chosen to learn on board. Some boys were trained as ula lahi (navigators), and some as lomu lahi (vaka builders).

In Duff Islands (including the biggest Duff Island, Taumako) babies are sometimes put in vakas to rock them to sleep. Children have small vakas so they can paddle and sail around the lagoon, and go fishing, go to the gardens, etc. The first job of a child on a voyaging canoe is to bail out water from the main hull. From that position in the center of the vaka the bailer can see and learn what the other crew members are doing. Each crew member has a job, and it takes a lot of experience at sea for anyone to really learn how to do each job in many different wind and sea conditions.

Continuous learning

Cook Islands wayfinder Tua Pittman

“In traditional navigation, you never know if you have enough knowledge. You never know. You never know what the elements will put up in front of you, so you are forever learning.”