Ancestral Navigation – How the Polynesian colonised the Pacific
Spindrift for Schools



By  Dona Bertarelli

I want to thank all our partner schools, in France and Switzerland, and the 2,000 students who are following us. Whenever I can, I will be answering your many questions throughout this journey around the planet, a journey that we are taking together to discover the wonders of our world.
With all the crew of Spindrift 2, through our observations and our encounters, not only with marine life, but also with the islands and peninsulas that we pass, with the meteorological phenomena we experience, and with the birds and the stars that accompany us during our voyage, we will help you to live this adventure, like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s famous book. We are calling our Spindrift for Schools series - Out of the Classroom.



Ancestral Navigation – How the Polynesian colonised the Pacific 

GPS (Global Positioning System), ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display Identifying System), AIS (Automated Identification System), Fleet Broadband are just a few of the electronic systems we rely on to navigate Spindrift 2 safely around the word.

Many of these navigational aids use space-based satellites. GPS comprises a network of 24 satellites that orbit the earth and transmit a position back to the receiver aboard Spindrift 2. Using the principles of geometry and maths, GPS calculates the position (latitude, longitude) and direction of travel. From the position the system determines the speed, keeps a log of distance traveled, and calculates the direction and distance to the pre-programed destination. It is with these technologies that yesterday morning we have established a new time of reference Ushant-Cap Horn, crossing 3 oceans and sailing 36’500 km (19’500 nautical miles) in 30 days, 4 hours and 7 minutes.

Over 3,000 years ago people set sail on great canoes they had built themselves to explore vast distances across the Pacific. The traditional Polynesian navigators did not have instruments to determine their speed and direction, or even a watch to tell the time. Instead, these brilliant navigators developed an innate knowledge of the seas, and used their intellect and instinct to read Mother Nature's signposts.
Navigating without any instruments or tools is traditionally called ‘way finding’.
Before setting sail navigators would create a mental image of their anticipated route. Learning signposts including location of islands, flight paths of birds, cloud formations, wave patterns and stars, they trained their minds to operate as a GPS, which involved memorizing huge amounts of information. Often they would learn the positions of about 220 stars that they might expect to see along their journey.


Once at sea sailors would steer by setting a course to the angle of the waves. It was necessary to recall the direction of the wind, as the wind drives the waves.
The Polynesian Star compass, the basic mental map for navigation, was essential to finding direction. The navigator continually had to  remember the speed, direction, time, and change of course for their entire journey.  
The four cardinal points (north, east, south and west) were located according to the rising and setting sun. Sunrise was the most important time of the day; the navigator would look at the shape of the ocean and the character of the sea. As the sun went down the navigator would remember the wind shifts and how the wave pattern changed throughout the day.
The stars would act as the signposts throughout the night. The location of stars were recalled through naming their ‘houses’ - the place where they rise out of and set back into the ocean.

The approach of land would be signaled by changes in the wave patterns, cloud formation, the species of birds, and flotsam (floating debris such as coconuts and plant life). After long periods of time at sea you can normally smell land before you see it.

For centuries these remarkable navigation skills were passed down through generations by song, until they almost disappeared with the emergence of Western technology. By the early 1960’s it was questioned whether it was possible to voyage thousands of miles by canoe without navigational aids in search of Pacific islands to settle. It is remarkable to think of ancient Polynesians finding Easter Island, a small 64- square- mile speck in the vast ocean. The Rapa Nui people I met whilst working to create a marine park around Easter Island were convinced their ancestors intuitively discovered and settled on the island – forming the back bone to the community's intrinsic connection to the sea.
There is evidence of voyaging and trading from East Polynesia to other islands in the Pacific. Artefacts, language, biology, cultural traits and tradition suggest that the Rapa Nui from Easter Island, the Maori from New Zealand and the Hawaiian community all came from the same ancestors who travelled from Polynesia in tiny canoes.


In 1976 a team of Hawaiian canoeists built a replica Polynesian canoe called the Hokule’a’. Using only traditional navigation voyaging techniques they traveled from Hawaii to Tahiti. The paths of stars and the rhythms of the ocean guided them by night and the color of the sky and the sun, the shapes of clouds and the direction of the swell, guided them by day. Several days from land, they determined the exact day of landfall – which is something that we can find tricky even today with all our modern technology.