In the spring of 1976 Mau Piailug offered to sail a boat from Hawaii to Tahiti. The expedition, covering 2,500 miles, was organised by the Polynesian Voyaging Society to see if ancient seafarers could have gone that way, through open ocean. The boat was beautiful, a double-hulled canoe named Hokule’a, or “Star of Gladness” (Arcturus to Western science). But there was no one to captain her. At that time, Mau was the only man who knew the ancient Polynesian art of sailing by the stars, the feel of the wind and the look of the sea. So he stepped forward.
As a Micronesian he did not know the waters or the winds round Tahiti, far south-east. But he had an image of Tahiti in his head. He knew that if he aimed for that image, he would not get lost. And he never did. More than 2,000 miles out, a flock of small white terns skimmed past the Hokule’a heading for the still invisible Mataiva Atoll, next to Tahiti. Mau knew then that the voyage was almost over.
On that month-long trip he carried no compass, sextant or charts. He was not against modern instruments on principle. A compass could occasionally be useful in daylight; and, at least in old age, he wore a chunky watch. But Mau did not operate on latitude, longitude, angles, or mathematical calculations of any kind. He walked, and sailed, under an arching web of stars moving slowly east to west from their rising to their setting points, and knew them so well—more than 100 of them by name, and their associated stars by colour, light and habit—that he seemed to hold a whole cosmos in his head, with himself, determined, stocky and unassuming, at the nub of the celestial action.
How well we in Hawaii remember that voyage! When European sailors hugged the coast of the Med, and never ventured much past the Isles of Dogs, (the Canaries) the Polynesians, hundreds of years before Columbus, were sailing the world's biggest ocean. How pale is the English word for the boundless vast "in-finity". A negation! The Hawaiians had two words..."out of sight up" (infinitely big, the ocean) and "out of sight down" (infinitely small, you in your war canoe).
The world's greatest seamen never got around to inventing the wheel (they never had a need for it.) Winds, tides, currents, scents of the land driven out to sea, the stars, the sun, the moon...they could do this. The Hawaiian and Tahitian languages have many similar words.
Lima (hand) = 5 (Hawaiian)
Luna (hand) = 5 (Tahitian)
Lua Lima (two hands) = 10 Hawaiian)
Lua Luna (two hands) = 10 (Tahitian)
In one version from New Guinea the word for "forty" was "mattress"...a man sleeps together with his wife on such. I am not making this up.
Many years ago, our destroyer came upon two women in a small sailboat. We had just come out of the edge of a hurricane which had savaged our home island of Oahu. It had been overcast for an entire week. No stars, no sun, no moon. "Where are we?" semaphored (I love verbing nouns) the women. Our navigator told them where they were withing 100 square feet on the surface of the ocean (this was before GPS...we had it but they didn't.) "Would you like to come aboard for dinner?" our captain asked them. "No thank you, we are sailing around the world and would rather remain aboard our own boat" they replied. "We can ship over fresh fruit, ice cream, whatever you would like" we said. "No thank you very much for our position; we are OK" and they sailed off into the gloom. Modern-day Hawaiians. With a boost from NASA. But still...they were far better sailors than anyone aboard the USS Brewton. Our captain knew this, and we, admiringly, coveted their company for dinner.