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The Ancient Seamasters
By using the sun, stars, sea swell patterns, cloud formations, and seamarks such as bird flight habits, Polynesian navigators were able to steer their canoes over distances that amazed European navigators – including the two thousand miles between Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands.
The Polynesian star compass was the key to finding direction at sea. The four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west) were located according to the rising and setting sun. During night voyaging, stars formed reference points. Polynesian navigators memorized the star compass as well as known islands whose locations corresponded to points of the compass. In training, a navigator would name an island as the center point, then go around the compass points naming the islands that lay in each direction.
Beyond navigating by the sun and stars, the Polynesians used their extensive knowledge of the sea to successfully guide them through their voyages. By careful observation of sea swell patterns, wind direction, cloud formations, and patterns of bird flight and flotsam, traditional Pacific navigators pieced together the course they chose to follow.