Volume 80 1971 > Volume 80, No. 4 > Return voyage between Puluwat and Saipan using Micronesian navigational techniques, by David Lewis, p 437 - 448
A RETURN VOYAGE BETWEEN PULUWAT AND SAIPAN USING MICRONESIAN NAVIGATIONAL TECHNIQUES
The experiment reported here formed part of the research programme of an Australian National University Fellowship in Pacific History, whose terms of reference were to investigate indigenous Pacific Islands navigation. To this end, my son and I covered 13,000 miles of the western Pacific, during 1969, in the ketch Isbjorn. A proportion of this distance, 1,800 miles, was sailed under command of Polynesian and Micronesian navigators either in the yacht temporarily denuded of charts and instruments, or in sea-going canoes. 1
The particular voyages we are considering were each about 550 miles long, between Puluwat in the Carolines and Saipan in the Marianas further north. After a stop at Pikelot, 100 miles from Puluwat, the route led across 450 miles of open sea to Saipan. The object was to test the continuing validity of sailing directions for crossing so substantial a seaway that were exclusively in indigenous terms and had been handed down orally for something like three generations. We were fortunate that our method left little room for ambiguity, all data being ultimately subject to the stern test of landfall.
The question of the antiquity of Carolines-Marianas contacts is very germaine to our assessment of the significance of the experiment. We know that there were 150 years of regular contact, up to the end of last century in which canoes were navigated exclusively by traditional methods, but because of the inevitable absence of documentation it is less easy to show conclusively that this traffic antedated the advent of Europeans.
In 1686, the Spaniards conquered the Marianas, practically depopulating all the islands save Guam. Refugees fled in their canoes south to the Carolines, which were mercifully then unknown to civilisation. “It may be imagined,” wrote Burney,2 “that the islanders had a general know-- 438 - 439
ledge of, and probably habitual intercourse with, each other.” But henceforth connection between the two archipelagos abruptly ceased, to be cautiously resumed during the following century by Carolinian canoe parties in search of iron. It is from this latter period of contact that Carolinian traditions of voyaging to the Marianas (though not traditional navigational concepts and methods) seem to derive. For instance, the Carolinian name for Saipan Sepi Puun “Empty Plate” is believed locally to refer to the island when made bereft of its inhabitants by the Spaniards. 2
What of the earlier pre-Spanish period? We have already noted Burney's opinion that Carolines-Marianas relations were ancient. Kotzebue, who was in Guam in 1816, wrote that “when in 1788, the Carolinians visited Guam with several small canoes, . . . they said they had always been trading with the inhabitants of this island [Guam], and only left off when the white people settled here, whose cruelty they themselves had witnessed”. 3 A more definite affirmation of the pre-European antiquity of regular contact between the archipelagos would be hard to find. At the other end of the time scale, canoe contact appears to have ceased, prior to Repunglug's voyage, 4 with a voyage made from Puluwat around 1905 5 and another in the reverse direction a few years later. 6
Hipour is a trained and initiated navigator (ppalu) of the Puluwat Warieng navigational “school”. Like most of his learned contemporaries, he is illiterate, his vast store of knowledge being entirely memorised. Though he had voyaged by canoe for years through the central Carolines over an east-west range of something like 800 miles, he had not travelled on a European-type vessel before Isbjorn and was unfamiliar with Western navigational concepts except for the use of the magnetic compass for secondary orientation in the daytime. He appeared unable fully to comprehend the idea of a chart, his own concept being a more dynamic one, as will be seen later in this paper.
A copy of Goodenough's star “compass” diagram, as reproduced in Figure 2, accompanied us.
I purposefully refrained from any but the most cursory glance at the chart before the voyage, largely to forestall any suggestion that my European-derived knowledge might in some way invalidate the experiment. Thus I was no more aware of the latitude and longitude of our destination than was Hipour, to whom such concepts were entirely foreign and unknown. I did have a rough idea of the distances involved and of our course in relation to the prevailing wind—a necessity if the vessel were to be adequately provisioned—but I found Hipour to be infinitely better informed than I as to distances and bearings.
By courtesy of the Truk District Administrator, chief Manipe of Puluwat- 440 - i
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and the island council were informed of our plan by radio. The islanders responded so enthusiastically that, even before our arrival, Hipour had been selected as navigator and Ulutak, an experienced long-distance canoe seaman though not a qualified navigator, as interpreter.
The late winter weather remained stormy, so that had we not been hounded by the imperatives of our programme, we would have postponed the venture until the traditional voyaging season, April or later. It had been customary, Hipour told me, to sail to Saipan via the uninhabited island of Pikelot. From there Saipan bore a little west of north and was six to seven days' sail for a canoe with a beam wind, but up to 20 days in really stormy conditions. 8 Immediately upon our arrival in Puluwat, the two compasses, the sextant, the cabin clock, our wrist watches and the charts were stowed away in a locker. The auto pilot and radio were disconnected and all was ready for Hipour to take over command.
The first stage was from Puluwat to Pikelot, to the west-north-west.
We set sail at about 1600 on March 11th. 9 The land receding astern was carefully observed to assess the direction and strength of the current as alternative star courses were available to suit different conditions. 10 The main Carolines voyaging area lies along the variable junction between the west-flowing north equatorial current and the equally strong equatorial counter current, which runs in the opposite direction. Since the boundaries of the streams are highly variable and powerful recurving eddies flow between them, the set may be in any direction and may change literally from day to day. In the event, it proved to be north-going and strong. The initial course in these conditions is laid down as towards the setting Pleiades (Doloni Mariger) or about west-north-west. Under the influence of the current, this course leads over the edge of a submerged reef east of Pikelot (Condor reef, 13-25 fathoms. D.L.). After identifying the reef, the navigator turns west towards the island.
When the Pleiades had set, we steered for the rest of the night by keeping the Great Bear (Doloni Wole) and Polaris (Fii He Magid) about 20° before the starboard beam, a task rendered no easier by columns of cloud streaming overhead.
The rising sun and a rather complex beam swell replaced the stars for orientation at dawn. The evening before our departure, Hipour had noted - 442 that the sun was setting between Orion (270°, D.L.) and Corvus (253° D.L.), “a little bit nearer to Orion.” 11
About 10.00 we duly passed over the edge of the deep reef, which was detectable by the light blue colour of the sea over it, and altered course towards the west. An hour later Pikelot topped the horizon ahead.
This 100-mile passage to a 500-yard-long target is commonly held to be so navigationally straightforward on account of the safety “screen” provided by the deep reef (and the zone of homing birds that surrounds all islands) that parties frequently set out towards Pikelot from Puluwat on the spur of the moment and when drunk on palm toddy. They always arrive. 12
We left for Saipan towards evening after an afternoon vainly hoping that the very strong north-east wind would moderate. The actual direction of Saipan from Pikelot, said Hipour, was a shade to the left of the setting Little Bear position (Doloni Mailob Balefang). This, I ascertained later, was about 344° and he was quite correct. But this was not the course to Saipan. We should encounter a west-going current the whole way and also make leeway towards the west, Hipour continued. To counteract these forces we must steer, in general, north towards the Pole Star. Even this course would not be adequate in the present rough conditions, however. In such weather it was customary to make an even greater correction and to head a star point east of north for the first 100 miles or so. Our course for the moment would, therefore, be towards the rising Little Bear (Danne Mailob Balefang) 10° or 12° east of north, although the geographical bearing of Saipan was more than that angle west of north. When the time, in the navigator's judgement, was ripe, we should alter course to due north.
We followed this plan, or more precisely, since the northern sky was obscured after sunset, we steered by keeping Regulus (Liligut), which was rising on a bearing of 80°, before the beam to starboard. Only momentary glimpses of the stars were available that night and the next, but each time one did appear, the helmsman, under Hipour's and Ulutak's guidance, was found to be maintaining an accurate heading. This brought home to me the importance of a navigator knowing the whole sky so well that a single glimpse of a star would suffice to give him his bearings.
After about 30 hours, Hipour altered course to due north, but because of renewed strong winds, we soon reverted to the more easterly heading. “Strong winds generate powerful currents and also increase leeway,” Hipour stated. And he demonstrated the angle between the ship's course and her wake (the angle of leeway) by laying pencils on the chart table. We had to be sure to keep up-wind of Saipan.
The navigator was uncertain at the start whether the wave patterns to be encountered would be completely unfamiliar. He studied the passing lines of swells for hours on end until their individual characteristics were as familiar to him as the faces of his friends. Sometimes he would - 443 demonstrate, indicating the point on the ship's rail where each swell impinged. He had confirmed, he said, the tradition that the well-known “Big Wave” from approximately east would persist north of Pikelot, and I myself could observe that we were sailing at a slight angle across it. The other three separate swells that were running, which were all from various easterly directions, were unfamiliar in direction and general character. 13
Steering by the constantly changing bearing of the sun was more difficult than by the stars, but it became almost automatic after a day or so. The processes of observation and time estimation were soon largely unconscious. It was noteworthy that whenever Hipour or Ulutak had the helm towards evening, the steering star that appeared out of the darkening sky would invariably be right on the forestay.
It was extremely difficult for Hipour to judge the speed of so unfamiliar a vessel as Isbjorn, in marked contrast to the uncannily accurate judgement I was later to see him exercise in his own canoe. Nevertheless, by the fourth evening from Pikelot he was able to estimate that we were to windward of, and about opposite, Saipan. The former deduction resulted not only from dead reckoning, but also from the unbroken form of the long swell from the east which rendered it most unlikely that land lay in that direction. We hove-to for the night. 14
Next morning Hipour outlined the position as he saw it. We were almost certainly to windward of the southern end of the chain of Mariana islands that extended north from Saipan. The great height of these islands, the relatively short distances between them and the traditional abundance of homing birds, ensured that birds and land together would form a continuous screen in our lee, through which we could only unwittingly pass if we neglected to heave-to at night. We would, therefore, head towards the setting Great Bear position (north-north-west, D.L.) to cut through the screen obliquely.
We thereupon got under way at about 0900. Before long Hipour and Ulutak, who were intently scanning the sea, began to make out occasional boobies, terns and noddies, all species that indicate the proximity of land. Late in the morning a group of five boobies were seen circling after fish, then four more at noon and at 1630 a wheeling flock of a dozen. - 444 Visibility deteriorated as the afternoon wore on, while our anxiety and excitement mounted. Land must be very near. Could we but keep the birds in view until dusk, they would be seen to fly unerringly towards it.
The casual watcher usually does not notice many sea birds. That day brought home to me the numbers that can be brought to light by the sustained concentrated searching of men whose lives have time and again depended upon the acuity of their observation. A bare, undulating island 16-18 miles away on the port bow was sighted by Ulutak about 1730. Immediately afterwards, three boobies that we had been watching broke off their fishing and flew low and arrow-straight towards the island.
After another night spent hove-to, we were able to confirm our belief that we had come upon the first island beyond Saipan. This was Farallon de Medinilla, 250 feet high and 48 miles north of the bigger island. Save for one slightly longer gap between two 3,000-foot-high islands much further north, this is the longest break in the whole Marianas chain. We found sea birds in such profusion all the way from Farallon to Saipan that it would obviously be impossible, as Hipour had foretold, to cut across this avian concentration (in daylight) unawares. A navigator who was uncertain of his position would only have to wait until evening to ascertain the bearing of the nearest land. 15
We landed at Saipan exactly a week after leaving Puluwat.
The Return Voyage, Saipan to Pikelot
This journey was begun in kinder weather than the outward passage. Once again we took back bearings to determine set. Currents are always strong near islands, according to Hipour, but this time the current remained powerful even when we had left the land astern. The navigator laid down an initial course towards the rising Shaula to Scorpio (Danne Mharu) or south-east. We would make the major part of our compensation for set and drift in the first day or so, and when Hipour judged the time to be ripe (it was 29 hours later), alter to a more southerly course, the rising Southern Cross position (Daanup) or south-south-east.
Hipour's announced intention on leaving Saipan was to aim a little up-current and to weather off Pikelot so as to cross the margin of the deep reef to the east within the 20-mile radius of the island's bird zone. He thought we should succeed in “cutting” the submerged reef at the desired point, but should we be careless enough to go astray, the “screen” of almost contiguous bird zones, reefs and atolls in the destination area would catch us.
When a little over three days had passed, Hipour judged that an island called Gaferut had come abeam to starboard about 120 miles to the westward and the sight of two boobies tended to confirm his supposition. Gaferut was a reference (etak) island for this particular seaway. This important Carolinian orientation concept may be explained as follows: - 445 A voyage is conceived of as being divided into stages or segments with reference to an island lying away to one side of the course. 16 The canoe is regarded as being stationary and the islands mobile. Thus the destination “moves” nearer to the vessel and the reference (etak) island “moves” back from beneath one star point to the next. Each star point the reference island “moves” corresponds to the completion of one etak stage of the journey. It must be emphasised that this is a purely mental concept that allows the navigator to visualise his position; the islanders are, of course, perfectly well aware that the islands do, in fact, remain stationary.
The following incident illustrates the navigators' confidence in using this concept. Nearly four days after we had last seen land, and an estimated 410 miles en route, Hipout asked me to point out the direction of our destination, Pikelot, Satawal atoll and the etak Gaferut. 17 I supposed the first to be due south of us and about 40 miles off, the second to bear south-south-west and Gaferut a little south of west. This last statement caused great amusement, not only to Hipour but also to the relatively untrained seaman, Ulutak. Yes, I had been correct about the first two islands, but the reference island had already “moved” behind us so that it lay under the setting position of Aldebaran (Dolon Uun), which was a little north of west rather than south of west, as I had so mistakenly supposed. Our subsequent landfall and later measurements bore out everything Hipour said.
According to the navigator's reckoning, the submerged reef should be close aboard that same evening. If it were not identified before dark, we must heave-to. We logged a distant flock of noddies and terns at noon and half an hour later 20 or more noddies that were circling after fish. These indicated the proximity of land but not its direction. Nothing more could be expected before evening. About 1730 two birds abandoned their patrolling and flew off low and straight a little west of south. During the next half hour five more departed in exactly the same direction, then a single bird, next a pair. There could be no further doubt; we had arrived in the bird zone of Pikelot. Hipour's tense watchfulness now relaxed so completely it was hard to realise that his absolute certainty as to our position, after four days and 450 miles with never a sight of land, had been induced by the behaviour of a few dozen tiny sea birds.
We hove-to for the night, Hipour remarking that Pikelot lay in the direction the birds had taken and that it was between 10 and 20 miles off. If it were less than 10 we should have seen it; if more than 20 there would have been few birds or none; and the large size of the flocks suggested the distance was nearer 10 than 20.
Hipour and Ulutak were on bird watch at dawn to check where the current had set us during the night. The birds arrived from the south-west, showing that we had drifted south. As we were hoisting sail, a change in the colour of the water indicated the edge of the deep reef. Half an hour's sailing in the direction whence the birds had come brought Pikelot into view.- 446
The rest of the passage to Puluwat was uneventful. We entered the lagoon after dark guided by fires on shore. A mile-long line of tossing coconut frond torches flared in salute and the water around us erupted with canoes—a fitting welcome to the navigator and his helper who had so successfully reaffirmed their voyaging traditions.
How can we account for the remarkable persistence of survivals like the star “compass” or the idea of etak? Much has been lost, of course, even in the Carolines where such a relatively complete indigenous navigational discipline is still extant. Some erstwhile concepts have been forgotten like the “wind compass 18 or, as mentioned in footnote 15, the zenith star. The arts that have survived seem either to have been relatively straightforward like steering by horizon stars, or else so completely incompatible with European systems as to resist more than marginal modification, and thus to remain almost intact until their final replacement.
The Carolinian star “compass” is incompatible with the mariners' compass in three important respects. In the first place, the star points are irregularly disposed around the horizon. Secondly, the east-west line is 8½° out. Thirdly, star “compass” bearings are true rather than magnetic. Any one of these inconsistencies, except perhaps the first, could be compensated for by a correction, but taken together they place an insuperable barrier in the way of integrating opposing systems. Therefore, although magnetic compasses have long been known on Puluwat, they are still only used for secondary orientation. 19 In other words, the sidereal course is determined and the stars followed until, towards dawn or if the sky is clouding over, the point on the magnetic compass rose corresponding to the star point is followed, in preference to the more difficult practice of steering by the sun and swells. Hipour's demonstration showed how unimportant to Carolinian navigators was the lack of the Western instrument.
Similarly, the dynamic etak concept is hard to reconcile with the geographical abstraction, so familiar to ourselves, of the static chart. Hipour, for instance, was unable to comprehend that a particular etak island must be situated at the point of intersection of bearings (both of which he knew) from the start and destination islands. Another islander eventually succeeded in grasping the concept, but only by dint of the mental tour de force of visualising voyages in opposite directions being made simultaneously.
The same applies to virtually every technique involving swell orientation, swell deflection patterns, deep phosphorescence, homing birds, land loom, cloud lore and zenith stars. 20 Sailing directions and the like expressed in such indigenous terms are unlikely to have been influenced very much or at all by European concepts or knowledge.
A most unexpected finding, arising from my field work and documentary - 447 study, was that nearly every important navigational technique and concept encountered in Micronesia was matched by its Polynesian counterpart. The one exception is etak. Nothing exactly comparable has yet been reported from Polynesia, though the fact that Polynesian navigators were (and still are) capable of orientation feats equivalent to Hipour's, suggests the existence of analogous concepts. Thus, Tevake, the Santa Cruz Reef Island Polynesian, pointed out the direction of different islands while we were at sea with a facility equal to Hipour's. A similar competence on the part of an earlier Santa Cruz generation is seen from an account by Coote. 21 And the orientation of Cook's Tupaia is well known. 22
On the admittedly incomplete evidence available we would hardly seem justified in speaking of separate Polynesian and Micronesian systems, though there may well have been some such distinction in the heyday of voyaging. The facts at our disposal do, however, strongly suggest that the methods used in the two areas were productive of equivalent results; the precision of landfall they achieved was virtually the same.
The last question to be discussed is the degree of accuracy to be expected from non-instrumental methods of navigation. Estimates can only be the merest approximation, since the tenuous and transitory natural signs concerned must depend on extremely mutable meteorological and sea conditions. Navigational accuracy is not a function of length of voyage. The longer passages provide greater opportunity, if anything, for random current effects and judgement errors to cancel each other out. Thus, if a 15° arc of accuracy, for example, can be attained over two or three hundred miles, it is just as navigationally feasible over 1,000. The special problems of the longer journey will relate to food supply, manpower, motivation and the ability of the vessel; not navigation. However, the unbroken sea stretches of most Pacific voyages are relatively short because every inhabited island, save only Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand, can be reached from some other island without crossing much more than 300 miles of ocean.
The tracking error on Hipour's Saipan to Pikelot voyage was less than 5 miles in 450, or under 1°. I doubt whether anything like this precision could be consistently relied upon. Carolinian navigators usually expect their courses to have something less than a 5° error. 23 Most of the longer Micronesian and Polynesian voyages (around the time of contact) allowed a much greater margin than this, however, generally of the order of 15°-20°. The limits of accuracy seem to be approached in the 7½° arc that isolated Kapingamarangi presents after the 465-mile voyage from Pulusuk; 24 and for Polynesia in the 8°-9° landfall arc of Niue from Pukapuka, 530 miles away. 25- 448
APPENDIX: MICRONESIAN AND POLYNESIAN NAVIGATORS CITED
1 These demonstration voyages took place in the Santa Cruz Reef Islands voyaging sphere (Outlier Polynesian), Ninigo (“Para-Micronesian”), Carolines and Gilberts (Micronesian). Additional data were collected from Tokopians and in Tonga. Burney 1817:4.
2 Lykke 1969:personal communication.
3 Kotzebue 1821:207. My italics.
4 Partly because they were shamed by Hipour's exploit in Isbjorn, five Satawalese, whose leader was the navigator Repunglug, sailed to Saipan and back by canoe in 1970.
5 Riesenberg 1969:personal communication.
6 Lykke 1969:personal communication; Riesenberg 1969:personal communication.
7 Goodenough 1953:6.
8 Krämer (1937:82) confirms that this was the usual route for Puluwat canoes. An alternative was via Magur in the Namonuitos (Ikeeliman, quoted by Riesenberg, personal communication 1969). For the routes to Saipan or Guam of Satawal and Lamotrek canoes, see Chamisso (1907:417, 418); Kotzebue (1821:209); Kramer (1937:123).
9 Because we lacked clocks all times are estimates. Since steering stars are not observed exactly at rise and set but usually about 15° above the horizon, star bearings too are approximate.
10 Similar alternative star courses for particular conditions of wind and weather, some as much as 25° apart, were demonstrated at sea or pointed out by the stars in the Santa Cruz Reef Islands (Tevake) and in Tonga (Ve'etutu).
11 I noted in the log at the time that this would make sunset “about half a point south of east”. This would be 264½°. For the date and latitude, the correct figure according to the Nautical Almanac, is 264°.
12 Gladwin 1970:43.
13 Equally complex swell patterns were “sorted out” at sea and used for orientation by the Santa Cruz Reef island (Polynesian) navigator Tevake.
14 Hipour was working entirely by dead reckoning. However, at least one former Carolinian method of deducing latitude is on record.
Latitude by observation of the overhead or zenith star is known from Tonga and Tikopia (Lewis 1970:444 5). It has also been reported last century from the Carolines (Sanches 1866:263), but does not appear to be remembered today on Puluwat.
The Pole Star doubles its height from 7½° to 15° between Puluwat and Saipan. Hipour denied knowledge of any navigational application of this phenomenon. However, he later gave approximate figures for this change of altitude in naf, a Puluwatan unit of measurement (Doran, personal communication, 1970). Similarly, Repunglug of Satawal, who has had even less contact with Europeans than Hipour, gave Pole Star heights in ee-yass, which again were rough approximations that were too far out for accurate navigation (McCoy, personal communication, 1970). The question, then, of earlier Carolinian observation of Polaris (by eye) to determine latitude must remain, I think, an open one.
15 The concept of target islands being expanded by “screens” of land indicators like birds, deflected swells, clouds and the like seems to be Pacific-wide. It was expressed very clearly in a Tongan aphorism (from Ve' ehala), and was also expounded by the Gilbertese navigator Teeta.
16 Gladwin 1970:181-95; Alkire 1970:51-5.
17 All these central Carolinian atolls are visible no more than ten miles from a canoe; a little further from a yacht.
18 Cantova 1728:209, 210.
19 Gladwin 1970:155.
20 Lewis 1970:434, 437-45.
21 Coote 1882:153, 154.
22 Forster 1778:531.
23 Gladwin 1970:156.
24 Krämer 1935:103; Eilers 1934:131.
25 Beaglehole, 1938:352.