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Did ancient Hawaiians really navigate the Pacific Ocean without instruments?

Ask the Big Kahuna

“Answering the most common visitor questions”


One of the highlights of our visit to Hawaii was a sunset sail off the Kona Coast on the Big Island. What the skipper, or captain, I guess, told us about the navigational feats of the ancient Hawaiians was a little difficult to believe. Did they really sail all over the Pacific with no instruments at all?

Marion and Paula


Aloha, Marion and Paula,

Mahalo for floating your question up to the Big Kahuna.

I’m happy to tell you that your captain did not mislead you. The Polynesians were natural navigators with no drawn maps, books, GPS, or references. Their ability to locate small islands in the vast Pacific Ocean astounded western sea captains, starting with Captain James Cook in 1769, when he brought aboard his ship a Tahitian navigator named Tupaia.

Polynesian navigators used the paths of stars and their rising and setting points to steer bearings and identified many islands with individual stars that passed directly over them. Added to this “star compass” were incredible stores of knowledge and experience about ocean swell patterns, wind, waves, currents, cloud motion and formation, flotsam, and sea birds — all learned under the tutelage of a master natural navigator. It took an enormous memory and years of study and experience. No wonder the Europeans were so impressed!

The next time you’re in Hawaii, and we do expect you back, navigate over to the Bishop Museum’s Hawaii Maritime Center on Oahu – Pier 7, Honolulu Harbor – to see their exhibit on ancient navigation and to learn about the recovery of ancient navigational skills aboard the replica voyaging canoe Hokulea.

Big Kahuna