Wayfinding & Celestial Navigation

June 20, 2022

Wayfinding & Celestial Navigation

In ancient Hawai‘i, Hawaiians used celestial navigation and wayfinding to journey across the seas.  They would navigate using the stars and all the surrounding elements. The stars, currents and wave patterns determined where they were heading.  They would also focus on the rhythmic movement of the boat to tell from which direction a swell was rocking the boat.

Polynesians subdivided the sky into different corresponding quadrants so that when a star rose at a specific point on the horizon, it set in the opposite quadrant from where it rose.  The four quadrants were known as Ko'olau, Malanai, Kona and Hoolua. Ko'olau represents the windward side of the islands, Malanai is the SE quadrant, associated with Kailua, Oahu, Kona represents the leeward side of the islands and Hoolua, is named for a strong north wind.

The Hawaiians also used directional points known as La – sun, Aina – land, Nolo – Hawaiian tern, Manu – bird, Nalani – named for the brightest star, Na Leo – the voices and Haka – empty. Each quadrant and directional point gave a combination of 28 compass directions that the Hawaiians used as they sailed. Throughout the night, Polynesian navigators would watch the procession of the stars as they appeared on the eastern horizon and then use what they observed to correlate their location, which direction their canoe was facing and their heading.   

The Hōkūleʻa is a project that inspired the revival of Native Hawaiian exploration and connection with the island and the sea. Hōkūleʻa’s team of voyagers travel across the seas in the same way as the Hawaiians of ancient Polynesia and replicate the journeys that their Hawaiian ancestors took. The Hōkūleʻa and the revival of wayfinding and star navigation allows people from across the globe to learn more about Native Hawaiians, how the Polynesians came to Hawai‘i and the intricacy of their voyaging abilities.