Ancient Pacific navigation inspires mainstream art

Two events 10,000 miles apart link a renaissance in traditional Pacific navigation and the world of art.

I was lucky enough last week to visit the TarraWarra Biennial exhibition 2023. a prestige art venue in the countryside near Melbourne in Australia. The  biennale title is a Samoan proverb which translates as – ‘the canoe obeys the wind’.

The curator’s notes say “this proverb calls attention to the contemporary revival of Great Ocean celestial navigation practices which have been accompanied by waves of renewal of language, thought, movement and relationships.’

The exhibition, which opened on 1 April, is excellent, merging modern and traditional art practices to show how ancient cultures and their environments are struggling to survive.

By coincidence, just before we left for Australia I went to a seminar on traditional Pacific navigation organised by the Royal Institute of Navigation and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.

Mimi George introduces the Greenwich talks on traditional navigation

The theme was essentially the same, but it approached the issue in a direct, practical sense: traditional navigators from several Pacific nations described their attempts to set up or maintain schools to teach and preserve the ancient methods.

Outrigger canoe
Capt Vaikawi explains where the islanders live

The seminar was introduced by Dr Marianne (Mimi) George, who sailed for 15 years with David Lewis, author of the best known book on Pacific Navigation, We the Navigators. He reconstructed Hawaian and Tahitian methods, showing how they could have navigated with the stars, in ways just about decipherable to anyone who can use a sextant.

This rebutted several hundred years of claims that the polynesians only found their Pacific islands by accident as they were blown randomly across the Pacific, implying many were lost.

Spirituality in the islands

But research has moved on. Mimi described this Hawaian-based research as a planetarium system, using modern knowledge to reconstruct a method of navigation that had been lost in Tahiti and Hawaii. There were no navigating elders to learn from.

Mimi translated and explained We the Navigators to the late Koloso Kahia Kaveia, founder of the Vaka Taumako Project in the Solomon Islands. He was a navigator from one of the rare Pacific societies that had preserved its knowledge of navigation by handing it down through the generations to modern times. Taumako is a small island, with no electric or phone services, and no roads, harbour or airstrip.

In response to Lewis’s book, Kaveia asked Mimi: “Would you like to know how we really navigate?” It seems that was something of a bombshell in a traditional navigation world heavily influenced by We the Navigators.

A whole new world of complexity opened up for research, starting with the 32 points of the wind compass – you do not make a voyage until the wind is in the right position, which seems rather basic – but there’s much more to wind knowledge than that, and it is only part of the story.

The rise and set of stars and the sun still play an important role but as one part of a much more complex and holistic system, which includes knowledge of currents and plant and animal life in the sea.

Mimi has recently published in the RIN quarterly a fascinating account of yet another technique, the use of interference patterns in long-distance swells when they near groups or pairs of islands. These can give quite precise indications of the routes between the islands.

In Greenwich we heard from practising Pacific navigators including Captain Luke Vaikawi, director of the Taumako project, Mario Jacob Benito, who is trying to revive traditional boatbuilding and navigation in the Northern Marianas, and Sanakoli John from Pasana in the Solomons, who has navigated a traditional canoe 6300 km round Papua New Guinea, and who is also teaching traditional methods. Another Solomon Islander talked about the spiritual background of the navigators’ island world.

We heard about the construction process for traditional outriggers, all made from materials close to hand, including woven sails, and about the marvellous sailing qualities of the triangular rig, which is highly efficient to windward.

More information, including interesting short films, can be found on, at VakaTaumakoProject on Facebook, or through the Pacific Traditions Society, which is based in Hawaii.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: