After Hōkūleʻa’s first successful voyage from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 1976, Nainoa Thompson flew to Tahiti to join the crew that would bring Hōkūleʻa back home. In the little village of Tautira, observing the stars as his ancestors would have done, he discovered the first clue to finding latitude – his place north or south on the planet. The following story is brought to us from the memories and research of Hōkūleʻa crewmember and documenter, Sam Low.
After arriving in Papeete on June 4th, 1976, Hōkūle’a sailed south where she anchored for a time off the little village of Tautira. Here Nainoa spent many nights observing the sky. He had studied the stars in his grandmother’s yard or in the soccer field next to the Hui Nalu canoe house a little down the road. And often, he had cranked up a battered fifty-horsepower Evinrude and set to sea in a 16-foot skiff to observe
the sky as Mau Piailug would, surrounded by ocean.
“I slept on my boat all the time getting ready for the 1976 trip,” he remembers. “I anchored it outside Maunalua Bay and I would sleep in it with my star book and a little penlight. That’s how I learned the stars – a book and the night sky. Any amateur who wanted to learn the stars – that’s what he would do.”
Nainoa’s star book was written for children. Its title was simple – The Stars – and its author was H. A. Rey, famous in the world of children’s books for his Curious George series. On the first page of The Stars, Rey wrote two sentences that might have been composed especially for Nainoa: “If you know the stars, you are not easily lost. They tell you the time and direction on land, on sea, and in the air, and this can be valuable on many occasions.”
One night in Tautira, Nainoa walked down to the boat harbor where he had a good view of the sky. He observed the dark outline of mountain peaks descending to the sea – punctuated by upthrusting coconut palms at the shore. Soon the stars began to appear.
“Where is the Centaur? Where is the Southern Cross?” he wondered. In Hawaii, just a few days ago, these constellations were high up in the sky, but here he found them low on the horizon. “I got to Tahiti and I said, ‘This sky looks different.’” Nainoa remembers. “The relationships that I built in my mind – the pictures in my mind that came from my observations in my grandmother’s cow pasture and the boat in Honolulu. Wait a minute! These things are different than in Hawaii.”
When Nainoa had traveled from Honolulu to Tautira, he had flown from 21 degrees north latitude across the equator to 18 degrees south and so his view of the sky changed dramatically. He could no longer see the North Star, for example, and the Southern Cross, low on the horizon from his grandmother’s cow pasture, was now very high in the sky.
“I was trying to map the sky as time passed and see what the sky looked like,” Nainoa remembers, thinking back to that time more than 40 years ago. “I was concentrating on stars in the southern part of the sky because I knew when I traveled north I would not see them again.”
Thirty-nine degrees of latitude to the south of Hawaii, this Tahitian sky presented new vistas. Many were puzzling to him, but none more so than what he saw just after dusk in the newly dark firmament. He searched for the stars Sirius and Mirzam in the Dog and Castor and Pollux in the Twins. Looking west, he watched Mirzam and Castor arc down to the horizon and set together. He checked his watch – six thirty-five PM. About twenty minutes later, Sirius and Pollux also arrived at the horizon together. Seeing new stars – that he expected – but seeing old familiar ones following different timetables to the horizon – that he did not expect.
“In Hawaii Mirzam sets first,” Nainoa explains, ”Sirius shortly thereafter. Maybe an hour later Castor sets, then Pollux.” But here was this strange thing, Mirzam and Castor setting at the same time followed shortly thereafter by Sirius and Pollux. “They didn’t do that in Hawaii. I was puzzled. Why did that happen? I knew the answer must be in the change in latitude but I didn’t understand why. I learned that the stars are different in Tahiti from Hawaii – that there’s a blueprint for the stars in Tahiti and another one for the stars in Hawaii. So I knew these were like signatures for the different places.”
On that night in 1976, when Nainoa was just 24 years old, he observed the sky as his ancestors would have done, holistically, without instruments and without much knowledge of western navigational knowledge, to find “signatures for different places” as he called them then. It was the first discovery in a long list of discoveries that would eventually lead to his ability to sail without instruments. Today he calls this observation “simultaneously setting stars” – and he teaches the new generation of navigators that when Mirzam and Castor or Sirius and Pollux set at the same time they have arrived at the latitude of Tahiti, 18 degrees south. Eventually he would find many simultaneously setting stars pairs – celestial stepping-stones – to guide wayfinders as they voyaged north or south on the planet.
The above moʻolelo was written by Hōkūleʻa crewmember and documenter Sam Low, author of Hawaiki Rising, Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance.