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Peopling the Pacific
Using the night sky
Other navigational signs
Making landfall
Voyaging canoes
Voyaging Sources

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Using the night sky

Polynesians relied on the positions of stars to guide them along their voyaging routes. Stars - as opposed to planets - hold their positions steady in the sky throughout the year, although the time of a star's rising or setting changes seasonally. Stars low near the horizon - just risen or about to set - are guiding stars, used for setting the direction of the canoe until they rise too high in the sky to follow easily. Once they've risen higher, another star that rises or sets at the same point on the horizon is used by the navigator in its place. In this way, a whole series of stars are strung together in a path, indicating throughout the night the direction of the island destination. The course being followed and the canoe's latitude determine how many stars are needed in succession, but an average night's voyage would require a path of 10 stars.

Polynesian navigators oriented themselves according to their departure point. Leaving land for a known destination, the navigator lined up two or more landmarks to set off in the right direction. As landmarks faded and night came on, he took new bearings from stars. At any time during the voyage - days or weeks out - a navigator could work his path backwards and identify the direction of the island he'd left.

Zenith stars, also used in navigation, are those that appear to pass directly over an island when the canoe is at the same latitude (positions due east or due west of the island). Polynesians could not determine longitude so to make landfall, they aimed far upwind and upcurrent (usually east) at the correct latitude, then sailed downwind using the destination island's zenith star as a guide until they hit land. Examples of zenith stars are Sirius, the brightest star in the sky which is the zenith star for Ra`iatea, and Arcturus, or Hokule`a, which is the zenith star for Hawai`i. Most of Polynesia's major islands lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Hawaiians called the zenith stars for these islands Na Hoku Pa`a o ka `Aina, the unmoving stars of the land.

Navigators used zenith stars to estimate latitude on long north-south voyages. Star paths were used for directing movement on an east-west course.

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