Traditional navigation in the Caroline Islands      Back to Terry's Articles

You CAN teach old salty dogs some new tricks!

While sheltering from rough weather at West Fayu, a remote atoll in eastern Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia during 1993, my wife Sandy and I, aboard our Fuji32 Ketch, Valhalla, had the fortune to meet a Satawalese traditional navigator (paliuw..pronounced 'pah-loo'), Francis Sermonyoung. Francis and his crew of four had sailed their 26-foot canoe, White Horse, the 50NM from Satawal, an 'outer island' of Yap, to West Fayu on a turtle-hunting trip and were delayed in departure by the same rough conditions from which we sought shelter. Over the next nine days we were fortunate to share experiences ranging from catching turtles, lobsters and coconut crabs to fishing from their swift canoe in the lagoon. We enjoyed an evening barbecue on shore with the crew, enriched by kava from Vanuatu and home brew beer supplied by Valhalla and a local brew of 'yeast' prepared by the White Horse crew with ingredients supplied by Valhalla. During the later stages of the evening I 'adopted' Francis in Micronesian style and set about a continuing relationship that, most recently, has culminated in an intense two-week period of information exchange.

On our recent arrival (July 98) in Colonia, Yap, FSM we saw Francis again and were introduced to his wife and four of their five children. In the time since we first met, Francis had advanced his knowledge as a paliuw by undergoing a regimen of instruction and ceremony called Pwo ..pronounced 'po'. In the past 45 years, only two Pwo ceremonies have been performed, one on Lamotrek and one on Pulap (both islands in Yap state). The Pwo Ceremony on Lamotrek was filmed by Eric Metzgar, of Triton Films, in 1990 and is titled Spirits of the Voyage. See more of Eric's work at his website Francis is one of ten paliuw to complete the Pwo ceremony in recent times. With the threat of the arrival of the Southwest monsoon (which would make our continuing passage to Palau uncomfortable), Francis and I began afternoons of navigation information exchange. He purchased my handheld GPS and I taught him the basics of 'modern' navigation including the concepts of latitude and longitude, deviation, variation, distances on a chart, and operation of the GPS. His grasp of these non-traditional concepts was impressive and his work on practical exercises was outstanding. In return, he taught me the names and locations of the stars (or groupings of stars) used in the Carolinian 'compass' for passages and weather forecasting (to the extent necessary to decide if it will be favorable to begin a canoe journey). We were fortunate to have my laptop computer with the Skyglobe© program to view the stars from any position, direction, or point in time. Without these valuable tools it would have taken months to accurately define the 'star' in question. In this article I will relate what I have learned, recognizing that the two week period for learning was brief though intense.

The Carolinian 'Star' Compass

Using the island of Satawal (Francis's home island) as the viewing location, the points on the Caroline Island's 'star' compass were determined. Shown in the figure are the Carolinian names for 'stars' that comprise their directional reference system, or 'compass'. Not all have a specific star; some use an entire constellation, such as Ursa Major, where the direction is determined by the 'eyeball' middle of the group of stars. The basic concept of passage-making is to view a 'star' as it rises in the east or sets in the west. These rising (taen) and setting (tupun) positions define points around the horizon that correlate to directions ahead or behind the canoe as it follows a 'star' course. North is always visible and is called wenenwenen fius mwakiut, "the star that does not move". The rest of the 'stars' are dependent on the time of the year when they will be visible, as we will see later in this article. The fragility of the sailing canoes causes concern, not unlike that of any mariner, for storms and squally weather. Prior to beginning a passage, the paliuw rises early and looks to the horizon for 'stars' which will give an indication of the coming day's weather. These 'weather stars' will also be discussed later.

The thirty-two points on the horizon that are determined from the rising and setting azimuths of each 'star' provide the basic directions corresponding to star courses that the navigator has learned. Ancient star courses relied on the concept of latitude sailing, similar to the Western square-rigger days, whereas of late the star courses have been changed to permit sailing directly to a destination.

The traditional navigation concept

The basic concept of navigation at night using the stars is shown here:

As an example, a canoe on a passage from Yap to Palau at a particular time of the year uses two stars to determine the course. Ahead would be the star Antares (Tumur) as it sets (tupun) and behind would be the deep space object Pleiades (Mwaerikaer) as it rises (taen). The paliuw uses these fore and aft points on the horizon to maintain the course, and can determine the set of the current by deviation from a line between these two points. The star Polaris (Wenewenen Fius Mwakiut), called 'the star that never moves', is visible at all times but the navigating stars are normally visible only for a portion of the time during the night. Since the availability of stars is determined by the time of the year, the paliuw must know the different courses for the time of the year plus different courses for the prevailing winds which change throughout the year. This is an impressive feat, to say the least.

The 'stars' aren't all
The paliuw uses more than 'star courses' to find his way. Beyond the scope of this article are other means such as the species of fish being caught, wave patterns, flight paths of birds and their species, and a visualization at all times where landfalls to the left and right of the course may exist. These are secondary means to the paliuw but play an ever-increasing role as the 'stars' are not available due to clouds and for maintaining a course during the day.

Translation to Western designations
Shown below are the Carolinian 'stars' and their translation to Western designations. Included are both navigation stars (see the 'compass' above) and weather stars.

Azimuths and usage
Shown here are the rising (taen) and setting (tupun) azimuths and the use of stars, i.e., for navigation, for weather, or for both purposes.

Weather 'stars'
Traditional navigation includes knowledge of the weather in general patterns and specific weather for a particular day. The months of February and March are difficult times for sailing due to the onslaught of the strong trade winds. February begins the period of maeirhik ... the time when it is better to do things such as making leis (there are plenty of flowers on the ground!) rather than go sailing. As a forecast of the new day's weather, the paliuw looks to the east for the rising of a particular 'star' well before dawn. The ability to see this 'star' is a hint that squalls aren't lurking over the horizon. Recognizing the annual rotation through the sky, some specific 'stars' are used for this daily forecast during each month. These are shown in the following table:

Availability of 'stars'
Though possibly a simple concept, passage-making using 'star courses' is not as easy as it may first seem. The annual rotation of stars through the sky presents a challenge in having the desired 'star' visible when the passage is intended. Shown in the following table are the local times for each of the 'stars' on the night of 3 July 98, as seen from the island of Satawal. As indicated, less than half of the 'stars' will be visible during that night, assuming the clouds don't interfere.


A view of the Traditional Navigation Stars on one night ... 6 October 98

On 6 October 98, we are located in Koror, the Republic of Palau, at a location of 7 degrees 20 minutes North latitude, 134 degrees 28 minutes East longitude.

At 1751 hours, just after sunset, a view to the NNE shows these stars:

High in the sky to the west of Polaris (Wenewenen Fius Mwakiut) is Kochab (Maeinepaenfaeng) in the constellation of Ursa Minor, too high to be of value due to it's height above the horizon. But to the east, the constellation Cassiopeia has risen, describing Iukiunik ... a point directly beneath the mid-point of the stars Caph and Schedar, at an azimuth of 032 degrees.

At 2038, a bit further to the east we see Pleiades (Mwaerikaer) rising at an azimuth of 066 degrees.

At 2112, looking to the NW, we see the following:

Here Mesariuw (the two stars Shaula and Lesath) is setting but not quite on the horizon, but Antatres (Tumur) has reached it's azimuth of 243 degrees.

At 2140, looking back to the E, we see that Mwaeikaer is above the horizon but has been followed by Aldebaran (Uun) at an azimuth of 073 degrees.


At 2209, a look back to the NW shows that Mesariuw has finally set at 232 degrees azimuth.

At 2251 we see to the E that Orion the hunter is appearing to shoot an arrow at Taurus the bull.

Uun (Aldebaran) has climbed well above the horizon but Orion's belt has just appeared with Eonuieon (a point directly below Alnilam) at an azimuth of 091 degrees.

At 0048 on 7 October 98, a look to the west, in the constellation Aquila, shows three of the stars.

Beta Aquila (Paieor) has risen at 276 degrees, Altair (Maeinap) at 279 degrees, and Tarazed (or Alpha Aquila) at 281 degrees azimuths.

Later in the morning, at 0315, looking again to the NE we see the 'pointers' for Polaris begin to rise. These stars, Dubhe and Merak, define at their mid-point, the star Weneo at an azimuth of 032 degrees.

Finally, just before dawn at 0556, a look to the NW show us:

Cassiopeia has made it's rotation around Polaris this past night and Iukiunik (the mid-point between Caph and Schedar) is visible at an azimuth of 328 degrees.

The above views are all theoretical, however, since on the night in question the skies were totally overcast and we didn't actually see ANY stars that night !!!!! Lucky for us we weren't a paliuw on a passage.

The practical exercise
Departing Yap on a passage to Palau gave us the opportunity to try our hand at traditional navigation. This distance is 255NM and the course is 241 degrees true. We sailed the course described under the Basic Concept discussion above. Antares (Tumur) was quite visible during the night as it slowly descended to it's tupun azimuth of 243 degrees true then was totally obliterated by clouds near the horizon. Early in the morning Pleaides (Mwaerikaer) rose above the clouds in the east but was soon too high to be of much help. Finding many of the other 'stars' familiar to our friend Francis was an exciting way to pass the time on the night watches. The squally weather on this three-day passage did, however, make us thankful for the GPS as the horizon was normally covered with clouds, emphasizing the difficulty the paliuw encounters.

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