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Wednesday, March 21, 2007
The Last Easter Island Wayfinder

The last ten years has seen a re-emergence of “Wayfinding” essentially finding one’s way across the ocean with no modern navigational aids, only the help of the stars, waves, wind, and birds. The most famous of these modern attempts paddled traditional Hawaiian canoes to Tahiti and back using ancient Polynesian wayfinding skills. In Hanga Roa on our second and last afternoon there, I met an old man who was the last wayfinder on Easter Island. His story was told to me, by him, in Rapanuian dialect translated into Spanish by his daughter. Brain burn! He looked at me with his one good eye and slowly recounted how he had learned his navigational skills from his grandfather and other elderly navigators. They taught him the stars and the islands to Tahiti by drawing lines in the sand and placing stones and shells for important landmarks. Most of what he learned was by rote memorization. His major accomplishment in life was to navigate to Papeete, Tahiti, in the old way by sailboat like the boat above. All alone, he survived on fish, coconuts, and captured rain water. It is a treacherous passage to thread through the Tuomotus. Hidden reefs and shallow atolls awash in breaking swells cover hundreds of miles on the path from Easter Island to Tahiti.

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that Polynesian navigators used sand drawings, reed constructions (think drinking straws glued together like tinker toys), and stone carvings to construct a mental schematic map of the “sidereal compass” (a star chart). The major visible stars, their 180 degree antithesis, and their lateral related star at 90 degrees, were memorized. In the case of the Easter Island navigator, this process began in early childhood. As a little boy he watched his grandfather and others draw the star patterns in the sand. He remembered learning about clouds, winds, and birds as aids to location and to steering. The swells, he said, were very important to both see and feel (at night) because certain islands reflected the swells at certain angles which gave him a bearing on that particular island. I had no doubt about his story. As a person who grew up in small sail boats, the familiarity with the sea is similar to “Smila’s Sense of Snow”, a book whose main character has over a hundred Icelandic words to describe the intricacies of snow. Childs play for me was sailing a steady course with my eyes closed, or shipping the rudder & tiller onboard to steer only by the sails, ( in a small sailboat of course.) It was the same sense that woke me up on anchor when the wind changed direction and put us on a lee shore. It’s the sense with which you feel the seaworthiness of a boat. Your senses feel and your mind is ever alert to anomalies in the ocean’s patterns. At sea you can’t have your ear to the ground, just the compilation of years on the water in your mental computer…your schematic mental pictures.

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