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Dispatches from the Front: Review – We, The Navigators

We, The NavigatorsHi!

I’m Jim Comer and I read, edit, and post on QueerSF.  This is the first of an irregular series of dispatches from the front: I read very widely across the fields of history, science, language and religion, and want to make sure that the QUILTBAGs back home are suitably informed.  For writers and readers, here is the first of a series of book reviews, on traditional navigation in the Pacific Ocean.  I hope that you enjoy it.


On a planet three-quarters of which is covered by water, sea travel is not only necessary, but a source of stories and a central part of myth. However, in order to arrive at one’s destination, navigation is a good idea, and many ways of doing this exist. Most commonly, we hear about navigation by landmarks and navigation via the sextant or astrolabe, as used in Europe since the Renaissance.  In We, The Navigators, veteran sailor David Lewis presents the results of decades of ethnographic research and experimentation with Oceanic peoples in the Western Pacific.

His explanation of the use of guide stars, zenith stars, reference islands and signs for finding land is without parallel in the English literature on the topic.
He begins with a short explanation of the origins and dispersal of the Oceanic peoples, including references to discredited theses such as those of Heyerdahl, and an odd reference to the shipbuilding techniques of the Vikings, which readers of this review may wish to investigate further.  Ship types and shipbuilding are covered in detail and this section is priceless for any student of historic wooden-ship seafaring.

Especially interesting is the size of some of these vessels when compared with European seafaring craft, and the development of sail and masts. (It is made abundantly clear that no vessel ever crossed oceanic distances by paddling or oars.)  The Fijian ndrua named “Perished Inland” was 118 feet long and 25 feet wide,  and James Cook’s Endeavor (which was 106 feet long and 29 feet wide) met native vessels longer than herself.  The sail designs include the crab-claw sail, the half-claw, and lateen sails of several types, all of which Lewis found to be excellent in performance even compared to modern nylon sails.  This reviewer  was sorry that the exotic rafts used on Mangareva and the Chathams were not discussed, but Lewis may not have had much information to go on and preferred to limit his descriptions to vessels he had seen himself.

Sailing depends on guide stars, which appear on the horizon to guide one to the destination at various times of night, and zenith stars, which mark the position of an island during the sailing season.  Each island has one or more stars which “fix” its location, and navigators know these; the lore of the stars from an equatorial Pacific world is wonderfully different from that of the European-Mideastern world which most of us come from.

Lewis explains guide stars in great detail, and also describes the schools in which navigators are trained on several islands.   On many islands these school sessions meet in the mens‘ ceremonial house and also practice while sailing. These traditional techniques are in decay, of course, but Lewis was able to work with a number of trained men (women navigators also existed) on several islands, though some never sailed with him.  Others navigated his ship on voyages.  Studies have shown by comparison to British Naval shipwreck statistics that South Pacific traditional navigators  were more accurate than European navigators before the coming of electronics.

Reference islands, or etak, are the hardest concept to understand for the reader, and this review won’t attempt to explain them, save that they are invisible landmarks moving in the mind of the navigator.  Memorizing huge numbers of them is a key part of any navigator’s training.  Each voyage is divided into several etak, and when an etak seemingly “moves” from being “under” one star at the same time of night to being under another star, then a stage of the voyage is past and another has begun.  The final etak is the end of the journey and by that point voyagers use various means to find land.

Techniques used for land finding are a little easier to understand, since each island is effectively ‘expanded’ by the effects of phosphorescence in the ocean, clouds, the birds who feed around it, and other signs in the ocean.  The use of swells was a technique that fascinated me, since I had discussed it with Bruce Blackistone, captain of the recreated Viking-era ship Sae Hrafn, on at least one occasions.  The “hole” made in the swells, the swells that are “reflected” or refracted around an island, and how to read all this is evidence of the huge sophistication of the ancient navigators.

There is also a description of how to find islands by the patterns of underwater phosphorescence (“underwater lightning”) in the plankton, which sounds as though it would be impossible to do unless your ship had no electric lights at all.  The way in which a navigator could find an island even without stars or landmarks, simply by “seeing” it in the reflected swells, was demonstrated for Lewis on several occasions by his teachers, including the famed navigators Abera and Iotiebata, and these men could “see“ land more than forty miles off by these means.  The use of stick charts and the “stone canoe” instructional site is probably a good start to understanding this radar-like technique, but to master it demands a life spent at sea, or so this reviewer thinks.

Lewis closes with a rundown of the reasons for voyages (people get on boats when drunk and sail hundreds of miles for cigarettes!) and a short description of the revival of traditional voyaging and navigation, including the several well-publicized treks of the Hawai’ian vessel Hokulea.  His own voyages and adventures using traditional navigational techniques are also narrated.

This book is overflowing, if you will, with ideas which could be used in a fantasy or SF tale.  The descriptions of ships are an excellent supplement to the more European/Mideastern ships which occur in ‘bog standard’ fantasy.  Seafarers might be of many species above the ocean and below it.  Guide stars might serve as indicators of more than land in a world of working astrology.  Zenith stars are another strange and brilliant concept which a writer could use in an original setting.  I can imagine a storyteller branching from this into a story of divine magic, in a world wherein the stars are gods or are sources of occult power.  When combined with a narrative such as Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, one would have a novel ready-made.  Each island could be a new series of adventures,  great journeys across an ocean whose shores might be in different worlds.  In any case, whether you sail on ships or in your armchair, enjoy this excellent book.

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