The wapepe

This is what they call a “Marshall Islands stick chart.” This the one they called wapepe. It is the mother of all stick charts. Any resemblance to the German Iron Cross is, of course, coincidence.  The wapepe predates the 1813 Napoleonic Wars by hundreds of years and has nothing to do with a cross. It describes the convergence of ocean swells on an island in Mid-Pacific. It is the Marshall Islanders contribution to the world’s knowledge of these swells and how to use them to navigate without the stars.

Star navigation was widely used by Polynesians and  the Islanders of the eastern and Western Carolines. This method  is best described by Stephen S. Thomas in his non-fiction book The Last Navigator. Thomas stayed with the people of Satawal in 1983 and tells of a star compass used by the navigators there that consists of 32 points around the horizon associated with star risings and settings. He explains how these stars become points of navigation among the various atolls. Closely kept Navigation skill is esoteric knowledge and only passed on to the initiated. 

Thus, it is no surprise that by 2019 amid the on slot of American culture those who possess such knowledge are no longer passing it to the initiated and the knowledge may now disappear for good. The wapepe represents knowledge passed on from navigator to apprentice for hundreds of years prior to first contact with a compass. The knowledge of how to find a low-lying coral atoll in the open ocean before it appears on the horizon and how to navigate toward it without the use of stars. After all, the night sky can become blemished by cloud cover. You don’t always have the luxury of having a star to point the way.

To better understand the chart, let’s dissect it into its essential part. In the center of the chart you see four half-moons. They appear in the following image below. This image is the heart of the wapepe. You will recognize this image as the one appearing in Man Shark. It is the image Lainjin carved into the unconscious Paratak’s chest with four clean incisions with his single shark’s tooth weapon. What does this design represent? What does it have to do with navigation?

The swell pattern navigation of the Marshall Islanders is based on four swells, one from each quadrant converging on an atoll in Mid-Pacific. The actual atoll or island is absent from the drawing because it is of course below the horizon. It is what one is searching for, but it is there and can be detected in the pattern of swells as they converge upon it.

Let’s start by describing the difference between a wave and a swell. A wave caused by the current direction of the wind has a higher frequency than a swell caused by a much greater period of constant wind direction. A swell has a much longer wavelength. Where do the swells come from? Unlike waves created by current wind direction, the swells come from the quadrants. Heat rises and frigid air pushes down. The winds from the poles set up swells from the north and south quadrants. The ancestors were not aware of this reasoning, but they recognized these swells buñtokiōñ and buñtokrōk because they saw them cancelling each other out in the open ocean while becoming more predominant as they approached the north and south sides of an atoll because the atoll cut off the counter swell.  The swell from the east, bun̄tokrear, is the result of the strong trade winds that sweep the Pacific for months at a time. A current from the west kāleptak is the result of the counter current set up by the South Pacific convergence Zone. Although it is not a swell per se, the result is the same. It causes  large wave to break on the west side of an atoll especially during the summer months of the year.

The unseen atoll cuts off the counter swell and as a result the swell from the opposite quadrant becomes gradually more predominant. This is the central idea the wapepe portrays. The meaning of wapepe is “boat floats.” The illustration above is a photograph. Unfortunately, the photograph is upside down. Turn it 180 degrees in your mind’s eye until the vertical “stick” at the center of the design continues to point north and south and the much shorter vertical “stick” also points north and south but faces east. The longer vertical “stick” represents the hull of the canoe in the open ocean and the smaller “stick” is its kubaak (outrigger). When left to float on its own in its natural state the swells we just discussed will turn the boat to this direction.

There are eight diagonal pathways to the island. This is where the navigator maneuvers the craft by putting the predominant swell (the atoll cutting off its counter swell) on his stern to left or right and uses the swell from the left or right quadrant as his guide to approach the island on a diagonal course between them. One swell breaking to the right of his stern the other on the left. The swells then “push” the boat toward its destination. Given the existence of these swells the theory makes logical sense. As one approaches the atoll two swells become more predominant and two become gradually less so. Put the predominant swells on your stern to right and left and they will “push” you home.

Do these swells exist? Predominant weather patterns in the Pacific suggest they do. Bun̄tokrear, the swell from the east is obvious. The others not so in the open ocean. Yet these swells roll upon the northern, southern and even the western reefs. Detecting them in the open ocean is another matter altogether. A traditional navigator could point to the island lying prone in the hull judging by the rock of the boat. It obviously took many years of apprenticeship to accomplish this, but then they spent a lot of time out there traveling between atolls. They have another saying Emejjia wa ilọmeto (a boat is slow to die in the open ocean.)


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