The Marshall Islands stick chart or wapepe

This is what they call a “Marshall Islands stick chart.”

This chart is 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. This chart is symmetrical because it is a representation of the world from the perspective of the mid-Pacific. It describes the convergence of ocean swells on an island there. This chart is the Marshall Islanders contribution to the world’s knowledge of these swells and how to use them to navigate without the stars.

Polynesians and the Islanders of the eastern and Western Carolines navigated by the stars. Their 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. He 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. These closely kept Navigation skills are esoteric knowledge and only passed on to the initiated. 

It is no surprise that amid the onslaught of American culture on these islands the meaning of the Marshall Island’s stick chart has faded

Those who possess such knowledge are no longer passing it on and this knowledge may now disappear forever. The wapepe represents knowledge passed on from navigator to apprentice for hundreds of years prior to first contact with a compass. This is the knowledge of how to find a low-lying coral atoll from 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. Marshall Islanders realized you don’t always have the luxury of having a star to point the way.

The basic wapepe image

To better understand the stick chart, let’s dissect it into its essential part. In the center of the chart you see four half-moons. They appear in the image above. This image is the heart of the wapepe. If you have read my book, you will recognize this image as the one appearing in Man Shark. This is the image Lainjin carved into the unconscious Paratak’s chest with four clean incisions from his shark-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 the concept of four swells. One from each quadrant, converge on an atoll in Mid-Pacific. The actual atoll or island is absent from the image drawn above because it is of course below the horizon. However, imagine it is there at the center of the image. This is what one is searching for, and can be detected in the pattern of swells as they converge upon it.

To understand the Marshall Islands stick chart you must understand the difference between a wave and a swell

The current direction of the wind is the cause of waves. They have a higher frequency than swells caused by a much greater period of consistent wind direction. A swell has a much longer period or 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 predominate winds from the poles create swells from the north and south quadrants.

The ancestors were not aware of this reasoning, but they recognized these swells buñtokiōñ (swell from north) and buñtokrōk (swell from south). This is because they saw them cancelling each other out in the open ocean as they approached the north and south sides of an atoll. This is 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. The South Pacific convergence Zone causes kāleptak ( the swell from the west.) Although it is not a swell per se, the result is the same. It can cause a large swell to break on the west side of an atoll especially during the summer months of the northern hemisphere.

The unseen atoll is at the center of this image

The unseen atoll at the center of the image above cuts off the counter swell and as a result the swell from the opposite quadrant becomes gradually more predominant as one approaches. This is the central idea the wapepe portrays. The meaning of wapepe is “boat floats.” Note the small vertical “stick” close to the right of center in the stick chart illustrated above. As if on a normal map it points north and south. If this short vertical “stick” represents the hull of the canoe in the open ocean, then toward the right side of the chart lies its kubaak (outrigger). If left to float on its own in the open ocean the outrigger canoe will naturally turn its kubaak to the east, hull to the west. This is due to these converging swells.

There are four 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. He then uses the swell from the left and right quadrants 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 actually 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 of the atoll. Detecting them in the open ocean is another matter altogether. It is said that 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 even have another saying Emejjia wa ilọmeto (a boat is slow to die in the open ocean.) This suggests that in a storm they felt safer on the open ocean than on land or close to it. On the beach their craft would be exposed to one or another of these swells anyway. On the open ocean at least their craft would “roll with the punch”


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