East is a Big Bird

Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll

The first anthropologist to visit the Eastern Caroline Islands to do research on the knowledge of traditional navigators who dwelled there was Thomas Gladwin. He visited Puluwat, population 400 in the mid to late 1960s . In 1970, Harvard University Press published his account of life among the navigators of Puluwat Atoll, called East is a Big Bird. (Puluwat lies halfway between Truk Lagoon and Satawal. This is where Stephen Thomas would take up apprenticeship with the navigator Mau Piailug nearly twenty years later in 1983.)

His book describes seventy-three interisland trips during sixteen months

In Gladwin’s engrossing book, East is a Big Bird, he tells of his apprenticeship with the navigator Hipour. Who meticulously explains the Puluwat system of following stars to reach other island destinations. During a sixteen-month period between January 1966 and April 1967, the fifteen canoes of Puluwat Atoll made seventy-three interisland trips. This, not counting overnight fishing trips ranging from 25 to 150 miles (80 to 240 km). These 73 trips covered an area of more than 52,000 square miles of open ocean. During all these trips they encountered not a significant mishap. The frequency of these trips was even greater than it appears, as most occurred between April and mid-September. After that period the doldrum belt normally drifts north and the winds turn variable. Gladwin completed the Harvard study none too soon. Just fourteen years later, Stephen Thomas would chronicle the last of these dying traditions in his book The Last Navigator.

The sidereal compass explained in his book

As explained in his book, the Carolinians set their course by using a “sidereal compass.” In the instructional chart above, the shells on the sand represent stars rising on the ocean’s horizon. An array of stars at any time of night lines up along the periphery of the horizon in thirty-two directions. Chief among these is Altair. Called Mailap, this star is referred to by Gladwin as “the Big Bird.” However, Oceanic Linguistics, a publication of the University of Hawai‘i Press, corrected Gladwin in 2015. They stated that Altair is not the “Big Bird.” The “Big Bird” is actually a constellation similarly named in a different area of the sky, with Sirius at its center.

Mailap is the star the Marshall Islanders call Mājlep. (Not in his book.) Close to the equator, it rises due east and sets due west. Tūṃur (Antares) is the elder brother star, according to Marshall Islands legend. Like Altair, it is an integral member of the Eastern Carolinian “compass.” Whereas Altair rises due east and sets due west — comprising two points — Antares comprises two points rising in the southeast and setting in the southwest. Other well-known points are the Little and Big Dippers, Vega, the Pleiades (Jebro) and the Southern Cross. This later constellation shows four distinct positions of twirl about the southern horizon. The other stars are lesser known. Traditional celestial navigators used these thirty-two points of light to set and maintain their course between the various islands.

Maintaining direction during the day

How did the navigators maintain their direction during the day? One way, he explains in his book, was to carefully look back at the island of departure. They would then compare its position to their direction of sail relative to the prevailing swell coming from the east. They then followed that cut into the swell, noted any sideways drift from their island of departure and adjusted their course accordingly. The navigators memorized the locations of underwater reefs and incorporated them in their sail plans when possible. They noted the flight patterns of fishing birds. They knew that their direction would always be toward landfall at dusk within a periphery of twenty miles.

Finally, here and there were well-known esoteric seamarks — such as coral outcrops, schools of fish or specific types of birds — that were thought to guide their way. Navigators also kept track along the way using a method of triangulation called etak. They would choose an island, usually midway between their departure and their destination islands, and keep track of its position as a reference point. Then they would utilize successive star risings over this reference point to triangulate their course toward their destination island.

Serious male endeavors

Gladwin notes that canoe building and voyaging were ongoing and serious male endeavors. He writes, “Women, sexual contacts with women, and above all any contact with menstruating women, were anathema to the forces of the ocean. They banished them to a separate little house whenever they were menstruating. They had their own food and they were forbidden to touch anything which might later contaminate a navigator or a member of his crew.” These customs sound Melanesian. Do they, in fact, betray the roots and origins of these seafarers?

Coir components explained in his book

In his book, he attributes the durability of the outrigger canoe (proa) to its coir components. Coir is a line ranging from fine twine to heavy rope (close to an inch in diameter) that is twisted from soaked (retted) coconut-husk fibers. The fibers of the outer husk of a coconut bristles with these stiff tendrils. Once drawn up tightly, coir lashings almost never work loose and make for the highly efficient lashing material that gives the Carolinian canoe its durability in the wrenching sea.

The other component that gives a proa its versatility is its outrigger. The stabilizing effect of the outrigger float derives principally from its weight and the advantage of its boom acting as a lever arm. A relatively small amount of weight has a great stabilizing effect. By not having to rely on its hull for stability, the proa can afford a very narrow body that “knifes” its way through the water, creating little or no drag. The steep sides of the hull reduce sideways slippage. Yet the stabilizing effect of the outrigger keeps the hull shallow enough to pass over atoll reefs at high tide. This is something nearly impossible in a hull of Western design.

Carolinian vs Marshall Islands canoe designs

This is not discussed in his book but gets us to some differences between the design of the Carolinian proa and that of a sister craft built in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islanders’ outrigger float is of similar weight and leverage, but it is longer and slimmer. The proa’s hull is deeper, narrower and more asymmetrical. Its prow is sharper than that of the blunt-ended Carolinian hull, and its yard is taller, the boom longer and less contoured. The sail has significantly greater square footage. Gladwin clocked the Carolinian proa, wind on the beam, at 5.3 knots and downwind at 5.4. Anecdotal information leads me to believe that the Marshall Islands proa is a little faster.

Though Gladwin’s research on Puluwat may have been brief and, of consequence, less than perfect, “the Big Bird” — though perhaps not Mailap — still rises in the east. Despite the error, Gladwin’s research was timely and prescient. It will serve, at the least, as a crude map for contemporary islanders — be they out there — to follow. May they reconstruct the wondrous navigational traditions that are theirs alone.


  1. You mention “East is a Big Bird”, a book I loved when I traveled in Micronesia in the 1970s. I cannot find it in print anymore. Do you know how I could acquire a copy?

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