Traditional Navigation on Puluwat

East is a big bird – a review

The first Anthropologist to visit the Eastern Caroline Islands to do research on the knowledge of traditional navigators was Thomas Gladwin.  He visited there in the mid to late 1960’s, and in 1970 Harvard University Press published his account of life among the navigators of Puluwat atoll population 400. Puluwat lies half-way between the Truk Lagoon and Satawal where Stephen Thomas would take up apprenticeship with the navigator Mau Piailug in 1983. In this engrossing book he tells of his apprenticeship with the navigator Hipour who meticulously explains their system of following stars to their island destinations. During a sixteen-month period between January 1966 and April 1967, (not counting over-night fishing trips) the fifteen canoes of that atoll made seventy-three inter-island trips ranging from 25 miles to 150 miles — covering an area of more than 52,000 square miles of open ocean – all without significant mishap. The frequency of these tips was even greater than appears as most occurred between April and mid-September when the doldrum belt normally drifts north and winds turn variable. Yet he completed the Harvard study none too soon, as just four-teen years later Thomas would chronicle the last of these dying traditions in his book The Last Navigator.

Carolinian Sidereal Compass

As explained by Gladwin, the Carolinians set their course by use of a “sidereal compass.” An array of stars that at any time of night lines up along the periphery of the horizon in thirty-two directions. Chief among these is Altair. Gladwin refers to this star as “the big bird.” In 2015 Oceanic Linguistics a publication of the University of Hawai’I Press corrected this, stating that this star called Mailap is not the big bird which is a constellation similarly named in a different area of the sky with Sirius at its center. This is the star the Marshall Islanders called Mājlep. Close to the equator it rises due east and sets due west. Tūṃur (Antares) the elder brother star according to Marshall Islands legend, like Altair is an integral member of the Eastern Carolinian “compass.” Whereas Altair rises due east and sets due west comprising two points, Antares likewise comprises two points rising in the south east and setting in the south west. Other well-known points are the little and big dippers, Vega, the Pleiades (jebro) and the Southern Cross in four distinct positions of twirl about the southern horizon. The other stars are lesser known. They used these thirty-two points of light to set and maintain their course between the various islands.

How did they maintain their direction during the day? One way was to carefully look back at the island of departure and 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 and noted any sideways drift from their island of departure and adjusted their course accordingly. They memorized the locations of underwater reefs and incorporated them in their sail plans when possible. They noted the flight patterns of fishing birds knowing their direction would always be toward landfall at dusk within a periphery of twenty miles. Finally, there were well-known esoteric seamarks here and there thought to guide their way. They also kept tract along the way by a method of triangulation called etak. They chose an island, usually mid-way between their departure and their destination islands and kept track of its position as a reference point. They would utilize successive star risings over this reference point to triangulate their course toward their destination island.

Canoe building and voyaging was an ongoing and serious male endeavor. “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 of where these seafarers originated?

Gladwin attributes the durability of the outrigger canoe to its coir components. Coir is the line ranging from fine twine to heavy rope close to an inch in diameter twisted from soaked (retted) coconut husk fibers that’s surface bristles with stiff fibers. These coir lashings once drawn up tight 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 the proa its versatility is its outrigger. The stabilizing effect of the outrigger float derives principally from its weight and the advantage of its boom 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 outrigger canoe can afford a very narrow body which “knifes” its way through the water creating little or no drag. The steep sides of the hull reducing sideways slippage, yet the stabilizing effect of the outrigger keeps the hull shallow enough to pass over atoll reefs at high tide – something nearly impossible in a hull of Western design.

Though not discussed in the book. This gets us to some differences between the design of the Carolinian proa and that of their sister craft built in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islanders outrigger float is of similar weight and leverage but longer and slimmer – its hull is deeper, narrower, and more asymmetrical. Its prow is sharper than the blunt ended Carolinian hull. 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 the Marshall Islands proa is a little faster.

Though his 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 and Gladwin’s research was still timely and prescient. It will serve, no doubt, at the least as a crude map for contemporary islanders to follow — be they out there — to reconstruct the glory that is 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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