Traditional Tahitian Navigation
Andia Y Varela
The following account of traditional Tahitian navigation is from the journal of Andia Y Varela, who visited in Tahiti in 1774. The acount was published in The Quest and Occupation of Tahiti by Emissaries of Spain during the Years 1772-6 (3 vols.), B.G. Corney (ed.), London: Hakluyt Society, 1913-1919, Vol. II, 284-287).
There are many sailing-masters among the people, the term for whom is in their language fatere [faatere; Hawaiian: ho'okele]. They are competent to make long voyages like that from Otahiti [Tahiti] to Oriayatea [Ra‘iatea], which counts forty or fifty leag ues [one league equals 30 nautical miles, so 120-150 miles], and others farther afield. One of them named Puhoro came to Lima on this occasion in the frigate; and from him and others I was able to find out the method by which they navigate on the high sea s. They have no mariner's compass, but divide the horizon into sixteen parts, taking for the cardinal points those at which the sun rises and sets. Their names, with the corresponding ones in our own language, are as follows:
- East--E maoae
- East-north-east--E apiti
- Northeast--E tauguaru
- North-north-east--E faarua
- West--E toerau
- West-south-west--E rapatia
- Southwest--E rayu
- South-south-west--E tuitipapa
[Footnote in Corney's Text: "About half the terms here quoted are recognizable, allowing for differences in the spelling of some. Maoae, faarua, arueroa, toerau are correct; apiti is haapiti; maray is maraai, erahenua is arafenua, and tuauru may be uru. They are the names of winds, according to the direction from which they blow, and their force. But the directions given in this list do not all quite accord with the names. There are slight variants in the different manuscripts, but none of moment."]
When setting out from port the helmsman reckons with the horizon. Thus partitioned counting from E, or the point where the sun rises; he knows the direction in which his destination bears: he sees, also, whether he has the wind aft, or on one or other bea m, or on the quarter, or is close-hauled: he knows, further, whether there is a following sea, a head sea, a beam sea, or if it is on the bow or the quarter. He proceeds out of port with a knowledge of these [conditions], heads his vessel according to his calculation, and aided by the signs the sea and wind afford him, does his best to keep steadily on his course. This task becomes more difficult if the day be cloudy, because of having no mark to count from for dividing out the horizon. Should the night b e cloudy as well, they regulate their course by the same signs; and, since the wind is apt to vary in direction more than the swell does, they have their pennants, made of feathers and palmetto bark, to watch its changes by and trim sail, always taking th eir cue for a knowledge of the course from the indication the sea affords them. When the night is a clear one they steer by the stars; and this is the easiest navigation for them because, there being many stars not only do they note by them the bearings o n which the several islands with which they are in touch lie, but also the harbours in them, so that they make straight for the entrance by following the rhumb of the particular star that rises or sets over it; and they hit it off with as much precision a s the most expert navigator of civilized nations could achieve.
They distinguish the planets from the fixed stars, by their movements; and give them separate names. To the stars they make use of in going from one island to another, they attach the name of the island, so that the one which serves for sailing from Otahiti to Oriayatea has those same names, and the same occurs with those that serve them for making the harbours in those islands.
What took me most in two Indians whom I carried from Otahiti to Oriayatea was that every evening or night, they told me, or prognosticated, the weather we should experience on the following day, as to wind, calms, rainfall, sunshine, sea, and other points , about which they never turned out to be wrong: a foreknowledge worthy to be envied, for, in spite of all that our navigators and cosmographers have observed and written about the subject, they have not mastered this accomplishment.