Will Kyselka, Teacher (1921-2012)

Will with crew member Aaron Young at Pōka‘i Bay. © Monte Costa

Will Kyselka was a geologist by training and a retired associate professor from the University of Hawaii Curriculum Research and Development Group.

He was a lecturer at the Bishop Museum Planetarium in Honolulu when Nainoa Thompson approached him in 1978 with a question that led to lessons in astronomy and a life-long friendship. In An Ocean in Mind (1985), Will recorded the problem-solving and learning process that Nainoa went through learning to navigate without instruments, by bringing together Western information on astronomy with the traditional navigation techniques he learned from Mau, and fashioing them into a cogent wayfinding system uniquely his own.

Nainoa describes their initial meeting this way:

The moon rose in a place I didn't expect. I expected the full moon to rise in the same place the sun had risen in the morning, but it came up somewhat to the south. Why? I thought I had understood the relationships between the path of the sun and the moon fully. This just didn't make sense.

When I got back home, I grabbed my astronomy books, but I couldn't find an answer in them-and I had no teacher. I thought someone at the planetarium at the Bishop Museum might have an answer to this riddle, so I called. The person who answered said, "Sorry, we don't have time to help you. Try Will Kyselka." So at 6 a.m., I called Will and said, "I've got this problem with the moon!" He agreed to meet me. In the planetarium, he could move the stars anywhere, anytime in the world. He seemed to be able to answer all of my questions.

After that first all-day session, I still wanted to learn so much from Will, but I didn't think it proper to ask him. I thought that would be an imposition, that he was very busy. But Will must have sensed my wish because he finally said, "Why don't you come back again?" I had found someone who cared, who was willing to give up time to help another person learn.

We spent hundreds of hours together at the planetarium. I would figure out at home what I didn't know and then come to Will at the planetarium with my questions. And together we would look at the different skies to find answers. Will was teaching me the fundamentals of the skies and how they can be reduced to geometry, math, and science.

But Will was not just someone who fed me information. When I considered the dangers involved in sailing to Tahiti without modern instruments, I often thought it would be impossible. Will's calming, committed friendship helped me get through those difficult times. He wasn't just an astronomer teaching me about the stars. His lessons were about friendship.

Will was aboard the Ishka, the 48-foot sailing vessel that escorted the Hōkūle‘a on its 1980 journey to Tahiti, and aboard the Hōkūle‘a during a part of her 1986-1987 Voyage of Rediscovery.

He participated in the following question and answer session during the 1995 Voyage to Nukuhiva.

Q: Talk a little bit about your first experiences with wayfinder Nainoa Thompson. What did you discover while working with him?

A: I think the process of discovery happens in puzzlement. If you don't puzzle about, something you're likely not to discover. And that's what it was with Nainoa. It happened with him when he was taking Hokule'a on a long trip back in 1977 south of the big island. For him, the moon came up in the wrong place. So either that was a fact, a scientific fact and a great discovery, or his thinking was in error. And he realized, of course, that his thinking was in error. So he came to the planetarium. And then over a period of years, he and I spent hundreds of hours searching the dome above those points of light for clues to finding islands in the Pacific.

Q: Take the kind of work that you were doing with Nainoa. How was that complimentary to what he was doing with wayfinder Mau Piailug?

A: Nainoa was generating his navigational knowledge, and I was happy to be a part of that generation of navigational knowledge. Mau, on the other hand, is a traditional navigator. He didn't learn in a planetarium. He didn't learn with a machine. He didn't learn with modern technology. He learned by oral transmission. Or better than that, the apprentice, which he was, learning from the master. Standing there. And eventually holding the ground that his teacher once did. So that's the traditional way. And Nainoa didn't have that open to him. Because there was no one around here that had sailed this way in a thousand years. So he had to generate navigational knowledge, and the star part is where I was in. And then the recalling of the ways of the sea and the subtleties was what he learned from Mau. But the really important thing, I think, is the integration. Those are the principles -- stars and the waves. But it's like the dance. The dance is in that total integration and expression of one's personality within it. And you can see him when he's sailing. He almost dances off the deck of the canoe. He's there and he's everywhere and he's total with himself, with the coherences of nature around him in the sea and the sky. It's a beautiful way-finding system which he generated, staggering as our efforts to go to the moon and other planets today.

Q: What exactly is the doldrums?

A: The doldrums is a condition. It's also a geographical region. It's a region between two trade wind systems where the winds are weak. It's a beautiful region for being flat and glassy and limpid and languid. And the canoe just bobs around and bobs around like that. Then you have these tall, towering cumulus clouds go up way up 20,000, 30,000 feet. Well, you have trade winds of course that get blown like that but they're -- you look at this region. The trouble is when you're there, you feel impatient because you're not going anywhere. You're just bobbing. And you feel something like, "Will we ever get out of this?" It enraptures you. And it takes you, you feel depressed. There's no energy there. There's no wind. We're never going to get out of there. And you know, we all feel that too, whether we've been to that region or not.

Q: How would you describe the way Nainoa integrated modern and traditional navigation?

A: Well, Nainoa is working with two systems, at least, if we wanted to divide them that way. One is the traditional and the other is more or less the scientific. Or the Western way, in which we look at the Earth from satellites. We have maps and we draw things, we draw straight lines on maps. That's very useful. And that's used in modern navigation. In order to get there, Nainoa had to learn the stars and the height of stars in order to determine latitude and stars, in order to determine islands. So that's his system. The other system, of course, is internal. They're both internal. But the other system, you know where you are, you know where you start, and you know where you want to go, and it's a matter of reading Nature's signs. So that's traditional. And you can teach some of that. You can teach waves and you can teach stars. But putting them together is individual. And that's why everybody can't be a wayfinder. We use the term "wayfinder," in a sense, [to mean] more than navigation because navigation to us means instruments. So the wayfinder is working with what's right there. So it's the total integration. Like again in the dance, the principles are learned, but it's the integration where the expression is and where the confidence is.

Q: So how did Nainoa put this integration of modern and traditional navigation into practice?

A: One of the ways we learn, of course, is by observing. So it was very important for the navigator, for the wayfinder, to look at the stars, reading nature's signs, the stars and the background. So the process of learning from Mau Piailug was to go out there, and oftentimes, the three of us would go out. Particularly, the two of them would go out. I'd join them now and then, and look at that scene. And they'd stand there silently. It was interesting. Those two learned in two different ways, and I learned in a third way. My job out there was in that darkness, in the predawn darkness, to write down what I saw happening with the two of them, and the stars and all. But Mau learned from tradition. He learned by observing 10,000 sunrises. Nainoa learned by generating his knowledge and coming to the planetarium to get that part, and learning from Mau. So here [were] three people and three different styles of learning and three different ways, if you will, of teaching. But they all converged there on the slopes of Koko Head at 4:30 in the morning, many, many mornings. Passing learning in one way, or the inquirer discovering.

Books by Will Kyselka