Right here, a blacktip reef shark sneaks up on the picnic, its fin cutting through a school of glittering fish. The fish, not paying a bit of attention to the shark, repeatedly nibble at a piece of cucumber, only to discover each time that they don’t actually like cucumber. Meanwhile, from a wall of approaching storm, the wind howls, bending palms and kicking coconuts loose like hailstones on steroids. They leave craters when they hit the sand and seem almost wistful that they missed someone’s head. And right before we load into the boat, fleeing fat, warm raindrops, I notice how some of the clouds are sticky. Traditionally, that told a lot of people exactly where they were, but it’s not doing a thing for me.
I’ve come here to the Islands of Tahiti for a very simple reason: Google Earth shows my house in the middle of a lake. Since I rarely walk around with wet feet, I’m pretty sure that this is wrong and that I actually live on the shores of a lake. But it started me wondering why I’ve never once felt at home there. I’ve lived in that house for over a year without learning the names of any of the 37 flower species that bloom in my non-lake yard.
Ever since Galileo said, “Bad news, guys, we’re not really the center of the universe,” how have we ever known exactly where we are? Or to rephrase the question — a vital question for me because I’ve spent way too many of the past years with no fixed address — how do we know when we’re really home? And exactly where that home is?
I think I might find the answer here. The Polynesians once excelled at figuring out precisely where they were. Start- ing off thousands of years ago, by some estimates, without compasses, maps or any of the other crutches Europeans later used to avoid falling off the edge of the earth, island sailors crossed great expanses of ocean. Maybe more importantly, many also learned how to reel the landscape back in until they were home again.
When I was a kid and heard about Polynesian voyaging, the idea that they traveled in “canoes” stumped me. A canoe is a little boat on a little lake, right? But the traditional Tahitian pahi was more of a catamaran: two hulls, up to 50 feet long, carrying a pair of masts and a small cabin. Planks were lashed with coconut fiber, and sweet breadfruit served both as lunch and caulking. A pahi could load many people and supplies, and Captain Cook said one could “with ease sail 40 leagues [120 miles] a day or more.” And sail they did, making voyages to far-flung points in a patch of ocean comprising millions of square miles.
Now let me admit up front, in what my friends will tell you is a recurring pattern in my life, I’ve made things difficult for myself. On the surface, Tahiti might seem the wrong place to go to look for traditional island navigation. Most of what scholars know of this practice comes from studies in Hawaii and Micronesia. It’s an art that’s resurging in other parts of Polynesia, but here in the nirvana of Tahiti, it’s nearly as rare as the smell of fl owers in a Gauguin. Still, a major chapter of the story starts here: Departing from some of the Tahitian islands, voyagers found Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island — each of which carries weight in my life. And so I’ve triangulated my way, in reverse, to Tahiti.
When my considerably less-than-traditional ship slips out of Papeete harbor on the main island of Tahiti, just another scheduled run for the ferry to Moorea, a stack of mountains looms ahead like a leftover prop from a dinosaur movie. The ship crosses the reef, the water turns the shade of pulverized turquoise, and we’re there. The easiest way in the world to know where you are and where you’re going: You can see it all from where you stand.
I’ve been told someone on Moorea is building a traditional pahi. My path leads me to the beachfront living room of a man who sails without navigational instruments, Francis Cowan. He helped build a raft in the 1950s and sail it to Chile … through a cyclone. The journey showed how Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon-Tiki voyage of 1947 that advanced his theory of South Americans having settled Polynesia could be wrong — that navigators could travel both ways. After several other expeditions, Francis’ latest project has been planning a trip with a pahi, to again go to Chile, but then back to Tahiti and on to New Zealand. He builds “as close as possible to the ancients,” Francis says. Canoe carvers from New Zealand helped him build one canoe using a metal tool called an adz. “On every piece of wood, you could see the adz marks,” he says. He shows me photos, including a pahi he’d nearly finished when it caught fire & burned. “That was disgusting,” he says. But after swearing off building any new canoes, now in his 80s, the horizon is in his eyes again. “This doesn’t bring me any money,” he says, “but it’s important.”
Francis says that when he first became interested in traditional voyaging, he went to the Tuamotu Archipelago. In the late 1940s there, he tells me that the great canoes “were still used as workboats, sailing from island to island, doing the trading.”
His dog woofs as I climb into the car. I drive up the Opunohu Valley to the road’s highest point. At the marae, the sacred precincts halfway up the mountain, trees with roots like knife blades grow among the stones. At the peak, clouds eat into the bays below, while rain makes a new river in the parking lot. I duck under the forest canopy. Al- though the downpour sounds like a waterfall at night, I’m safe under the leaves, and not a single drop reaches me. But when the sky clears, I can’t see the Tuamotu Archipelago from here. I’ll need a different means of finding my way.
Tikehau, once a two-day sail from Papeete but now a flight just short enough not to be boring, is one of a string of 78 atolls that make up the Tuamotu chain. Broken rings of coral built on the lips of extinct volcanoes form islands so narrow I can walk from the lagoon to the ocean about as easily as crossing a room. Frigate birds drape pterodactyl shadows over a landscape that feels like a connect-the-dots page nobody bothered connecting.
Standing outside later that night looking up at the sky, I realize I’ve screwed up. The sky isn’t where it was yester- day. In fact, it’s minutes away from where it was yesterday, more minutes from the day before that. At this latitude at this time of year, the stars’ schedule is in flux. Which means that the one map I’ve brought on this trip, a constellation chart two months old, is as useful to me as gin rummy at a poker table.
A man comes ashore, walking over shells that look like the candy my mother kept for company. He carries a blue fish and a yellow fish, but “blue” and “yellow” don’t do the colors justice; imagine fish made of enameled metal, in tints carefully described over the phone.
Searching for the source of those colors, I look up at the sky and marvel at the marvels beneath it. The ancient Polynesian navigators, of course, could read the sky like an AAA map. If you know which stars rise where on the horizon, you can aim the boat at one that rises where you want to be. When the spin of the earth takes that star out of line, aim for the one rising next to it. Or you can line up known stars rising over known islands and figure out the angle to your destination.
Meanwhile, the planet itself, flying something like 67,000 miles per hour through space, constantly turns its back on yesterday’s skies. And even the direction you travel yourself matters when determining position. Moving west-east or east-west is like speeding up or slowing down the earth’s natural motion, forcing the stars to spin with or against you. North-south or south-north motion simply changes everything, constellations slipping below the horizon, not to be seen again until you turn around and, you hope, find the way back.
“It’s not that complicated,” Francis had insisted, telling me how he’d laid on the pahi’s deck and watched the universe dance, giving him all the direction he needed.
Although my usual reaction to an unfamiliar sky is to make up new constellations — the Dancing Psychologist, the Squishy Brain — instead, I try another traditional technique, waiting for properly named stars to come to zenith. And maybe I’m getting it wrong, but from what I can make out, when Ana-Iva hits its peak, it should be right over New Zealand ; Ana-Muri gets close enough to Hawaii to allow aiming, especially if cross referenced with Ana-Tahu’a-Ta’ata-Metua-te-Tupu-Mave. Not that complicated … .
The moon fills the shallows where red-clawed crabs hunt. A channel buoy whispers wind-driven endearments. A shooting star flashes, and I know Dorothy in her ruby slippers had it wrong. Really, there’s no place like here. Later I’m on the open ocean, heading out from Rangiroa in the Tuamotu. Either the boat slips, falling into a trough and raising the water to eye level, or it is staying in one place and the waves are getting really big. The ocean doesn’t have a lot of reference points to tell you what’s happening.
Sixty years ago, Francis found the Tuamotu full of traditional boats, or so he told me, but I don’t even see an out- rigger here. So from Rangiroa, the largest of the atolls, I hitch a ride on a Zodiac with an IMAX film crew, here to make a film about waves. We leave the lagoon and slip into Tiputa Pass, where bottle-nosed dolphins surf a standing wave, their fins a black curve. Dogs herd fi sh in coral shallows, and quite suddenly we’re through. The waves change texture, the backs of them a color of blue I’ve only seen before in glaciers.
About open sea, Will Allen, the crew’s divemaster, says, “I know I’m going to see land again, I know I’m going to see it, but out there, you just don’t know where or when.” But to the practiced eye of the navigators, a language as articulate as what lovers whisper when falling asleep inscribed the vast ocean. They understood how, far from the sight of land, weather patterns can overlay the primary swells, wind across the reaches. They recognized how water hits land and bounces back 50 miles and more. Two swells meeting create a moiré pattern of force and direction visible from the other side of the horizon. Some of the ancients were said to know what part of the sea they were in by its taste. They understood the ocean as clearly as if it came equipped with big arrows reading “This Way.”
I try to feel the motion of the boat, learn the grammar of the waves. Try to make this spot feel like here — this corner of Polynesia, under an open sky, the earth wearing a fringe of clouds like a monk’s tonsure — here and no- where else. We raise land again before I learn a single word. But then, being speechless, no pressure except to enjoy how beautiful everything is, ain’t such a bad thing.
I ask a boat captain what the biggest problem is sailing far from land. “Running out of gas,” he says in French, laugh- ing. But then he turns thoughtful. “You’re on your own out there. If you get into trouble, even if you call for help, they won’t be able to find you.”
The Polynesians set sail for all the usual reasons — exploration, adventure, trading, war, curiosity, even habit. The pahi landed, people came ashore and they knew exactly where they were. Found, in a landscape where they could name everything. So I want to know if I learn the attention tricks, if I learn to name the landscape, can I make where I live feel like home? Or will I simply have names and no solid ground to stand on? And that makes me wonder, how many canoes and people did the sea keep for itself as waves fell from the sky?
Back in Rangiroa, I pester the hotel manager into making call after call, trying to find another traditional sailor any- where in the islands. But one’s sick, one’s missing, one’s not answering the phone, one’s in New Zealand. And then it turns out maybe they’re all the same person. As I learn from the definitive book about Pacific voyaging, David Lewis’ We, the Navigators, wave patterns coming off the western side of an island can be evidence that you’ve overshot the mark and are fast headed out to sea again. I can’t help but think that’s what has happened to the Tahitian navigators. They’ve slipped past the islands, caught in currents, watching the sky.
The navigators found ways to make the world more visible. From the deck of a boat, some say you can see a flat island from about 10 miles away. But terns and brown noddies fish farther from shore, so if you catch the working flock in the morning or evening, you can supposedly follow them to land.
I watch jade green clouds slow, as if sticky, and float over Raiatea , the island that is thought to have been the myth- ical Hawaiki, origin point for the people who may have settled much of Polynesia. The clouds pick up the tint of the trees, of the shallow waters where parrotfish flash their own colors against dying coral. A skilled navigator would notice this 50 miles before the island came into view.
Trained from childhood, the real way-finders missed nothing, not so much as the bump of a flying fish against the hull. “It’s a special person who can become a navigator,” Billy Richards, president of Friends of Hokule’a and Hawai ‘iloa in Hawaii, tells me. “A living computer.”
The navigators could smell land around the curve of the earth. I’ll never be able to do that, but I walk the shoreline, pick a flower the color of the inside of a seashell, press it into the pages of my notebook. I’ll want to remember that scent forever.
A tern cuts through the sky above me, white-bellied, the fork in its tail framing a cloud. The silhouette is an echo of a place well known. Where I’m from, summer gets dangerous as terns divebomb pedestrians.
And there is something that makes perfect sense to me: noting the signs of drawing close to home, a friend’s house, a tree where you kissed your true love. You’re still miles from home, but now all points carry your history with them, the way an offshore breeze carried the scents of ripening pandanus fruit and tiare blossoms to the navigators.
In the lagoon of Bora-Bora, I meet guide Patrick Tairua. He spends his days in a small outrigger canoe built on the old models, but with one minor change. “I have a motor to do my paddling,” he tells me.
Which I realize is what brought the age of the pahi to an end: motors. Why sail when you don’t have to? Practicality wins over grace almost every time.
We motor past people chumming sharks with baguettes as we compare tattoos: my Winnie the Pooh, the text in- scribed on my ankle, the three-quarter moon inked on my neck. Dotted lines, the atolls of my own past. But Patrick’s tattoos — symbols of his mother’s family and of his father’s — offer a complete history of who he is and how he came to be exactly where he is, etched into his skin.
Of course, our conversation turns to the navigators. “When I have more time,” he says, “I’ll find someone to teach me.” I tell him he’d better hurry. Then Patrick says exactly what it turns out I’ve been waiting to hear. “The ancients had no time,” he says. Not that they were busy — no cell phones, no soccer practice to take the kids to. Rather, they lived outside time, a concept they simply didn’t need, and so there was time for everything — the sky, the sea, finding the world.
Over the past weeks, I’ve slowed to notice every detail possible. I’ve spent hours counting waves, watching clouds gather on a horizon, looking at red glinting in still waters. Yet fluency in the language of the place has eluded me. And that’s OK. Maybe I haven’t quite learned where I am, but I have learned that you never truly understand any- thing until you see it reflected in a sky traveling through every angle a year brings. Or a lifetime. Or however long you can stand until it all becomes too immense to bear and you have no choice but wonder what you miss when you finally have to look away.
The navigators never looked away. They noticed everything from the angle of the sun to the tiniest bit of loose sea- weed floating by. They lived in a fine accumulation of details that told them exactly where they were, and if a map on a computer had told them they lived in the middle of a lake, they’d point out that really they lived in the middle of an ocean the size of the universe itself, a universe that held everything they could ever need.
A green turtle surfaces, flashes its carapace at the sky, then dives again, barely leaving a ripple. Who knows where it will surface again? I remember something Francis Cowan had told me, what to do when the sky closes up and all reference points disappear. “The ocean is great,” he said, “and you can wait for another day.”
And that reminds me that all I need to do to find out exactly where I am, and hence where home is, is watch ever so carefully. Notice everything.
Where I’m standing, right here, waves slosh against the shoreline, sand rubbing my feet smooth. Fish that look as if dipped in yellow paint dart past. The full moon tears holes in clouds, another shooting star goes by, and I am right where I want to be.
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