Freelance Journalist/Writer
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Celestial navigation: A profile

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Tua Pittman: Master navigator

| Content produced for Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, April 2016 |

Papa Mau Pialiug was the kind of teacher students pursued.

He was a small man, a canoe builder and fisherman from an island of 600 people whose traditional knowledge became the cornerstone of a pan-Pacific movement to revive the ancient practice of celestial navigation. Largely responsible for restoring an art that was swept away by waves of western influence, Mau was approached during his lifetime by sailors and academics who wanted to know more about how early islanders travelled between tiny landmasses without sextant or compass or chart, and how they used clues in the sea and the sky to accomplish the greatest maritime feats in history.

So when Papa Mau chose him to be a student, Cook Islander Tua Pittman knew refusal was not an option.

Tua was an unlikely choice. Growing up, his friends teased him for being a Polynesian who got seasick. He was deeply afraid of the ocean that had claimed the lives of his father and grandfather when they were standing on the reef, fishing. For most of his childhood, Tua’s mother and grandmother kept him and his brothers away from the sea, though they lived on an island surrounded by it.

He’d been on one long voyage – a disastrous nine-day affair aboard Hōkūle’a, the Hawaiian canoe that began the regional renaissance of traditional voyaging in 1975.

He was 19 when Hōkūle’a arrived in the Cook Islands. Intrigued by the boat that had followed the stars from Hawai’i to Rarotonga, he drove to the wharf every day to sit and look at it. Then, despite his mother’s pleas, he accepted an invitation to sail one leg of the journey – American Samoa to the Cook Islands – because the crew needed muscle and he needed to satisfy his curiosity in the world beyond Rarotonga.

Romantic notions of life on the sea were soon dispelled by the reality of being perpetually wet, continually sleep-deprived, and bounced around in rough weather. When he reached land, Tua swore to himself he’d never sail again.

“Never,” he recalls, now a tall, broad man with wavy white hair and humor in his eyes. “I was sick as hell.”

But through the seasickness Papa Mau had seen in Tua the prerequisites for a navigator: a learner’s spirit, a leader’s humility, and deep pride in his Polynesian heritage.

“It chose me,” Tua says of navigation. “I didn’t choose to do it myself, but it just changed my whole life.”

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Tua is one of 10 Polynesians bestowed with the title of master navigator – Pwo – a designation intended to remain within Micronesian bloodlines but shared with sailors from the Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Hawai’i on the condition that they educate young Pacific Islanders about their ancestors’ voyaging culture.

He did his study in Hawai’i with Mau and one of his students, Nainoa Thompson, who would go on to lead Hōkūle’a around the world.

“Mau and Nainoa were like the parents who brought up this family and this culture,” Tua says. “All the navigators, it’s like we’re from the same mold, like we’ve come from the same womb. Our nature, how we conduct ourselves, how close we are – we can be separated for 10, 12 years and the moment we come together it’s like we never left each other.”

Mau taught the old school, Nainoa the new. Study involved shell diagrams in the sand, sleepless nights staring at the stars, trips to the coastline to watch the sun rise and set. It also involved hours inside a planetarium, a theatre with a ceiling that can be programmed to simulate the sky on a certain day at a certain time from a certain position. But mostly, it was about observation.

“Observing everything – swells, wave patterns, what the sky is doing, what the rain clouds are telling you, which way the winds are going,” Tua says. “It’s all telling you something.”

Like the navigator who uses instruments, the celestial navigator is responsible for charting a course and making sure a vessel stays it. He must determine the boat’s position, how fast it’s moving, and the degree to which the current is influencing its course. But unlike the navigator who uses instruments, he must be able to read the sky and adapt when the clouds obscure his compass.

“You plan for room for error,” Tua explains. “Sometimes you underestimate or overestimate the speed of the canoe or you underestimate the current and you get pushed off and have to stop the canoe, sit back, recollect, recalculate the speed of the canoe and readjust your course. But we’ve always found the island.”

Tua is good at finding the island. He’s navigated over thousands of miles, led crews throughout Oceania, from New Zealand to Hawai’i, from the South Pacific to California and back.

Once, he thought he’d missed his target. When the sun came up and he didn’t see Manuae straight ahead, as he had expected to, he felt the prick of panic. He turned to the stern to tell the captain and there it was, perched on the horizon.

This is a navigator’s Holy Grail: the satisfaction of raising an island out of the sea, feeling what his ancestors would have felt thousands of years ago when they discovered the Pacific Islands after leaving a land-rich world on the eastern rim of Asia and aiming their canoes into the vast unknown.

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Traditional voyaging is a link to old Polynesia – a time before dollars and desk jobs – because when the canoe leaves the shore and modernity falls away, what remains is an ancient vessel and the ancient knowledge its use requires.

“The canoe takes everybody back,” Tua says. “Straight away they want to connect to the past.”

Voyaging connects Pacific Islanders to their early history and also to each other. Years of sailing through the Pacific have revealed to Tua the similarities between islands scattered across Oceania – reflections of a unity bisected only recently by borders and passports and sedentary lifestyles. On Raiatea he found a marae – sacred place – bearing the name of his family’s marae on Rarotonga. Throughout Polynesia he found a mountain with a common name: Oroenga on Rarotonga, Orohena on Tahiti, Oroena in New Zealand, Olosega on Samoa.

The renaissance of celestial navigation proved to researchers that Pacific people came from the same place, then settled tiny islands and travelled purposefully between them. The proof is also in local songs and scriptures around the Pacific Rim. These are oral histories more robust than books, living records of voyagers and the way they interpreted the stars – as fishhooks and rats and sharks and caves and poles holding up the sky.

Tua uses his craft to tell his ancestors’ stories, to remind the world that Pacific Islanders were the greatest navigators of all time.

“We want to tell them who we are, tell them how proud we are as a Cook Islands people and let people out there know we still have a link to who we are and where we come from,” he says. “We still have great pride in our ancestors, how intelligent they were. We are their storytellers.”

The stories are for the next generation, for young islanders who pay more attention to social media than the stars, and for the rest of the world, for people who have forgotten how to respect the earth and the sea. In 2011, seven canoes sailed from the South Pacific to the mainland United States, their aim to publicize the desperate state of the world’s oceans. Hōkūle’a is presently circumnavigating the globe, delivering the same message.

For Tua, navigating is about connecting to the past, but also about charting the future.

Between voyages, he works as a lecturer on a cruise ship, teaching passengers traveling through the Pacific about celestial navigation. When he’s home on Rarotonga he does navigation tours, which involve cocktails and dinner and observing the night sky from several vantage points around the island.

“People who come on those tours are fascinated,” Tua says. “A lot of them never have the opportunity to see the stars in the cities they’re in, and they come here and they not only see the stars, but they see that they can actually use the stars to find their way.”