Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month – Nainoa Thompson, Master Navigator

Nainoa Thompson is widely regarded as the first Native Hawaiian in modern times to adopt and successfully use traditional Polynesian voyaging methods for open-ocean sailing. Those methods rely on natural reference points (e.g., the Sun, stars, sea swells, the movements of fish and birds) instead of today’s conventional wayfinding instruments for navigation. (A sub-region of Oceania, Polynesia consists of more than 1,000 islands within the central and southern sections of the Pacific Ocean.) Thompson is also president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Honolulu-based research and educational organization founded in 1973 to teach and promote those ancient sailing practices.

Thompson was born in Honolulu in 1953. He graduated from the University of Hawaii with a B.A. in ocean science in 1986. Thompson received his training in Polynesian voyaging methods from renowned navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug (1932-2010). Mau, who was born and grew up on the coral island of Satawal of the Caroline Islands (part of the Federated States of Micronesia), earned the title of master navigator by the time he was 18.

Thompson, drawing on what he learned from Mau and others, used the time-honored Polynesian navigational techniques for such voyages as the one from Hawaii to Tahiti (the most populous island of French Polynesia) that he undertook in 1980. His vessel for this trip was a double-hulled voyaging canoe called Hōkūle’a. With Mau joining him and the other crew members on the voyage as an observer, Thompson became the first Native Hawaiian in living memory to successfully navigate a canoe for thousands of miles (kilometers) without any instruments. (An escort boat named Ishka followed Hōkūle’a throughout the journey for safety purposes.)

Thompson and the others on board Hōkūle’a departed from Hawaii on March 15 and arrived at Tahiti on April 17. For the return trip, Hōkūle’a left French Polynesia on May 13 and reached Hawaii on June 6. Mau’s only correction throughout that 1980 Hawaii-Tahiti voyage took place one morning when Thompson saw a land-based seabird in flight carrying a fish in its beak. Thompson figured that the bird was heading further out to sea to catch more fish. As Mau pointed out, however, the bird was more likely just flying back to shore to feed its young.

In the time since that round trip, Thompson has served as the lead navigator for several other voyages of Hōkūle’a across the Pacific Ocean. A notable example of these instrument-free travels was what became known as the Voyage of Rediscovery in 1985-87, when Hōkūle’a sailed a total of 12,000 miles (19,000 kilometers) to various destinations throughout Polynesia.

At one point during this extensive journey, the vessel traveled between the islands of Tongatapu and Nomuka of the Polynesian country known as the Kingdom of Tonga. A Tongan sea captain named Sione Tappeamuhu was on board Hōkūle’a for that part of the Voyage of Rediscovery, and he had his doubts about whether Thompson could locate Nomuka without any modern-day instruments. After Thompson was able to find that island with traditional Polynesian methods rather that state-of-the-art technologies, Tappeamuhu readily set aside his skepticism. “Now I can believe the stories of my ancestors,” he said.

In a longtime initiation ritual called Pwo that was conducted on Satawal in 2007, Thompson was one of 16 individuals (including four fellow Native Hawaiians) to be inducted as master navigators for their proven skills in age-old wayfinding practices out at sea. Mau presided over this Pwo ceremony, which was the first one to be held in 56 years.

In the above photo taken in 2003, Thompson stands between actor Jason Scott Lee and artist Layne Luna at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center (run by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in partnership with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation) in the town of Hilo, Hawaii.

Photo Credit: Layne Luna (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License at Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0)

For more information on Nainoa Thompson, please check out Nainoa Thompson – Wikipedia and Nainoa Thompson – Biography (

Additional information on the voyages of the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hōkūle’a is available at Hōkūleʻa – Wikipedia

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