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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

Hugh Rodman, USN

published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p117  Chapter VII
Some Nautical Feats of the Hawaiians and Others

Endless recorded instances could be related of the natives' wonderful skill and endurance as swimmers and divers, ability in handling their boats, surf-riding on boards, and making long voyages at sea in open boats. A couple of stories must suffice.

A Kanaka seaman on a small sailing vessel bound for China was swept overboard in a gale by a heavy sea. It was impracticable to lower a boat, but fortunately there was a loose plank available, which was tossed overboard to him and which he succeeded in reaching. Using it as a surf-board, he skilfully maneuvered it, and taking advantage of the opportune moment, ranged up alongside the ship and landed on board in safety. This was told me by a well-known Hawaiian, in whose word I have the utmost confidence.

The Island of Hikueru, an atoll in the Tuamotu group, not far from Tahiti, is noted for its pearl fisheries. It is rather an exception to most atolls, in that it has no open passage to the sea; hence its interior lagoon, averaging from a few feet to twenty‑two fathoms in depth, is free from sharks. Under French regulations there are open and closed seasons in the different islands, and it was our good fortune to arrive at Hikueru during the open season.

We had heard of the extraordinary and all but unbelievable feats of deep-water diving for pearl oysters,  p118 and wishing to verify our information, we succeeded in getting one of the most noted divers for the official test. Plunging overboard, naked except for a small loin-cloth, with no diving apparatus of any kind, he brought up a specimen of the bottom in nineteen fathoms, measured by our own sounding-line. Later he dived again and recovered a one‑pound lead which we had thrown overboard, in twenty fathoms, remaining under water one minute and fifty-seven seconds.

Both men and women habitually dived in fifteen fathoms, none using any artificial diving apparatus. Naturally they suffer from it; blood frequently issues from their noses and ears. Scarcely a one, after a few years of this work, escapes some permanent physical disability, such as deafness, lung or heart disease.

Apropos of deep diving, an army quartermaster's safe was lost overboard at Zamboanga, Philippine Islands, in seventeen fathoms of water. A native Moro pearl diver, without apparatus of any kind, took the end of a manila rope and diving down, made it fast through the handles of the safe, thus making it possible to recover the valuable part of the quartermaster's equipment.

Laysan Island, another of the group lying between Honolulu and Midway, was interesting from a number of view-points. The variety and number of sea birds nesting there is comparatively the same as on other similar islands; but in addition to these there were an exceptional number of land birds that lived there the year round, some of them being beautiful songsters. If my memory serves me right, in a book that was compiled on the birds of Laysan Island, reference is made to nearly one hundred varieties. In addition to several entirely new species hitherto unknown, we saw  p119 others closely related to short-flight non‑migratory birds, which could not possibly have maintained a prolonged flight across the intervening ocean from any known land, on the supposition that they may have been accidentally blown offshore under stress of weather. Inasmuch as these birds were there in large numbers when the island was first visited, the mystery of their origin remains unsolved.

The myriads of birds which have inhabited Laysan through countless ages have made it rich in guano. Since it stands well up above tide-water, mining operations are possible and a company was engaged in mining guano and transporting it to Honolulu where it is worked up into commercial fertilizer.

Japanese Articles Found on Laysan It was in working these guano pits on the eastern or weather side of the island that miners found embedded an astonishingly large number of articles used by Japanese fishermen, some of which, judging from their depth underground, must have been there for centuries. In addition to numerous wooden paraphernalia used in boats, such as oars, tillers, spars, planks and bailers, et cetera, there were also a variety of porcelain jugs, or jars, fitted with stoppers, which might have been used to carry water, food or bait.

No less interesting is the long journey that these articles must have made to reach their resting-place. The Japan Stream is to the North Pacific what the Gulf Stream is to the Atlantic, with very similar characteristics and current. After leaving Japan and impinging on southeast Alaska, it turns to the southward, flows past British Columbia and the west coast of the United States and, turning gradually in a great sweep to the southward and westward, eventually reaches the Orient, flowing in a generally westerly  p120 course in the equatorial region, and passing Laysan on its return trip. It is conservative to assume that these articles, from the time they were lost off the coast of Japan until they were beached at Laysan by this current, averaged many months at sea and traveled from five thousand to eight thousand miles.

There is an impression in my mind that there is a record of a crew of a Japanese fishing junk that reached Kauai, one of the larger islands of the Hawaiian group, some decades prior to the advent of the whites, remained there and intermarried with the natives. Their progeny are said to show the strain in their lighter complexions. If this be true, the junk must have covered at least three thousand five hundred miles, but more likely four thousand to five thousand in its wanderings before land was sighted.

Necker Island, still another between Honolulu and Midway, had several fascinating aspects. Instead of being an atoll, it is a high, steep, all but inaccessible black rock sticking up out of the water, against which the sea is always breaking; the whole is surrounded by an extensive sunken reef. The strange thing about it was the fact that it had formerly been inhabited, but no one knows whence the inhabitants came, or when or where they may have gone.

A Difficult Landing Of course we knew the Polynesians were great explorers and navigators, and even let it be supposed that in their expeditions they discovered Necker Island. Yet the part incomprehensible to us is how they made their first landing, secured their boat, succeeded in keeping alive there when there is no fresh water, no vestige of vegetation, and when every mouthful of food would have to be procured from the sea or the birds that alight there.

 p121  Even in a modern boat, with an expert crew, we could not make a landing, owing to a heavy swell and the exposed position, but were compelled to jump overboard, swim to the one small shelf on the rock, watch our chances on a rising wave and flounder on to it.

Thence a rough stairway had been carved out of the rock, leading to some chambers higher up which showed signs of having been excavated, with small depressions here and there for catching the seepage of fresh water that might trickle into them.

This might not excite undue comment had the rock been freely accessible and an abundance of time been available to prepare a landing-place in advance. But the fact that they found it under such conditions in the open ocean and not only succeeded in landing but in making it habitable and actually living there, seems incredible.

That the mid‑Pacific Polynesians were skilful seamen and navigators and made long voyages at sea over the open ocean for discovery or conquest, or both, the following story of the sacred calabash​1 will prove. It was doubtless some of these people who had occupied Necker Island.

Some twenty‑odd years ago, when stationed in the Hawaiian Islands in command of a small vessel, I was engaged in correcting the existing charts and sailing directions of these waters and bringing them up to date. This led me to be more or less interested in the spelling and meaning of some of the native names, not the least of which was the name of the channel between the Islands of Lanai and Kahoolawe. The extreme southern point of the latter island bore the same name,  p122 Ke‑ala‑i‑Kahiki, which being translated means, "the Road to Tahiti."

This excited my curiosity. I got one of my acquaintances, who was born in the islands and spoke Hawaiian perfectly, to verify the translation. He explained to me the reason for so naming this channel and point. This in turn developed still more interesting information, which eventually led to solving scientifically the mystery of the "sacred calabash."

According to his story, which is undoubtedly true, there was communication by sea in open native boats between Hawaii and Tahiti, a distance of more than two thousand three hundred nautical miles, over the broad ocean, mainly for the purpose of paying friendly visits, for Tahiti had the reputation of being a land of plenty, and the natives were noted for their lavish hospitality to strangers. At the same time it offered a means of felicitation and exchange of friendly messages between the high chiefs, and served to perpetuate an intercourse between these groups of islands which had the same basic language. The Hawaiians, Samoans, Tahitians, Tongans, Marquesans, Maories in New Zealand, and certain other islanders, all have a similar language, and a native of any one of these groups will have but little difficulty in making himself understood to a native of another.

There are a great many words which are common to all these languages, and many more which become the same by the change of a single letter. For example, the t in Samoan would become k in Hawaiian, and f becomes h. That is, tapa, the native cloth, becomes kapa; fale, the word for house, becomes hale, and the salutation in Samoa, talofa becomes aloha in Hawaiian.

 p123  A Canoe Voyage In further explanation of the name Ke‑ala‑i‑Kahiki, this gentleman, who was a very scholarly man and had written a history of Hawaii, told me that the sailing of these canoes was always celebrated as a great event, and that it was preceded by feasting, dancing and other ceremonies.

The men who composed the crews were specially chosen for their strength, physique, prowess, endurance, skill in swimming, handling boats, and in catching fish and birds at sea, and in their knowledge of navigation and kindred subjects.

Months before sailing they were put through a course of tests which consisted in the performance of a maximum endurance on a minimum amount of food and water; in sailing and handling boats under adverse conditions, in righting them when capsized, and proving their knowledge of astronomy and meteorology. The Hawaiians had a fair visual knowledge of the former; they knew that the sun changes its declination and that the North Star is approximately fixed. On this fact, in connection with the sacred calabash, depends the principal point of interest in this story.

They had names for the brighter stars and constellations, and knew that the planets were wanderers and called them so in their native tongue. As a matter of fact the North Star is not exactly at the celestial pole in the extension of the earth's axis, but is about a degree or so from it, though the earth in its revolution on its axis brings the North Star on the meridian in the north and south line twice a day. However, for crude navigation and for the purposes of this story we will consider the North Star as being at the pole or ninety degrees from the equator. In order to make what follows clearer, it should be remembered that one  p124 of the usual methods of finding latitude at sea, in the northern hemisphere, is by measuring the altitude of Polaris, or the North Star, and applying certain corrections to obtain the exact latitude.

Roughly speaking, then, if one were at the north pole, Polaris would be in the zenith or ninety degrees overhead, and as one proceeds south from the pole every degree of latitude covered reduces the altitude just the same amount, so that when the equator is reached, the altitude is zero. Hence, it follows that the latitude of any place in the northern hemisphere is roughly equal to the altitude of Polaris.

Owing to the geographical position of Hawaii, in approximately latitude 19° 30′ N., in addition to the stars of the northern hemisphere, most of those in southern hemisphere, except the circumpolar ones, were also visible and familiar to the natives. The natives had a very fair conception of the movements of the stars, and were taught how to shape their courses at night by them, and by the sun during the day, making due allowance for changes in azimuth.

As they lived in the trade-wind region, and as their voyage would be wholly within the trade belt they were familiar with all conditions pertaining to meteorology. They knew in general that the direction of the wind varied between northeast and southeast, dependent upon the season, and that certain seasons of the year were more propitious than others for making long sea voyages.

The Course from Hawaii to Tahiti In order more fully to comprehend the wonderful accomplishment of these primitive natives, from the standpoint of endurance, resourcefulness, seaman­ship and navigation, in making this extraordinary voyage without any of the modern aids to navigation, out of  p125 sight of land for nearly the whole distance, it is necessary to familiarize one's self with the geographic location of these islands. Roughly, Hawaii is in latitude 19° 30′ N., longitude 156° 00′ W., and Tahiti, latitude 17° 30′ S., longitude 149° 30′ W., which makes the outbound course a little east of south, and the distance over two thousand three hundred nautical miles. So when the crew were considered to be in proper physical condition, when the season was most propitious, the  p126 canoe was fully equipped and loaded with such provisions as would occupy the least space and yet give the greatest amount of sustenance. Amid a grand celebration in honor of the event, and after the gods had been invoked and offerings and sacrifices made, the sacred calabash was taken on board.

A native historian of the Hawaiian Islands sides that one of the instructions to the crew, in making this voyage was, "If you sail for Kahiki (Tahiti) you will discover new constellations and strange stars over the deep ocean. When you arrive at Piko‑o‑wakea (Equator) you will lose sight of Hokupaa (North Star) and Newe will stand as a guide above you."

There were those among the crew who were specially versed in navigation from every angle known to these people; under their advice and guidance the instructions were to steer by the sun by day and the stars by night, principally Polaris, on a course a little east of south. This at night would be accomplished by keeping Polaris several degrees to the left of a north and south course. Furthermore, when the celestial bodies might be obscured by clouds, knowing that the winds were generally easterly, they would keep on the port tack; or keep the wind on the port side.

They also had an intimate, in fact almost uncanny knowledge of the looks and action of the sea. They could tell from the waves, the strength of the wind, its duration from any one direction or changes in direction; and what was more wonderful still (and I have actually seen it demonstrated) they could tell the direction of the land by its action in changing the continuity  p127 or general symmetry of the waves. For example; in one of the groups of South Sea Islands we hired a pilot for his knowledge of the local harbors. Without telling him our destination, in going from one island to another, and before sighting land, I would call him on deck and ask its direction, and he invariably pointed correctly, though, as in several other equally remarkable exhibitions of his extraordinarily developed faculties, he was unable to explain how his conclusions were reached.

Extraordinarily Developed Faculties Nor could any of the natives in any of the groups give a clear explanation of their combination geographical and astronomical charts. These in general consisted of a number of thin strips or battens of light wood lashed or seized by cord at their crossings, to which, here and there, at these crossings and elsewhere were attached a number of shells, some of which were movable. There is no question but these islanders had developed to a marvelous degree their powers of observation and analysis of phenomena pertaining to the sea, atmosphere and heavens and had put them to practical use.

We find this same development of faculties along useful lines among many aboriginal tribes and primitive people. The bushmen of Australia, among the lowest known order of human beings, have the ability to follow the trail of man or beast that would baffle any other person, no matter what might be his intelligence or knowledge in other directions.

Among our early American frontiersmen the faculty of finding one's way through the trackless forests was enormously developed. Daniel Boone with a companion left North Carolina and spent a year or more in exploring Kentucky, then an unknown land. After  p128 returning to North Carolina he again went alone to Kentucky after having described his wanderings and previous visit to his brother. When Boone did not return at the time designated, his brother crossed the mountain and actually located and found him in the wilderness. Daniel Boone himself, after establishing a settlement in central Kentucky, was captured by the Indians and carried to Chillicothe, Ohio, and adopted into the tribe. Learning that an attack on his colony was contemplated he journeyed from Chillicothe to Boonesboro, a distance as the crow flies of one hundred and sixty miles, in four days, in time to give ample warning and make adequate preparation for a successful defense.

Stop to realize what this means! There was not a single habitation nor sign of civilization, no roads, not a house; he was solely dependent upon the country for his food, and had to cross the Ohio and other rivers, and traverse the virgin forest untouched by human hands; yet he not only made forty miles a day, but steered a course that carried him to Boonesboro by practically the shortest route and in the best possible time.

These examples are given to show that it was not blind luck that enabled these people to accomplish their ends, but scientific knowledge, no matter how crude, deduced from actual study and experience.

Returning to the Hawaiian-Tahitian voyage, it was known to the crew that when about half‑way on their journey — namely, when near the equator — they would lose the North Star, that it would sink below the horizon, and they would use certain southern circumpolar constellations.

The Tahitian Canoes Here it is well to explain that prior to the advent  p129 of the white men, the natives built enormous canoes called pahe, very much larger than the small dug‑out canoe, in general use to‑day throughout the South Sea Islands, which in turn is being rapidly superseded by modern boats. The pahe were of several classes and kinds, the largest being used for deep sea voyages and war purposes. They were both single and double and were from sixty to ninety feet in length.

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The Tahitians, for example, made the hull of their canoes from the apapi tree, from which logs over forty feet in length and about three feet in diameter were obtained. These were hollowed out, joined together end on and served as the hull to which keels of tamanu wood were attached, while the planking paddles were made of purau wood. The double canoes were built up hulls with side planking, and so constructed that they could be housed over, or closed, in rough weather, making them far more seaworthy. These hulls in turn were joined together by braces, with an intervening space of several feet between them, and upon the whole was constructed a shelter erection both for the preservation of food, plants and live stock carried, and for a part of the crew as well.

They were fitted with one or two masts, and carried triangular sails of native matting, as well as full sets of paddles. Doubtless logs of a much larger size were to be found in some of the other islands, as is the case to‑day, but the above description of the Tahitian canoe is given because it is well authenticated. Tradition, ethnological evidence, and in more modern times, actual facts prove that there were frequent and numerous inter-island voyages between the Fiji, Friendly, Samoan, Cook and than groups of islands, which lie roughly between 10° S., to 25° S., and 175° E.,  p130 to 150° W., a zone about nine hundred miles wide and two thousand one hundred miles long. And from these groups long voyages, of which there are well authenticated records, were made, not only to New Zealand and Hawaii, but to other outlying islands, some of which were fully two thousand miles distant.

 p131  Reasons for Migrations Even in modern times natives in small canoes have been picked up at sea hundreds of miles from land, where they had been blown offshore or had lost their way in making passage. Various reasons have been assigned for these migrations and voyages, but those most generally accepted are that they were due to over-population, tribal wars, scarcity of food, love of adventure, and abiding confidence in their ability as seamen and navigators to find their way back to land in case no new islands were discovered.

There is abundant evidence that they set forth prepared to colonize any new land discovered, for they not only carried their women, but seed, food, plants and live stock. Continuing their voyage to the southward they were aware that their course should carry them through several groups of low lying islands, or atolls, and that on communication with any of them they could get the necessary direction and information for continuing their voyage to Tahiti. At the end of their visit they once more provisioned their canoe and made ready for the return voyage.

Here, let it be explained, dependent upon the season and latitude, the prevailing winds were from the southeast, in the vicinity of Tahiti, hauling by degrees to approximately northeast in the latitude of Hawaii. And while it is true that these winds are neither steady in direction nor constant in force, they are, nevertheless, the prevailing winds. Having this information, the crew was directed to put their canoe on the starboard tack, and keep the wind abeam or a little forward of the beam. In plain English this means that in the long run their average course would carry them several hundred miles at least to windward, and to the eastward of Hawaii.

 p132  Again, they were aware that when approximately half‑way back on their return journey, in the neighborhood a little to the northward of the equator, they would raise the North Star, and from that time on they were to give heed to the sacred calabash.

Now, as to the calabash itself. It was more or less cylindrical, or slightly keg‑shaped, made of native koa wood, and so far as I can remember, about eighteen inches in height; it might be likened to a keg with the head removed. Within a few inches of the top four holes had been bored, spaced ninety degrees apart and on a circle whose plane was at right angles to the longitudinal axis; or on one of the upper hoops of the keg. As they gained latitude to the northward the calabash was filled with water up to the holes. Through any one of these holes, and over the opposite rim of the calabash, observations were made on the North Star, until, still observing through the hole, it became tangent to the upper rim. When this condition obtained the course was to be immediately changed to west, and could be altered from time to time, if necessary, so that Polaris would remain apparently tangent. This would insure their keeping in the approximate latitude of Hawaii and arrival at that island in due course of time.

As a matter of fact, though crude, this method used for the return voyage, and particularly the use of the calabash for finding Hawaii, is not only based on scientific principle, no matter what may have led to its discovery and adoption, but is practically, in a modified way, one of the most general methods of finding latitude to‑day by the North Star. In fact a sextant may be used on the same general principle if it be set at a constant angle and used in the same way.

 p133  The Sacred Calabash Naturally my curiosity was aroused to see this so called "sacred calabash," and to ascertain if it could be reliably used for its reputed purpose. Obtaining permission, I filled it with water to the circle of holes and measured the angle from any one of them across the opposite rim, and found it to be about nineteen degrees. The water inside acted as a level, keeping the calabash in the vertical, hence when Polaris was on the rim its altitude was about nineteen degrees which roughly equaled the latitude of Hawaii, and enabled the crew to steer west with confidence that they would reach their destination.

It seems all but needless to call attention to the fact that the altitude of Polaris varies about two degrees each day, but it is equally evident that if several days were consumed in the western part of the voyage, or if when on shore more careful observations had been taken of Polaris, this change would have become known, and allowances made accordingly. Furthermore, Hawaii is mountainous, two of its peaks, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, are between thirteen thousand and fourteen thousand feet in height, and visible far out at sea. In addition to which, as is generally the case in the tropics, when the land is high there is a very distinctive cloud effect which by its contrast to the usual trade clouds and sky effects helps to indicate the presence of land. A still further aid could be found in the sky in case either of the two active volcanos, Mauna Loa or Kilauea, were in eruption and their reflections could be seen in the heavens.

There has been a vast deal of theory and speculation as to how these and other islanders traversed the broad expanse of water which separates these islands from one another, whether they originally drifted before  p134 the wind or worked their way to windward in voyages of discovery. Some of the records, like this, and those of the migration and voyages of what are now the Maoris, to and from New Zealand, from the vicinity of Tahiti, or Rarotonga, are authentic and well known, and to my mind, form reasonable grounds for believing that these voyages were carefully planned and executed, and were far less a matter of mere chance than they were the result of logical reasoning.

If the navigational features of this voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and return, and the general geographic knowledge of the South Sea Islanders of their part of the world, could be compared to some of the published charts, made by early European voyagers to America, the Polynesians would stand a very favorable comparison, considering the instruments and methods of the two.

The Author's Note:

1 This story was first published in United States Naval Institute Proceedings, and is repeated here by permission.

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