Ann Singeo
Founder and Director, Ebiil Society

Traditional navigators are trained to recognize physical signals in, “sea, skies, and stars, memory signals from knowledge of star, swell, and wind compasses… and cultural knowledge recorded in chants, dances, and stories”1. Signs include

color, temperature, and taste (salinity) of seawater; floating plant debris; sightings of land-based seabirds flying out to fish; cloud type, color, and movement; wind direction, speed, and temperature; the direction and nature of ocean swells and waves; the position of stars in the sky; and his estimation of the speed, current set, and leeway of his sailing craft.2

Ebiil Society, a non-governmental organization in Palau, provides training and education on traditional knowledge. For this purpose, traditional knowledge trainers are sought after to help develop training programs. This article represents a collection of ideas in navigation training by Ebiil Society.

Pacific Islanders traditionally maintain records through their stories, chants, and performance arts. It is within these traditions that navigators maintain or recollect information that they need for a successful voyage.

Inter-Island Navigation

Inter-island navigation is for short-distance travel within an island country where land visibility is less constrained. The navigator is taught to use his immediate surroundings and information to determine travel time and routes.

Trade winds knowledge is necessary for voyage planning and travel to distant places. During the easterly trade winds season, sailboats are on a dry dock for a complete check and maintenance work while preparing for distant sailing or fishing expeditions.

Along with this knowledge, navigators need to be familiar with the ocean depths and the colors of usual routes to determine the true course since looking ahead during heavy rains or squalls can be misleading.

Navigators also use the land’s silhouette against the sky to travel at dusk or dawn. During rainy days and distance travel when land is not visible on the horizon, they look in the clouds for color reflections of land and shallow water.

Cloud colors, shapes, and positioning are also used to determine weather conditions. For example, when the clouds above glow white and the horizon reflects a thick gray blanket of cloud, it means that rain will come in two to three days.

Lunar cycles and associated tides are used to determine travel schedules and routes.

The striking point of a swell against the side of the boat reflects wind direction and determines east and west with reference to trade winds.

Deep Sea Navigation

Deep sea navigation combines inter-island navigation and the more complex use of the star compass used by Micronesians to sail greater distances across the Pacific Ocean to explore for new land and resources.

Later development of Micronesian navigation includes the star compass used by navigators such as the Satawalese of Yap. The star compass depicts thirty-two points at which key stars rise on the eastern horizon and set on the western horizon. The “compass” is not a magnetic tool but a mental model of island locations and the star points to use to navigate between them. Deep sea navigation takes years of training, beginning as early as four years of age, and by the time the young apprentice is allowed to take his first voyage, he is well into his adult years. Some apprentices never take a deep-sea voyage.

Types of fish, birds, and mammals, such as whales and dolphins, as well as debris on the ocean surface are used to reference distance to land.


We hope that providing such experiential learning opportunities will spark interest in pursuing navigation as a trade that incorporates indigenous knowledge and today’s technology to make a successful navigator. Such a navigator will have a higher sense of respect and protection towards his natural and cultural environment.


1. Wikipedia, s.v. “Mau Piailug,” last modified 6 January 2015,
2. ibid.