Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific

Putting the System to Work

Learning the sailing directions, parallel sea lanes, "aimers," and the various drills involving them is one thing. Learning to put it all to work in actual practice is something else.

The stars are not visible by day, and the sky may be overcast at night. Sailing directions in the exercise are, at best, only to the nearest compass point. Conditions vary with the seasons. Application requires using what one can actually see, and it requires adjusting the sailing directions in the light of actual experience.

fig 14, Canoe angling across a swell


Ocean swells are a crucial guide in sailing. Navigators recognize up to eight different swells, one from each octant of the compass. Dominant and most reliable are those from the north, northeast, and east, associated with the tradewind season (winter in the Northern Hemisphere). During the summer, swells come from the southeast and south.

The different swells have characteristic intervals. Navigators take advantage of opportunities to check the direction of swells against the stars. When two swell systems are moving across each other, like the converging wakes of motorboats, they make peaks where they come together. The navigator can steer by the alignment of these peaks or "wave nodes," as he calls them.

Currents reveal themselves by the shape of the waves. A current flowing against the wind produces steeper waves, one flowing with the wind flatter waves. The direction and strength of a current may also be revealed by the pattern of ripples on the surface of the water. Currents make a significant difference for how a navigator adjusts his course in actual voyaging.

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