Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific

Sailing Direction Exercises

All sailing directions are kept in relation to the sidereal compass, as are the relative locations of all places of interest, including such numerous seamarks as reefs, shoals, and marine life. To memorize this large body of information the Carolinians have developed various exercises.


"Island Looking" is the name of the most important exercise. With it, navigators and their pupils endlessly rehearse their knowledge of where islands are located in relation to one another. One takes an island and then goes around the compass naming the places that lie in each direction from that island. Then one takes another island and does the same. As they sit around the boathouse in the evening, older men quiz the younger men and one another. In reciting "Island Looking," a beginner gives the name of the nearest island that lies in a given compass direction from the hub island. As he goes around the compass, if no island lies in a particular direction, he so indicates. Later, the student learns to include reefs and shoals and, finally, living seamarks, thus filling most of the compass directions from each focal island. The sidereal compass here shows the places named on the compass directions as one looks out from Woleai Atoll.

Another exercise, "Sea Knowing," involves learning the names of all the sealanes, called "roads," between the various islands and reefs. To speak of sailing on the "Sea of Beads" is to indicate travel between Woleai and Eauripik on the star course between "Rising of Fishtail" (in Cassiopeia) and "Setting of Two Eyes" (Shaula in Scorpio). Referring only to the names of sealanes, those in the know can tell one another where they have been traveling and leave the untutored in the dark.

The exercise called "Sea Brothers" groups sealanes that lie on the same star compass coordinates. Thus on the course from "Rising of Fishtail" to "Setting of Two Eyes" lie the several sealanes that connect the islands of Pisaras and Pulusuk, Pikelot and Satawal, West Fayu and Lamotrek, Gaferut and Woleai, and Woleai and Eauripik. A navigator may forget the sailing directions from Woleai to Eauripik but remember that the Woleai-Eauripik sealane is "brother" to the West Fayu-Lamotrek sealane. His remembering the star coordinates for the latter allows him to retrieve the forgotten coordinates for the former.

"Coral Hole Stirring" imagines a parrot fish hiding in its hole in the reef at a given island. A fisherman probes the hole with a stick to drive the fish out into a dipnet, and it darts off to a hole in the reef at a neighboring island. Again the fisherman tries to catch the fish, and again it darts away to another island, and so on through a series of islands back to the one from which the exercise began. Each such hole has a special name, known only to navigators, that serves as a synonym for the island name. In this exercise the star courses are from hole name to hole name. To learn all of these star courses is to learn a parallel and redundant set of sailing directions. "Coral Hole Stirring" provides another arena within which to rehearse these directions and, importantly, a way for navigators to discuss voyages within the hearing of others without being understood. Another exercise very similar to this one is called "Sea Bass Groping."

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