Long before Columbus, the Polynesians discovered and settled virtually every island group in the Pacific, creating a single sphere of cultural life that covered nearly 10 million square miles of the earth's surface. Polynesian sailors crossed the sea in open catamarans, made with tools of stone, bone and coral, their sails woven from pandanus. They sailed without maps, compasses or instruments.
According to Polynesian tradition, the first human to see Easter Island was a dream traveler and the island was settled because a young king trusted the traveler’s story and acted upon it. In a time of savage warfare among the Polynesian islanders, a priest named Hau Maka, who was also the royal tattooist, went scouting for a new home for his people. He flew across the ocean in a dream and saw Rapa Nui (Easter Island). On returning from his dream journey, he described the island and its location in great detail to his young chief, Hotu Matu’a.
The king trusted Hau Maka’s dream. He gathered all of his people and ordered them to prepare for a long sea journey to a new land. The people set sail with everything they had. After two months, they reached Anakena Bay on Easter Island, and found it just as the king’s tattooist had described.
Polynesians crossed more than 2,000 miles of the Pacific to find and settle Hawaii in the same way.
Captain Cook saw the skills of the wayfinder when he took the Polynesian navigator Tupaia with him on a voyage of more than 13,000 km from Tahiti to New Zealand. Cook noted that at all times the wayfinder knew the exact direction of Tahiti. It was hard for the outside world to understand or credit their extraordinary prowess as navigators until the Polynesian Voyaging Society launched a double-hulled catamaran, dubbed the Hokule'a (the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, the sacred star of Hawaii) in 1975, and Hawaiians crossed the seas the old-fashioned way.
Nainoa Thompson and the organizers brought a master navigator, a wayfinder or waymaker, from Micronesia to train the crew. His name was Mau Piailug. He was born on a coral islet smaller than one square mile, in the Caroline islands. His father and his grandfather were wayfinders. They began his training by keeping him in a tidal pool for hours when he was an infant. When he became seasick on his first sea voyage, aged eight, they tide him to the back of the canoe by a rope and dragged him through open waters until the nausea passed. When he was fourteen, he tied his own testicles to the rigging of a canoe to become fully sensitive to the movements. He learned to read the coming of a storm in a halo round the moon and in the movement of dolphins heading for sheltered waters.
In preparing the crew of the Hokule'a for the voyage to Tahiti, he trained them to read wind and water, stars and birds, as he did. The master class took them deeper. On a point of land on Oahu, he had them spin until their senses were blurred and then tasked them to turn, eyes closed, in the direction of the island that was their destination. When satisfied they were pointing the right way, he told them: "Go there. Be there with all of your senses." He wanted them to grow the destination so strong, in their minds and their inner senses, that they would bring the island towards them, Finally, he instructed them, "Hold the vision in your mind so you do not become lost."