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Navigating Baja: A Lesson in Sailing by the Stars – Dispatch #4

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Austin Kino looks to the stars midst his star compass on the beach near Los Barilles, Mexico; Photograph by Max Lowe
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Apprentice navigator and native Hawaiian Austin Kino sets up a star compass with glow sticks on the beach near Los Barilles, Mexico; Photograph by Max Lowe

As a child growing up in Hawaii, I was taught that my ancestors were navigators who voyaged great distances across the sea. A painting on my classroom wall depicted a large double-hulled sailing canoe surfing down an ocean swell toward a shoreline of lava. I remember looking at the faces of the people in the waka and wondering what it must have felt like to set eyes on this tropical Eden for the first time. That image first sparked my interest in voyaging and led me here on this journey to the Baja Peninsula.

As the last hues of the sun fade behind the mountains, I find myself standing beside the Sea of Cortez with a group of newly acquainted compadres. Collectively, we are here to participate in one of the world’s great pre-historic traditions—looking up into the night sky to read the stars above. I sense the eagerness in this group of explorers as each wishes to better understand how to find bearing amid the starry infinity. On the sand surrounding us, we use glow sticks placed in concentric circles to demarcate the rising and setting points of all the celestial bodies in order to build a traditional star compass.

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During his demonstration of celestial navigation, Kino creates a compass made of sticks lashed together to secure North, South, East, and West; Photograph by Max Lowe

The star compass is a technology that has been passed down for generations throughout Oceania, and tonight we carry on the tradition. For many years, all teachings regarding navigation were kept secret by families to ensure status within an island hierarchy. Thankfully, we are at an exciting time in the history of non-instrument seafaring, where the goal for this indigenous system is to share it with the world. For this group, the star compass will be an entirely new system of orientation. My role is simply to share what little knowledge I have and to do my best to pass on the lessons my teachers freely shared with me.

As the heavens begin to darken, I ask my new friends what they see when they look up at the stars. The Greek system is the most commonly recognized nomenclature for the cosmos, but we discuss how all civilizations used unique folklore to organize the night sky. Once we connect the dots we begin to call out the constellations we recognize, then casually debate their likeness to their namesakes. When everyone agrees they see a scorpion’s tail, I offer up my Polynesian lens and use my laser to draw a Hawaiian fishhook. With the understanding that every narrative is relative and derived by imagination, we begin to uncover how to use the star compass that surrounds us.

My teachers often repeat, “I am always at the center of my compass.” Imagine being in the middle of the ocean with a horizon surrounding you for three hundred and sixty degrees. The horizon is the perimeter of your compass and if you travel one mile or a hundred miles, spatially you never leave the center. The horizon is then divided into 32 equal sections known as star houses. When a navigator identifies a star rising from, or setting into its corresponding house he or she can pinpoint a bearing. In addition to stars, this house system incorporates wind, waves, and celestial bodies as road signs for the navigator.

Bringing Hawaiian Sailing to Mexico


We end the night’s lesson with gratitude, realizing that every time this knowledge is passed we honor the great teachers that have come before us. The teachers I remember are not your average chalk-on-a-blackboard bunch. They were painters, lifeguards, social workers, astronauts, and master navigators who had powerful vision. If it were not for their courage, I know that I would never have been able to see that painting years ago and that the seafaring traditions of my people would have been lost to the history books. Currently around the world voyaging canoes are sailing to advocate for the protection of the world’s oceans as they create networks of people who have the ability to make great changes to the health of the planet. I am confident that my new friends will be great additions to this network as they too share the mission in living out an ancient future.

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While sailing on the Holopuni, Kino takes a sun reading; Photograph by Max Lowe

The Adventurists blog series “Navigating Baja” is sponsored by OluKai, which provided footwear for this adventure.