Douglas Arvidson is a past winner of the WICE/Paris Transcontinental International Short Story competition. His short fiction has been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the United States and he was recently invited to be a staff writer for the Prague Revue, a cutting-edge, online literary journal ( The novels in his fantasy series, The Eye of the Eye of Stallion, include The Face in Amber, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, and A Drop of Wizard's Blood. His new novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year national awards and as a finalist in three categories in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards: Action Adventure Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. It has become part of the pantheon of Pacific literature and is now included in school literature programs. Brothers of the Fire Star is an adventure story set in the Pacific during World War II and concerns two boys of different races and cultures who escape the island of Guam in a small sailboat when the Japanese army invades. They must then struggle to survive as they master the secrets of the ancient Pacific navigators. Appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers, Brothers of the Fire Star is available on Barnes & Noble, ( and Visit the author's website:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Star Chart Compass: The Beginning Lessons for Future Navigators

This chart of the navigation stars used by Carolinian navigators was developed by Manny Sikau, a master navigator from Puluwat, for the Traditional Seafaring Society at the University of Guam to instruct its members. The names of the stars are in both English and Puluwatese. Of course, on Puluwat and other islands where navigation is taught to boys beginning at a young age, the chart was drawn in the sand and the stars represented by pebbles or shells. If a voyage is to be made to a certain island, the navigator knows under which star that island lies, relative to Puluwat, and sets off in that direction.

Sound simple? On the contrary, in practice, the actual navigation is incredibly complex. The stars move up from the horizon and across the sky, so the navigator needs to know what star to use next as it comes up over the night horizon--and the next one and the next one--and where all the islands are relative to each new star. And what happens when clouds get in the way? And what about the concept of etak that we discussed in a previous blog? And fatique and storms and....In fact, it staggers the imagination.

While this chart is not based on western compasses, it does roughly coincide with them in that North is up, East is to the right, etc. However, ancient voyagers developed star navigation long before contact with European sailors and there are important differences. For example, the star westerners call Altair (Mailap in Puluwatese) appears to be due East on this chart while due East on a magnetic compass is slightly south of Altair, near Orion's Belt.

It is nice to think, though, that peoples on different sides of the world and from vastly different cultures, learned how to use the same natural phenomena--the orderly and unchanging nature of the movement of celestial bodies--to navigate across the trackless seas. The human genius for solving complex problems is universal.

I'm flying to Guam next week to do some research on The Spirit of the Voyage and I'll pick up the subject of traditional navigation again later. After we get back from the Pacific, we'll be heading up to Washington D.C. again and I'm looking forward to rousting about in that city for a while, looking for interesting restaurants and trying not to be too surprised at my observations of human behavior--mine included.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Birds and Traditional Navigation: Expanding the Target

A curious brown boobie flys low over a traditional canoe at sea.
The homeward flights of these birds after a day of feeding are
used by voyagers to help determine the direction of land. (Photo by Ron Castro)

I just got back from a road trip to the Atlanta area where I helped celebrate my grandson's 1st. birthday. At twelve months, he's walking, talking, and a very happy, sweet-natured baby boy. Right on target. On the downside, Atlanta was a tragically sodden part of the world; they got fourteen inches of rain while I was there and seven people lost their lives in the flooding. Such horror.

Back to this blog where I've been thinking about traditional navigation as I slowly write/construct my next novel, The Spirit of the Voyage. In the last blog I did some thinking about etak, a technique that uses a navigator's knowledge of the changing positions of surrounding islands to help navigate from one island to another. Here's a brief description of another technique traditional navigators use: Island block landfall.

Imagine steering across five hundred miles of open ocean with an atoll that may be just four miles across as the unseen target. For thousands of years, navigators have used a system that "expands" the size of those tiny island targets thus decreasing the chances that they won't go sailing by them. Briefly, these methods include the feeding habits of birds, changing wave formations due to the interference of islands in the smooth flow of the ocean, deep-water phosphorescence, cloud formations, and floating debris. All these phenomena "expand" the presence of an island and tell the alert voyager in which direction land can be found.

Birds may be the most reliable of these indicators and indeed, for the Carolinian navigator, boobies are the most important. As I myself have seen many times while at sea in the western Pacific, boobies show a great curiosity in the vessels they encounter. They will circle the boat and at times attempt to land in the rigging. They will flirt with diving down on the fishing lure being dragged behind the boat. Most importantly, after a day of feeding, they will head directly toward their home island, which may be as far as 30 miles away. Again, an alert voyager need only take a bearing on the boobies flight and head in that direction.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Multiple Intelligences and Traditional Navigation: Conceptualizing ETAK

Here I am sitting on the honifot--the helm--of the traditional canoe, Quest.

Howard Gardner, in his his book Frames of Mind, proposes that the way the Western world traditionally measures intelligence fails to account for "a far wider and universal set" of competencies or types of intelligence that one observes outside the traditional Western societies.

He holds up as a prime example, the Puluwatese youth who, after being selected by his elders as having the potential, sets about to learn the vast amount of unwritten information required of him to become a "master navigator." The "intelligence" required to achieve this title does not include reading or writing or math so it is not measurable by "I.Q." tests. Yet, Gardner's theory holds that learning those skills that will allow one to sail across hundreds of miles of ocean without the help of compass or sextant takes great intelligence, indeed.

Of interest to Gardner is the Puluwatese navigators ability to visualize where he is at sea between two islands by using "reference" islands--another island or islands other than the ones he is sailing from or to. These are called the etak islands and, because the master navigator, as part of his training, knows the direction of every known island from every other one and under which star they all sit, he can use these etak islands to better know his position at sea at all times.

The thing that interested Gardner is the different way the Puluwatese youth is taught to think about the canoe as it travels from one island to the next. According to the etak system, the canoe can be visualized as sitting still in the water, while the islands and stars move about him.

This complex process during which the navigator must keep clearly in his mind the positions of both stars and islands while sailing across an empty sea is staggering for the Western mind to contemplate. Indeed, it must be difficult for the navigators to master, too, for, according to Thomas Gladwin in his book East is a Big Bird, skill at sailing upwind toward an objective island using etak reference islands separated the good navigators from the mediocre ones.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Home from the Long Weekend at the Beach: Back to Writing and Thinking About the Ancient Art of Traditional Navigation

A Traditional Canoe Takes a Sea
(Photo by Sandra Okada)

I'm having to do a lot of research to write this novel. Even though it's an adventure novel for young adults it has to be based on solid stuff--facts, for example, and insights, if I'm lucky. How did they really do it? What is it all based on? What makes the impossible possible?

One of the books I'm reading and re-reading and then referring to again and again, is We, the Navigators, by David Lewis. He was a New Zealand physician, who, back in the 60's, gave up his practice to sail the islands of the Pacific investigating tradition navigation. He visited many different islands and sailed with many now long-gone master navigators. He was also an accomplished sailor and modern navigator himself and a true seaman.

His scientific background allows him to be pretty analytical when it comes to studying and attempting to document the skills of the great traditional navigators such a Hipour and Tevake. He tries to cover all the important concepts from stars paths to marine life to deep-water phosphorescence to swell patterns--on an on. The effect of all this information, rather than clarifying things, is to deepen your appreciation of just how skilled and courageous the master navigator has to be. After each reading, I was only more staggered by the mere idea of setting out to find ones way across hundreds of miles of open ocean in an open canoe with no compass or sextant.

I think you can only begin to appreciate the accomplishments of these islanders by going out to sea and staying out there for a while--a few days, and, more importantly, a few nights. Try to go somewhere, try to reach an objective--a distant island is best--against wind and current. I have done just that, more than a few times in various sailboats and if you are like me, you will at first feel humbled and then later, you will feel overwhelmed and then you will feel fear.

In my next few blogs, I'll take a look at some of the techniques the traditional navigators use to find their way across the "empty" ocean. It's fascinating stuff.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sailing a traditional canoe from Guam to the neighboring island of Rota.
(Photo by Sandra Okada)
Imagine something. Imagine sailing this canoe--this proa--over 500 miles of open ocean and navigating using only the stars and the waves and the sea life and you're exquisit knowledge of the how it all works together.
Get it? No, I don't either.
But there are men capable of doing just that, capable of integrating and synthesizing all the data Mother Nature/the Universe provides and, by some seeming alchemy, figuring out where on the infinite deep blue they are and where they are going.
But never mind the intuitive impossibilities, the beyond-the-pale grasp of things both ephemeral and mystical. There must be some hard science going on here, some bone-deep comprehension of reality that only seems mystical and magical. We know, after all, that there really is no such thing as magic, that mysticism is just simply irrational.
My own take on it goes like this: The type of man who can conjure his position in a limitless sea started developing his skills early--as a young boy. Scientists call this an ontogenetic skill rather than a phylogenetic skill. Ontogenetic skills are skills that don't come naturally--we must learn them. Like playing the piano. Phylogengenetic etic skills are skills every creature in the phylum can do naturally. Like all humans can walk.
Ontogenetic skills must be learned early--in childhood--and that's how great navigators do it. As young children they are exposed to the sea, to the waves, to the stars, to that sense of how it all works together. So what seems impossible to the rest of us, comes "naturally" to them. But it's not magical or mystical. It's all based on real things learned early. Do they understand how they do it? Probably not. Not anymore than the rest of us understand love or beauty or why we crave chocolate ice cream.