Voyaging from the past into the future

Issue: Volume 98, Number 2

Posted: 7 February 2019
Reference #: 1H9r1A

This year Tuia 250, commemorating 250 years since the first Māori/non-Māori meetings, will recognise the extraordinary voyaging traditions and cultures of the Pacific and the feats of the early European explorers. Resources to encourage participation in the themes of Tuia and the other study topics – first encounters, New Zealand history, and legacy for learning – will be available, acknowledging that valuable lessons can be learned from the past.

Tā Hec Puhipi’s story

Sitting on Tā Hekenukumai (‘Tā Hec’) Puhipi’s table next to his recliner is a rudimentary-looking device that seems to be of no practical use. The flat piece of cardboard with faded diagonal lines and points made in pencil makes little sense at first – until you see the double-hull waka, held in place by a paper clip, sliding diagonally along a slit in the cardboard.

It’s a star compass, and it has been the key tool of Tā Hec’s trade ever since he began reviving traditional navigation techniques in Aotearoa in the mid-1980s.

“We’re clever buggers, us Māoris,” the former bridge builder laughs as he demonstrates this simple yet sophisticated device.

How it works is ingenious. Te kāpehu whetū – the Māori star compass – divides the 360 degrees around a canoe in the open ocean into 32 different whare (houses). The location of these houses depends on where the sun, moon and stars set and rise. A navigator keeps the canoe on a course relative to those observations.

Navigators know the arcs of the sun and that stars cross the sky at different heights depending on the time of year. At night the rising and setting of the stars is used to align the canoe in a direction of travel through the night until the Earth’s own star, the sun, rises. The sun is used at dawn and dusk.

Tā Hec, who is also known as Sir Hector Busby, says that traditionally there were only eight houses, but over the years he’s added more for accuracy. He swears by his technology.

“This sort of stuff isn’t going to inspire the next generation of sailors, but it’ll ensure that our traditions are kept alive, which is the most important thing.”

Tā Hec dropped out of school at the age of 15 and worked in a bakery and on labour gangs. Later in life, the now 86-year-old turned to bridge building and taught himself geometry and trigonometry, disciplines that he would embrace to help him navigate the Pacific oceans by more traditional means.

“The Hawaiians and Mau [Pius Mau Piailug, who was a world-renowned expert of traditional wayfaring methods] used to scratch their heads over my design. It’s simple and could match any of the modern navigational instruments. It’s just not as fast,” he says.

Tā Hec says it’s important to keep traditions such as navigation without instruments alive. The knowledge had almost been lost, but thanks to his mentor Mau, who revived the custom and passed on his teachings to others like Tā Hec, wayfaring will survive beyond this generation.

“I once read a book by Elsdon Best where he disputed the traditional navigation techniques that guided Polynesian migratory travel throughout the Pacific. I recall thinking at the time, ‘I’m going to prove you’re wrong’, and we have.”

Tā Hec is one of four master navigators in Aotearoa. In the early 1990s he built the waka hourua (double-hulled canoe) Te Aurere and has sailed more than 30,000 nautical miles, visiting Hawaii, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island, as well as making three circumnavigations of the North Island since 1992.

His reputation soon spread and he became revered for his knowledge of traditional voyaging techniques and is now widely acknowledged for revitalising Māori nautical practice. He is regularly visited by local schools and groups from New Zealand and throughout the Pacific.

Tā Hec is of Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kuri and Ngāti Kahu descent. He was made Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014 for his services to Māori and knighted in 2018 for reviving traditional navigation. 

Incorporating voyaging into everyday classroom learning

This year Aotearoa New Zealand will acknowledge 250 years since the first sustained onshore meetings between Māori and non-Māori with a national commemoration called Tuia – Encounters 250 (Tuia 250).

Tuia 250 is about the people and place of Aotearoa New Zealand – what brought the people together, the challenges they face and how they will weave their cultures and values into a future they will be proud to leave for the next generation.

Tuia 250 will recognise the extraordinary voyaging traditions and cultures of Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific), the exceptional feats of Pacific voyagers, their mātauranga (knowledge), innovation and non-instrument navigation prowess and their decisions to settle in Aotearoa many generations ago.

Tuia 250 will also acknowledge the feats of European explorers, the technology they developed and their first encounters with the people of this place when James Cook, Tupaia and others on HMS Endeavour arrived and sailed around Aotearoa in 1769.

Tā Hec’s compass shows where the sun, moon and stars set and rise. For example, if the waka is supposed to travel north and the location of the sun and the stars at each time of the day aligns with the compass, the waka is travelling in the right direction.

The Ministry of Education is supporting the commemoration through Tuia Mātauranga, a national education programme that supports teaching and learning and local curriculum development.

Ministry of Education’s Parent Information and Community Intelligence Acting Deputy Secretary Rose Jamieson says that Tuia Mātauranga is an opportunity for students to learn more about our histories and have conversations about multiple perspectives on our history and our future. Voyaging is one of the first Tuia study topics introduced to schools in 2019.

Throughout the year there will be resources available to support participation in the themes of Tuia and the other study topics: first encounters, New Zealand history, and legacy for learning.

“Traditional navigation concepts are still relevant today and in the future. There are always lessons we can learn from those who have gone before us,” says Rose.

Proving just how relevant these traditional methods are today, the US Naval Academy made headlines in 2015 when they reinstated celestial navigation lessons to combat potential hacking of their computer navigation systems. Locally, the Royal New Zealand Navy continues to teach and regularly practise celestial navigation. They use this method to navigate their way home as a back-up for GPS failure.

Rose says knowledge of traditional navigation techniques promotes learning and discovery across the curriculum.

“It draws on science, maths, technology, and innovation. It requires an understanding of and reverence for cultural practices, the environment and people to enable collaboration to achieve a task that might be impossible alone.

“Schools and students can seek out expertise within their own community, to reinvigorate the sharing of knowledge between elders and the young, and ensure these traditional skills and practices are preserved for coming generations.”

Rich learning opportunities, using voyaging as a context, could be:

  • In mathematics, understanding angles, trigonometry and geometry and how they can be applied to help us navigate our way or solve problems.
  • In science, developing an understanding of the natural environment: wave patterns, cloud formations, animal behaviour and the changes in these signals.
  • In technology, reviewing the tools and instruments used in Pacific wayfaring, European navigation and modern navigational devices. Designing an instrument that suits a particular purpose.
  • In early learning, students can explore the physical properties of material. Do they sink or float? What is the best way to join materials so that they stay together in the water?
  • In health and physical wellbeing, investigating ways in which traditional practices, in particular, Pacific voyaging, and migration stories, explore their own stories of who they are and where they have come from, to develop a sense of whakapapa and identity.

Jack Thatcher’s story

Master navigator Jack Thatcher teaching on board Ngāhiraka Mai Tawhiti. He wants to make sure traditional knowledge about navigation is retained.

On the maiden voyage of the Te Aurere to Rarotonga in 1992, Jack Thatcher was a bug-eyed 30-year-old seeking adventure.

He’d never sailed a traditional seafaring waka before. Today he’s clocked up roughly 60–70,000 nautical miles by traditional means and has students to whom he’s passing on his knowledge.

Some of the best lessons he learnt are from the maiden voyage of Te Aurere.

“My first storm was something I’ll always remember. It’s a time when you can be at your lowest and have moments of absolute terror,” Jack recalls.

He was on the first shift of the day and master navigator Mau Piailug wanted to change course to north-west.

Not wanting to question Mau’s expertise, the crew changed course, but their support boat questioned this, noting that the weather updates from New Zealand recommended staying on an easterly course.

A debate ensued and the course was reset easterly for Rarotonga.

“Mau heard the response from the support boat and said: ‘They say I don’t know which way to go’,” Jack recalls vividly.

Not long after resetting their course, Mau told the crew to pull all the sails, tie all the gear to the side of the waka and set anchor. The crew were dubious about their instructions but reluctant to question the master navigator until curiosity got the better of one of them and he asked what they were doing.

“And Mau pointed to the clouds in the north-east and then to the south and said, ‘This one storm and this one storm come together and make big storm’.”

An increasingly nervous crew asked the master navigator if they could reset the course as he had first proposed. Mau was adamant a lesson needed to be learnt, says Jack, and the rest of the day was spent watching these weather events converge where Mau had told them to set anchor.

By nightfall they were in the eye of gale force winds; the swell had risen dramatically to
25 metres and the waves were smashing against the waka – at one stage tipping it on its side.

“I jokingly tell people I was screaming. But I couldn’t tell you if I wasn’t.”

Jack says he was frightened, but as he was being tossed from side to side on the waka he looked up and caught Mau’s relaxed demeanour and what he saw changed his world.

Ngāhiraka Mai Tawhiti, a traditional double-hulled waka, named after Tā Hec’s late wife. These days it’s based in Tauranga.

“I’m thinking, ‘he’s not even afraid’ and I thought, ‘if he’s not afraid, I have nothing to be afraid of either’ and made it my life lesson.”

Jack went on to learn many other lessons about wayfaring, which he has passed on to students in the traditional navigational skills and techniques training programme he set up in Tauranga.

He currently has a class of 15 students, who have spent the past three years learning the things he has learned from a lifetime of sailing.

It’s his single purpose in life, he says, to keep the traditions alive.

“I’ve seen tutū [rebellious] kids kicked out of school come into my programme and go from boys to men. Along the way they’ve learned that they can learn maths and science, the ways of their ancestors, their reo, tikanga and culture and become leaders in their communities,” says Jack.

He hopes learning about traditional navigation will instil a sense of pride.

Jack is also teaching his students how to be kaitiaki or guardians of the ocean and to take an active interest in the changing environment around them.

One noticeable difference, he says, is the change in the ocean’s temperature.

“If I had my way, all voyaging vessels would be fitted with some kind of thermometer so we can study what’s happening when there’s a waka on the ocean.

“I study ocean temperatures to understand the movements of cyclones and I know their fuel is warmer currents because the heat feeds the cyclone. As soon as the temperature drops, they die off or become tropical storms that perish out at sea.”

Jack is one of four pwo (master) navigators in Aotearoa to be recognised by the late Pius Mau Piailug of Micronesia.

He is of Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Te Whānau a Tuwhakairiora, Ngāti Awa, Ngaiterangi, Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Pukenga descent.


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 1:41 pm, 7 February 2019

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