Book Review: We, The Navigators

David Lewis, We, The Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, Second Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1972. Pp. vii, 442.  

Western sailors once considered it impossible to reliably navigate with use of magnetic compass, sextant and maps. In We, The Navigators, David Lewis chronicles the methods of ancient Polynesian navigation while voyaging with the native practitioners.  David Lewis authored ten books in related fields and was a recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Navigation. Lewis states “The aim of this book is to make a detailed examination of indigenous navigational concepts and methods and to assess their efficacy and limitations.” (Lewis 3) 

Broken into the five sections,  Lewis begins with the origin of his interests and then flows to the techniques of navigating and landfinding. He concludes with some historical color for why these sailors went to sea. Chapters average roughly fifty pages with the more technical instruction making up the bulk of the work.   

Chapter one provides quick central Pacific regional history. The follows with his reasons for personal interest in the topic.  In 1965, Lewis sailed the central Pacific “to bring academic theories of navigation to sea level by testing in practice methods that were reputed to have been used by the old-time Polynesians.” (Lewis 19)  Lewis introduces Tevake of the Santa Cruz Reef Islands and Hipour of the Carolinian Islands.  These two men provided Lewis much of the technical instruction he records.   

The middle chapters start with foundational topics covering designs of the boats used, how they were rigged and provisioned.  Next, Lewis launches into the concept of celestial navigation and the sidereal compass.  Effectively, the sidereal compass method observes a group of stars in a 360 degree circle around the horizon.  Ancient navigators must memorize the location and timing of each of these stars and then be able determine his vessel’s relative position to each.  Once position is established, he now knows his own relative position to other landmasses in the ocean. All of this is done by observation, memory and experience without paper or instrument.   

From here, Lewis discusses the dead reckoning (DR) calculation of speed and direction over a known time. DR solves for distance travelled and current or projected location.  DR coupled with the use of sidereal compass make a unique system of checks and balances enabling the trained navigator to continue to refine his understanding of the vessel’s position on a mental map.  

In the final technical chapter, Lewis covers the importance of environmental aids such as clouds, sea birds, swells, and how properly observing these can provide further position refinement to the navigator without instrument, map or magnetic compass.  For example, at night, phosphorescent algae activated in an island’s surf can create a miles long trail for navigators to follow in a moonless sky with no ambient light.   

To close the book, Lewis provides some commentary on the complexities of applying the techniques above.  He finally closes with a brief history of various groups of pacific Islands and their discovery by the western world.  Lewis does an excellent job of cataloging the technical aspects of the navigational art as well as providing the historical and some anthropological context as well.  This is best suited for those with a nautical background as Lewis writes from a sailor’s perspective. However, this book is very accessible to the layperson how has no experience on the high seas.  

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