Finding his way among the stars

We are celebrating Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month with a look at innovative Native Hawaiian master navigator, Nainoa Thompson.

Thompson is the first person since the 14th century to use traditional Polynesian navigation methods. He used ancient Hawaiian wayfinding principles and modern science to create the star compass.

What You Need To Know

  • The star compass is a mental construct of navigation that relies on the environment for direction
  • In 1980, Thompson completed a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti using the star compass method
  • Thompson got an award from His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama

Charting his life

In 1953, Thompson was born in Ohau, Hawaii. That’s where his father taught him about Polynesian voyaging.

He learned how to use natural navigation methods to travel across the ocean from Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug.

Nainoa Thompson onboard the Hokule’a. (Polynesian Voyaging Society)

The University of Hawaii graduate used those navigation skills onboard an ancient Polynesian double-hulled canoe called Hokule’a. In Hawaiian, Hokule’a means “Star of Gladness.”

He completed his first voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back in 1980. The star compass method was born for the first time.

What is the star compass

The star compass isn’t a compass at all. It’s a mental way of navigating using all natural science.

The star compass revolves around the rising and setting points of the sun, stars, moon and planets, according to the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS). It helps navigators see the horizon. All of it is based on memory.

A diagram of the star compass. (Nainoa Thompson,

The PVS explains it in this way. The compass divides the virtual horizon into 32 houses, encompassing various directions. It’s important for navigators to know how to find the stars.

Every time they use the method, navigators have to remember their speed, direction and time. Thompson says you can use the clues of the sun to help solidify your direction.

The star compass method worked for him. Between 1985 and 1987, he sailed more than 16,000 ocean miles with the Hokule’a.

A visionary navigator

Thompson is a visionary in the world of navigation and a proponent of preserving the history of Hawaiian culture. Plus, he’s also president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Nainoa Thompson talking to a group of kids. (Polynesian Voyaging Society, Aina Paikai)

There are many awards to his name. In 2015, he got Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Marine Exploration, the Hubbard Medal from National Geographic Society in 2017 and the Unsung Hero of Compassion award from His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama.

Thompson inspires the next generation of navigators through training from PVS and sailing on voyages with Hokule’a frequently. You can follow their latest voyage, here

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