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SEA Currents Blog

SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans

September 14, 2015

Harvard’s John Huth Speaks on Navigation, Marshall Islands-Style

Anne Broache,

SEA Semester

Above: Sailors of the Marshall Islands traditionally use "stick charts" like this Rebbelib type (source: Library of Congress archives) to navigate among atolls and islands. Below: Class S-262 practices their cardinal direction skills with Dr. John Huth of Harvard University during his guest lecture.

One of the hallmarks of a SEA Semester education is learning to navigate the ocean by traditional methods. We don’t reject modern conveniences like GPS, but we’re strong believers in preserving time-tested approaches to understanding the world around us—a form of cultural sustainability, if you will.

Starting in the classroom and continuing on board our ships, we teach our students how the sun, stars, moon, and other celestial cues can help them locate their position on Earth and, by extension, reach their desired destinations.

And today, we hosted Harvard University Professor of Science John Huth, who presented class S-262, Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, with a detailed look at techniques used for centuries by dwellers of the remote Marshall Islands to chart paths, negotiate waves, and handle winds.

Which way is north?

The physicist’s guest lecture focused largely on “wave piloting,” in which Marshallese sailors depend upon ocean wave reflections and refractions off islands to find their way. They record this information through visual aids known as “stick charts,” built of wood and shells, which represent the locations of various islands and the ocean swells and currents found between them.

Dr. Huth, for his part, discussed how he experienced this wayfinding first-hand during a recent sailing trip in the Marshalls. Class S-262 also had the chance to see examples of these and other traditional navigation tools in person during a recent visit to Harvard’s History of Science Department.

These lessons all form important context as our students prepare to meet the SSV Robert C. Seamans in less than two weeks in American Samoa for a seven-week sailing research voyage to Samoa, Wallis, Fiji, and, finally, New Zealand.




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