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Wayfinding with the Polynesian Voyaging Society

SEPT 2018 | By Hye Jung Kim, COO Education Incubator, HI

“Time for our watch!” my watch captain shouts down the hatch to wake me up. It’s a little bit before 2am. Our 10pm-2am watch is up on deck, the rest of us sleeping until our shift comes. Trying to stand steady without falling, I put on two more layers of clothing in the dark. I stumble across the rocking deck half asleep towards the stern of the (traditional Polynesian sailing canoe) and stand next to my fellow apprentice navigators, Matatini and Kalani.

“How was your watch? Were you able to check heading?” I ask.

“One hundred percent cloud coverage again so we’re using the swells,” Kalani responded. Doubt creeps in my head as I try my best to read the ever-so-gentle swells. (When the swells are small and you can’t see or feel the direction they’re coming from, navigation gets harder.)

The responsibility of navigation has put weight on my shoulders. We left Honolulu, Hawaiʻi as a crew of thirteen to sail to San Francisco, California on the Hikianalia on August 18, 2018 practicing non-instrument navigation under the guidance of Captain Lehua Kamalu as a voyage of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS). The goals of this voyage were to strengthen the identity of the Hikianalia and highlight the relationship between navigation and nature.

Tamiko, Matatini, Kalani, and I were selected to serve as a team of apprentice navigators under Captain Lehua. We trained extensively leading up to our departure, but on the open sea I was in constant self-doubt…would we be able to do this? Did I know enough? What were they thinking when they picked me? What if I messed up?

The world was able to follow our voyage thanks to a tracking device we carried onboard. But the thirteen of us on the relied solely on me, Tamiko, Matatini, and Kalani under the guidance of Captain and Lead Navigator Lehua to know our location during the trip.

Ten days into the voyage, we had run into a big problem: 100% cloud cover. Watch after watch, the four of us had been working our shifts without the ability to check our latitude, a critical part of knowing where we were going. We hadn’t been able to perform a latitude check for days…during this period we couldn’t even see the sun rise or set to confirm our heading.

Nature was challenging us. We were being asked to have faith in our abilities to keep the course with no visible reassurances that we were on the right track.

Back on the deck of the , I stared out at the cloud-covered sky, hoping to see something, hoping for the skies clear even for a minute to let us check our position.

Before every voyage with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, we prepare to be changed by the experience. We never know how or what will cause the change, but we expect it to happen each time. There’s something about voyaging and wayfinding that fundamentally shifts something inside. The experience fosters a series of deeper connections: between you and the , with nature that surrounds you, and with your crewmates.

Day by day, we adjusted our watch system and our communication as a team. We asked Lehua, our captain, endless questions. But she never answered us directly, no matter how many times we sought her confirmation.

Lehua is a very skilled teacher; she allowed us to make decisions for ourselves, never once stepping in to tell us where we were. It was very hard to read her; she questioned us no matter what. Her inscrutability never stopped feeling uncomfortable; we’ve been trained to fear being wrong, always checking the answers in the back of the book. But in the absence of the confirmation we desperately sought, our confidence grew and our team of four apprentice navigators relied heavily on each other.

On the eleventh day of zero visibility, we were preparing for dinner and looked up to a very welcome sight: the setting sun. We were grateful and relieved. I looked around and saw the smiling faces of every crew member. After having no opportunity to check our latitude and heading for so long, we understood that these opportunities are sacred. When we completed our latitude fix, we found out that we were at 39 degrees north. Our destination was at 38 degrees north; not bad!

When we made landfall in California, we learned something about our voyage that will stay with me forever. It came to light that the president of PVS had been worried about the apprentice navigation team during that cloud-covered time. Desiring to protect us and concerned we might fail, he wanted to give us our bearings to help us reset our navigation course. But our captain, Lehua, fought to keep the learning space for us.

The easy choice would have been to give in to the pressure and reset us, guaranteeing our success. Instead, our captain advocated for the more difficult path — buying us more time to read nature to find the answer ourselves. She knew all that was at stake, but recognized the value of this experience as a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity. More importantly, she trusted us to figure it out. I tear up each time I recount this part of our trip.

Just as I suspected, my time aboard the Hikianalia did change me. I returned to my day-to-day life as an educator committed to holding a space for my students that allows them learn and grow by making their decisions. I was able to learn and grow because someone held that learning space for me. Now it’s my turn to pay that gift forward, even when I see my students struggling and questioning themselves.

In my life as an educator, I keep this lesson in my mind, especially when I teach the Project Wayfinder curriculum — an experiential curriculum that helps young people develop and a their unique sense of purpose through a combination of mindfulness practices, socio-emotional learning exercises, design thinking projects, and twenty first century skill-building exercises. The Wayfinder curriculum that takes me and my students on a metaphoric journey through the natural world. In fact, the curriculum bases many of its metaphors on the traditional wayfinding methods practiced by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and enjoys a close partnership with PVS to this day.

To me, the Project Wayfinder curriculum has become a deep ocean voyaging canoe that carries my crew of students out to sea , fundamentally transforming us, despite the fact that it all takes place in a land-bound classroom setting. Although we don’t get out on the open ocean, I’ve nonetheless seen transform students as radically as my time on the transformed me.

Over the course of our numerous lessons or “voyages” throughout the school year, my students and I put trust in those who are practicing, learning and growing. There are days when each of us are stretched further than we ever knew we could be on a journey that helps us find places we never thought we could go. Some days are more difficult than others, but we carry each other in sacred space, learning that we are all interrelated, helping each other chart the course to our ultimate destinations, even on the days when there’s 100% cloud cover.

Learn more about Project Wayfinder’s Curriculum at projecwayfinder.com



Designed at Stanford University’s d.school, our curriculum uses a wayfinding metaphor to equip our next generation with tools to unleash purpose in their lives and meaningfully contribute to the world they are a part of.

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