'My skills were once seen as magical powers' – the secrets of a traditional ocean navigator

Lauren Ho
Tua Pittman has honed his skills during 30 years at sea - Seabourn

For someone who grew up in awe of the ocean, it’s remarkable to think that Tua Pittman has spent the past 30 years at sea as a traditional navigator. 

Ensconced in a cosy leather armchair in a corner of the walnut-lined living room on board the luxury cruise ship, Seabourn Encore, Pittman recounts the moment that set him on an extraordinary career path: “One year, when I was about 19, a canoe that was sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti stopped in the Cook Islands. Stories about these ancient voyaging canoes have always fascinated me, and after making friends with the crew I accepted an invitation to join them as a member. 

“My first voyage was tough, but the satisfaction I got from this 10-day sailing adventure captured my heart and I didn’t look back.”

He didn’t have the easiest of introductions to a life at sea. “When I was five, my father and grandfather went fishing and were washed away by a rogue wave,” explains Pittman in a mellow baritone. “But I knew the only way to combat my fears was to face them head on.”

Using just the stars and the moon for guidance, traditional navigation has been practised by Pacific islanders for thousands of years. Passed on orally from master to apprentice, this ancient art form has had a comeback in recent years thanks to Pittman – now a Master Navigator himself – and a few others who are at the forefront of a movement to revive traditional voyaging in the Pacific. 

Oahu, Hawaii where Tua spends part of his time Credit: Getty

“It’s partly to do with the younger generation all flying off to the bright lights of the city,” says Pittman, on why traditional navigation started to die out. “People with these skills were seen to have magical powers. As a result, the art was shrouded in secrecy and only kept within that family, who took it to the grave with them.”

One of just 15 or so Master Navigators in the world, Pittman’s path took a turn during the 1980s, when the Honolulu-based Polynesian Voyaging Society – in a bid to revive traditional voyaging skills – tasked Micronesian Grand Master Mau Pialug to sail from Hawaii to Tahiti on Hōkūle’a, a replica of a traditional double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe. “They wanted the sailing to be done as traditionally as possible,” explains Pittman. “So they got Mau on board and I was fortunate to be one of his students.”

Once under the Grand Master’s wing, Pittman spent years at sea learning, practising and re-practising Pialug’s teachings. 

“You have to do the time,” he says earnestly. “You have to spend time at sea learning the different stars: where they rise from, where they set. And you have to show you are capable of taking command of a canoe with a crew of up to 16.”

Seabourn Encore

This continued until one day Pialug summoned each of his 12 students to his home on the Micronesian island of Satawal to be inducted as Pwo navigators in an ancient ceremony. 

“We were held under taboo in the canoe house,” says Pittman, “where we spent a couple of days participating in smoke rituals and drinking various potions – including sacred coconut from different trees – while the island people chanted outside. It was very special.”

Pialug sadly passed away a couple of years later, but in handing over his knowledge, Pittman and his fellow Master Navigators can now each mentor their own apprentices to induct them to also be leaders in this ancient art. And while it’s certainly a slow process – since then, only one more person has been initiated – Pittman is confident that traditional Polynesian navigation has a strong future. 

Auckland, one of the places Tua spends his time when not at sea Credit: Getty

These days, when he’s not at sea, Pittman spends his time hopping between his childhood home – where his mother still lives – in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands; Auckland, where his four children are at university; and Oahu in Hawaii. When he is at sea, he is on board ships, giving lectures about traditional navigation and the Pacific Island culture. 

“There’s a lot of interest in early Pacific migration and I like to be able to share my knowledge,” he says. “I also lead zodiac excursions to teach people about our specific environment.” 

And then, of course, he continues to participate in landmark traditional navigational voyages to train the next generation and spread the word about this ancient art. Clearly no longer afraid of the sea, he chuckles wistfully and says: “My home is now the ocean.”

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