Catherine Fuller works on one
of the Hokule‘a's hulls
As a directional aid, the canoe is divided into thirty-two sections of the star compass, which are marked by bright strips of tape. Navigators learn approximately 100 to 150 stars, and they know where those stars rise and set. They might use fifteen a night, noting the stars’ sequential ascents, like twinkling stepping-stones across the dark sky. Daytime is much more challenging. Navigators can use the rising sun’s path on the ocean to figure out their orientation, but after the sun reaches overhead and its path disappears, they must also use whatever is at hand: waves, tradewinds, clouds, birds.
“Navigators have to be able to make a decision and be okay with it,” explains Catherine Fuller to a group of students visiting the Hokule‘a from Iolani School, where Catherine teaches social studies to sixth graders. She exudes a casual calmness that belies the huge importance of her job at sea. Like her fellow female navigators, she is modest to no end.
Catherine first became involved with Hokule‘a in 1993, after making the acquaintance of master navigator Nainoa Thompson, who paddled for her canoe club, Hui Nalu. Thompson was taught to sail by the stars by Micronesian voyager Mau Piailug, the grandmaster who reintroduced the technique to Hawai‘i voyagers during Hokule‘a’s maiden sail in 1976. Thompson has since tailored the method and taught it to select apprentices.
Wearing sunglasses, board shorts and a water-resistant top—standard issue for time at sea under the unrelenting sun—Catherine’s bronzed skin glistens with sunscreen as she walks around the canoe’s deck, describing what life at sea is like.
“Your personal space shrinks,” the thirty-eight-year-old crewwoman says, explaining that all of your belongings must fit into a twelve-gallon cooler. Downtime is spent writing in journals, playing music, doing arts and crafts, reading books, doing laundry when it rains, eating and hanging out. Catherine reminisces about playing poker with M&Ms; chocolate, she says, is like gold on the canoe.
The navigators also try to sleep as much as possible whenever they're off watch. The crew’s quarters are tight, with five shared six-foot long, head-to-toe compartments along each side of the canoe. “Trying to find the most comfortable sleeping position almost becomes an art,” Catherine laughs.