Coastal Navigation

KUKUI O’OLOPU: Steering points

Kukui: light (figuratively) guide

O’olopu: to change as in appearance

When traveling from one point to another along a coast or to another island that is visible from the point of departure  the Ho’okele uses a variety of orientation points to keep the canoe on course. As the name implies, Kukui o’olopu are not necessarily stationary marks but reference points that are transitional. Kukui o’olopu can consist of landmarks such as a point of land, notch on a mountain top, a hill, or a dark spot on the landscape. They can be a unique cloud shape on the horizon or the position of the rising sun, moon, or stars.​​​​​​​​​


Kukui o’olopu are not restricted to being located at the front of the canoe or precisely in the direction the Ho’okele is desiring to go. They can be located off to the side and even behind the canoe. Usually Kukui o’olopu are used in “clusters” where the Ho’okele uses the relational space between the various points to keep oriented.



It is important to note that when steering a canoe, the shortest distance between the departure and destination points is not always a straight line. Winds, currents, reefs, the direction of ocean swells may all cause a straight course to be the worst course. In fact, keeping a canoe perfectly aligned on any one guide point is extremely difficult if not impossible to do. It is also possible to go off course if the Ho’okele becomes overly fixed on a single landmark or cluster of guide points. (Nana kuli / Hahai ao)

The Ho’okele strives to keep the canoe going in the general direction of the desired destination while making the minimum amount of abrupt turns or drastic course changes to keep on course. Course corrections, in general, should be gradual. It is important that the ho’okele not be transfixed to any single waypoint but continuously be on the lookout for replacement kukui o’olopu as the canoe’s progress makes the original guiding points ineffective or obsolete.

The critical element in keeping a canoe on course is always knowing the direction at which the point of departure is located. The point of departure serves as the basic reference point upon which all future kukui o’olopu derive their usefulness.

Aweawe: wake

The wake of the canoe while underway is very useful in measuring side drift of the canoe caused by wind and or currents. It also helps a Ho’okele judge how straight a course is being kept. The Aweawe is a very important Kukui o’olopu in judging progress and in maintaining a consistent course direction.

Dangers when using Kukui o’olopu:

Nana kuli: To look but pay no attention

Nana: To look Kuli: Deaf

When steering toward a dominant guide point the steersman keeps the canoe directly lined up on the point without noticing if the wind or current is pushing the canoe sideways. If gone undetected the canoe could drift past the guide point while still being pointed directly toward the guide point.

Hahai ao: Chasing a cloud

Hahai: To follow Ao: Cloud

Steering guide points like cloud formations or the sun, moon or stars are very effective in keeping a canoe on course. However, the steersman must always consider that these guides move. If overly fixed on these guide points and not aware that they have drifted off or moved from the original position when first identified, the steersman could very well end up steering in circles.

Star Navigation uses similar concepts of keeping oriented but is much more complex in using the rising and setting points of stars along the horizon in determining course and direction and is beyond our ability to explain.

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