Chad Kalepa Baybayan, a revered Hawaiian seafarer who was a torchbearer for the art of “wayfinding,” which ancestral Polynesian sailors used to navigate the Pacific Ocean by studying the stars, trade winds and flight patterns of birds, died on April 8 at a friend’s home in Seattle. He was 64.
His daughter Kala Tanaka said the cause was a heart attack. He suffered from diabetes and had had a quadruple bypass over a year ago.
Many centuries ago, oceanic tribes sailed the waters between the islands and atolls of Polynesia in double-hulled canoes. They plotted their course by consulting the directions concealed within sunrises and sunsets, ocean swells, the behaviors of fish and the reflections of land in clouds. As Polynesia was colonized and modernized, the secrets of celestial navigation were nearly forgotten.
Mr. Baybayan (pronounced “bay-BAY-an”) was a teenager when he joined the crew of the fabled Hokule’a (“Star of Gladness”), a voyaging canoe in which he learned to become a wayfinder under the tutelage of the Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug.
At the time, traditional Hawaiian culture was in peril. Usage of the native language was declining, sacred lands were being desecrated and fewer ceremonies were being held. In 1973 the Polynesian Voyaging Society was formed in hopes of preserving the region’s seafaring heritage, and it built Hokule’a, a replica of an ancient deep-sea voyaging canoe.
In 1976, the vessel embarked on a historic trip from Hawaii to Tahiti without the aid of navigational tools, in what was intended as a display of wayfinding’s technical sophistication. The trip, which was led by Mr. Piailug and documented by National Geographic, also sought to disprove theories that Polynesia was settled accidentally by hapless sailors lost in an aimless drift. (Mr. Baybayan was too young to go on that famous voyage, although he served ceremonial drinks made from awa root to his crewmates before their departure.)
When Hokule’a finally made landfall in Tahiti, thousands of people had gathered on shore to greet the canoe, and the occasion was declared an island-wide celebration. The voyage’s success galvanized a revival of native culture, known as the Hawaiian renaissance, that included a celebration of slack-key guitar music and the hula.
told National Geographic in 2014, “I will never be a ‘master’ because there will always be more to learn.”
“What it truly does is sharpen the human mind, intellect and ability to decipher codes in the environment,” he added. “It’s also incredibly rewarding to navigate and make a distant landfall. For me, it’s the most euphoric feeling that I have ever felt.”