Department Colloquium: "Wave Piloting in the Marshall Islands"

Wed, 04/27/2016 - 16:00
Professor John Huth (Harvard) Hosted by: Professor Joe Kroll

Of all the Pacific Island navigation cultures, the practice of wave piloting in the Marshall Islands is perhaps the most curious. Navigators observed the patterns of ocean swells to find their way among atolls and islands in outrigger canoes.  Over a century of colonial occupation stretched this tradition to near extinction. Captain Korent Joel is the only living Marshall Islander with the traditional credential of rimeto (navigator). As a means of cultural revival, Captain Korent has sought the aid of scientists to validate Marshallese navigation as articulated, and communicated via stick charts that delineate wave patterns and islands/atolls.

The physics and modeling of ocean waves is a complex multi-scale problem. Waves and swells are the product of dynamics at the interface between the atmosphere and the ocean. This, in itself, would be enough of a challenge, but the interactions with land introduces yet another order of complexity. The Marshallese navigators interpret what appear as subtle indicators of land on a ‘noisy’ background, but as the traditions died out, ambiguous and sometimes confusing statements about wave piloting emerged from elder practitioners.

I had the good fortune to participate in a revival voyage last year between the atolls of Majuro and Aur in a replica canoe, hosted by Alson Kelen, who has mastered art of traditional boat building. Three Westerners, Joe Genz (anthropologist), Gerbrant van Vledder (wave computation specialist), and I, took part in the voyage, trying to unravel Marshallese wave piloting.  This colloquium is a view into the wave piloting tradition, what I have learned thus far, and of the remaining puzzles.

David Rittenhouse Laboratory, A8
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