Connecting the Dots…

Before you continue to the text below the image, study the image and take a shot at guessing what it is.


Frost Science Museum


Last week I was visiting the family of one of my daughters. She, her husband, and their brand new baby girl live in Boca Raton, Florida, about an hour north of Miami. Each time I visit, she’ll have a new and interesting museum or other attraction for me to pop in while I’m in the area. One of them was the Frost Science Museum, a new facility near downtown Miami. We spent the afternoon there, navigating our way around four floors worth of a broad variety of exhibits. At one point, we were traveling down a spiral walkway whose walls were covered with artifacts related to the oceans.

The object in the image above caught my eye. I shot the photo, then tried to imagine what it was or represented. I guessed. Then I read the associated museum caption.

Marshall Islands Stick Chart

Stick charts were made and used by the Marshallese to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe off the coast of the Marshall Islands. The charts represented major ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupted those patterns, typically determined by sensing disruptions in ocean swells by islands during sea navigation.

Most stick charts were made from the midribs of coconut fronds that were tied together to form an open framework. Island locations were represented by shells tied to the framework, or by the lashed junction of two or more sticks. The threads represented prevailing ocean surface wave-crests and directions they took as they approached islands and met other similar wave-crests formed by the ebb and flow of breakers.

Individual charts varied so much in form and interpretation that the individual navigator who made the chart was the only person who could fully interpret and use it. The use of stick charts ended after World War II when new electronic technologies made navigation more accessible and travel among islands by canoe lessened.

Meddo Charts

The meddo chart showed actual islands and their relative or exact positions. Meddo charts also showed the direction of main deep ocean swells, the way the swells curved around specific islands and intersected with one another, and distance from a canoe at which an island could be detected. The meddo chart portrayed only a section of one of the two main island chains.

It’s a map. Connecting the dots. It was a way for someone, another human, to envision how the dots were connected, and how one could use that information to get from one dot to another.

Fenn has more than once said that the poem is a map. Maybe all you need to do is connect the dots.

Connecting the Dots


Here’s the museum’s photo of the same stick chart.

Frost Museum Stick Chart


And, here’s a great article on the subject from a 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine: The Secrets of the Wave Pilots

6 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots…

  1. Traditional Polynesian navigation has long fascinated me also. Toby, I’m sure you are aware of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and their recently completed circumnavigation of the earth using no modern instruments – Only the waves, the wind, and the stars. There is an excellent book by Sam Low, Hawaiki Rising, detailing how they re-learned the ancient techniques and learned to build and sail Polynesian double-hulled canoes. And Toby, you’ve been holding out on us – How long have you had that map to the treasure, ha, ha!

  2. Btw, take a look at wave refraction in satellite imagery…it is fascinating when you begin to understand using it for navigational purposes. 🙂

  3. I love that you have written about this! I stayed in the marshall islands multiple times as a freind of mine was there for a couple years specifically studying their navigational history and techniques. He had to learn the language and gain their trust. I was lucky enough to have taken part in a few sailing ventures into the inner atoll. The sailing history of the pacific peoples is extraordinary!

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