Essays on the Marshallese Past

Traditional Marshallese Stickchart Navigation

Marshallese have always been noted for their navigational skill and in the past only a certain few people, either men or women, were taught the secrets of sailing and navigation. The stick charts were constructed as instructional aids for teaching to preserve knowledge. They were not taken on voyages, for all knowledge was memorised. The charts depict natural phenomena and interpret the wave and current patterns that strike the islands. Long before modern day navigational instruments were brought to the Marshallese, they travelled the ocean, maintained courses and determined positions of islands by the use of wave patterns that are depicted in the stick charts.

Very few people today understand these charts, although many people know how to make them. In fact some types of stick charts of today, particularly the two common types of the rebbelip charts, are believed by some old men to be recent introductions that were influenced by modern methods of mapping and plotting positions. The only type that was verified by several old men to be authentic was the wappepe type. There are generally three types seen today; two types of the rebbelip, and the wappepe.

Wave Navigation

In the Pacific, navigation was mainly by the position of the stars and the sun and moon (celestial navigation), and secondly by waves. The Marshall Islands stretching NNW to SSE are set at right angles to the ocean swell built up by the predominant trade winds. This orientation of the islands lends itself to navigation based on wave patterns. Wave pattern navigation can only be efficiently entertained where there is a sufficient number of islands or atolls set close enough to each other at an angle which runs predominantly perpendicular to the swell. In the Pacific Ocean there are only a few islands groups that meet these requirements, the Marshall Islands chiefly among them. Only in the Marshall Islands, however, were the stick charts developed, special implements to ensure the transmission of vital information and knowledge provided by the waves.

Figure 1. A teaching chart (mattang or wapepe)

To teach the recognition of the wave patterns at sea, young apprentices underwent practical training, and all navigators had stick charts on which the orientation and the sequence of the currents and wave patterns was marked. These stick charts were never taken out to sea, as our modern charts are, but were used a memory aids to rehearse waver pattern to be encountered, to learn the voyage plan by rote before actually setting out to sea.

While modern charts are universal and can be used to navigate from any location on the chart to any other location on or even off the chart, the Marshallese stick charts are predominantly uni-directional. They explain how to get from a given starting point to one or more target points. As the wave patterns for the return voyage are different from the patterns of the initial voyage, the charts of little use to navigate back, let alone to navigate between other islands marked on the stick chart. In the light of this, then, it is not surprising that the charts were not taken along on the voyage. The necessary knowledge would have been memorised anyway, and the chart would have been useless at any location other than the starting point. There are two types of stick charts. Let us first look at the underlying principle of wave pattern navigation, and then discuss in detail one type of stick chart, the wappepe, a teaching chart.

In the middle of the ocean, waves are set into motion and moved by the wind. These wind-generated waves, the ocean swell, have a long interval and travel in a straight line over great distances. They can change in direction, if the wind direction changes over a prolonged period of time. Changes in wind direction, which occur only for a short time, create waves which may run at angles to the swell.

In addition, there are ocean currents. While the waves travel horizontally, they move water masses mainly in a vertical fashion, and only very little in a horizontal manner. Objects drifting on the water are not displaced by waves, but by the wind generating the latter. Currents, however, move water masses in a horizontal manner, and displace object floating in or on the water. Thus currents can easily set a canoe of its intended course.

In the area of the Marshall Islands we have to deal with a number of currents, depending on the latitude we are at. In the southern Marshall Islands there is the North Equatorial Counter Current (NECC), running west to east, including the atolls as far north as Wotje, Kwajalein and Maloelap. Further north is the North Equatorial Current (NEC), running from east to west. The current pattern changes over time, depending on the season. During winter, the NECC is narrower in its width and Kwajelin, Wotje etc, are covered by the NEC.

Figure 2. Principles of Wave Pattern Navigation (for explanation see text)

Wave pattern navigation is based on the principle of reflection, deflection and refraction of waves. To understand wave pattern navigation, let us first consider a single, isolated island or atoll. If waves hit a stable object, such as an island, some waves are reflected, that is mirrored back into the direction from which they came (figure 2a). Others are deflected, send back at a different angle, at the margins of the island or atoll (figure 2b). In addition, each island creates a conical shaped zone of quiet water on the leeward side of the atoll, where the swell cannot reach to (figure 2c). The dimensions of this quiet water area depend almost entirely on the dimensions of the island or atoll blocking the path of the swell. further out on leeward side of the island there will be a zone where the refracted waves (figure 2d), coming from both sides of the island, will meet (figure 2e). This area is defined by waves coming from two directions and colliding, creating a foamy line on the ocean. These waves will then continue out from this point until they become to weak an fade away (figure 2f).

Thus, a canoe approaching the island against the direction of the swell will, when it is dead on course, encounter the wave collision point, the foam line in the sea. As the canoe comes from a zone of swell, the bow of the canoe will rock stronger than its stern. The canoe will then enter the quiet water area. All that needs to be done, is to ensure that the canoe will stay in the quiet water area and the canoe will reach the island. If the canoe approaching the island is not dead on target, it will encounter an area where the swell is crossed by refracted waves, and where both waves can be felt clearly. The stronger of the two waves, with the greater time interval is the swell, while the weaker wave with the slightly shorter interval is the refracted wave. The navigator needs to steer the canoe in the direction where the refracted wave comes from and will eventually reach the island. If the approaching canoe is so far off island that the refracted waves cannot be felt, the island will be missed.

A canoe approaching the island with the swell will encounter the zone of the reflected swell if it is dead on course. Again, the navigator needs to keep the canoe with the triangle of the reflected waves in order to reach the island. The deflection pattern of the waves on the swell-ward side of the island is similar to the refraction pattern on the leeward side. If such a deflected wave is encountered, the canoe needs to be steered in the direction the wave came from in order to reach the island.

If the approach to the island is neither with nor against the swell, but at right angles to it, then the navigation has to look out for the refracted waves coming from the island. As before, the steering needs to be done into the refracted or reflected waves. Care needs to be taken to keep the canoe within the area of the reflected or refracted waves.

The pattern becomes more complicated if we consider more than one island or atoll. While each of the islands has an approach or departure pattern very much like the one described above, there is the distance between these two approach systems, which needs to be covered.


The rebbelip, a square or rectangular shaped stick chart, illustrates sailing directions for most islands in both the Ratak (eastern) and Ralik (western) chains of the Marshall Islands. Small likajjir (money cowrie) shells are used to depict the island locations. In both types of charts, each straight stick represents a series or pattern of regular currents or waves with the curved sticks depicting the swells refracted by the surrounding reefs of the individual islands.

Wappepe *)

The wapepe, a small square-shaped stick chart, is a small type of chart which shows the wave patterns that are common around all atolls. The story behind the wappepe is that it was originally brought to the Marshallese from Woleai Atoll, in Yap District of the Caroline Islands, when a boat from Woleai was lost at sea and drifted to an island in the Marshalls. The people landed, or were taken by the iroijs (chiefs) of the Marshall Islands to Kili Island where normally no people lived. All the people on the boat were killed except for two brothers. The older brother, was taken to Ebon, and he lived thee until he died, but he never had any children. The younger brother went to Lae and had one son, Tarmelu, by a Marshallese woman. After his father died, Tarmelu sailed to Ebon to see his father's older brother, and during this visit he learned about the wappepe from his uncle. Tarmelu returned to Lae and taught the people how to use the wappepe. So today it is said that the wappepe came from Lae for this is where the Marshallese people first learned of it. Regardless of the availability of the stick charts to learn and study the ocean, the Marshallese have always been able to sail by watching and feeling the movements of the ocean currents and waves, and by using the stars as guides to plot positions. A few older men still know how to use the wappepe, but it is dying out. Several people, though, know how to make it without understanding its meaning.

From studying the wappepe the basic currents and wave patterns can be learned. Before sailing, the sailors know in what direction lies the new island. If they are sailing from south to north then they watch for the main currents from the east and west. Within the first few miles of leaving, the currents are watched carefully to see which one is moving faster. For example, if the current from the east is moving faster than the western current then the boat is sailed in a more north easterly direction to compensate for the pull of the easterly current.

When leaving an island, the same wave and current patterns are encountered as when approaching an island, but only the wave and current patterns of the approaching island are closely watched. For example, using the illustration, if a boat sailed from the island in the south, the boat would first encounter the jukae (first zone of currents-nearest an island), then dibukae (second zone of currents), and last jejelatae (third zone of currents - farthest away from an island).

Explanation of a wapepe (see text).

All three of these waves together are called no in alikin bar (waves that come after the reef). As the boat proceeds north it will encounter the place where the aeto (current from the east) and aetak (current from the west) meet. At this point the boat will roll back and forth from front to back with a harder roll to the back of the boat then the front. The type of ocean at this point is called limaajnono which means choppy seas. Then the boat continues northward and the captain constantly makes sure they do not cross over the aeto (current from the east) or aetak (current from the west) which would mean they were off course.

Next the hits the aelokean (current from the north) and then is again in calmer water where the boat mainly rocks from side to side. Then the aelokrak (current from the south) is encountered.

At this point very close attention is given to the waves, for the people in the boat know they are now beginning to approach the new island although it is still very far away. The boat proceeds north and hits the place where again the aetak and aeto meet. At this point the boat rolls back and forth with the front roll of the boat being the strongest, for again the ocean is limaajnono (choppy). This signals that the island is getting close. When the jejelatae (third zone of currents) is encountered the people know they are on course and the island is nearby. Usually the island is visible by the time the dibukae (second zone of currents) is hit. Then the jukae (first zone of currents) appears and the island is very near. There is also a type of wave called dilep which the boat follows when leaving the island until arriving at the new island. All these currents can be seen and felt by experienced sailors. Many Marshallese sailors could lie in the bottom of a canoe and sail by the feel of the waves and currents. Today many of the older men and a few women can sail in this manner but since few tipnols (sailing canoe) and walaps (large sailing canoe) exist anymore, sailing between atolls is becoming rare.

*) The bulk of this section is courtesy of:
Curtis, Carol (1986) Handcrafts of the Marshall Islands. Typescript. Majuro: Museum of the Marshall Islands.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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