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Navigation

This week's Arts and Culture card from Conquest of Paradise is a card that I should have described a long time ago: the Navigation Card. But I have been avoiding the subject; not because I have nothing to say, but because there is way too much to say! The topic is so extensive and interesting, I could write a book about it. In fact, the book has already been written: We, The Navigators by David Lewis. Written in 1975, it changed the way people thought about the Polynesians- and even changed the way they thought about themselves.

When European scientists first encountered the huge expanse of ocean that had been populated by the Polynesians, most assumed that the islands had been discovered by random, storm blown voyages and luck. Thor Heyerdahl even launched his Kon-Tiki to show that random, drift-with-the-wind voyaging was possible. This assumption betrays a breathtaking lack of respect for the abilities of Polynesian seafarers.

At the heart of Conquest of Paradise is the assumption that Polynesia was explored by deliberate expeditions led by talented navigators who minimized the risks they were willing to take. With the steady trade wind blowing across the Pacific, the safest way to explore is to wait for contrary winds, and then head into the unknown against the prevailing winds. That way, when the winds inevitably change back, one simply hoists sail, and runs with the wind home. This nearly guarantees a safe return home for an experienced seafarer.

The Polynesians were intimately familiar with the stars, and would note the rising and setting points of various major stars and constellations. They would use this knowledge to maintain a steady course at night. In daylight, they could set their course by the sun. They could even sense the patterns of the ocean swells as their boat sailed the waves, and use this knowledge to set a course, as well.

But how would they find a tiny speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean? To a Polynesian navigator, an island was not a tiny speck. Depending on the height of the tallest mountains on the island, it could be seen, at most, a few dozen miles out to sea. But the navigators could recognize certain cloud formations that can only exist above land- this extends an island's visibility one hundred miles out to sea. They would also recognize species of sea birds that they knew always nested on land at night; these birds would go fishing up to two hundred miles out. If a navigator spotted one of these birds in the open ocean, he'd wait until the bird flew home at the end of the day- and follow him to an island. That island might be a lucrative paradise, occupied by nothing but sea birds- until now!

The illustration on the Navigation card shows a Wa'a Kaulua, sleek Hawaiian canoes "well calculated for speed." In game terms, the owner of the Navigation card is assumed to have been the first to develop one of the aspects of Polynesian navigation, and have an advantage over his opponents. This gives the player one Victory Point, and an advantage in the Exploration Step of the game.


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