Marvin Creamer, Dies at 104, Circumnavigated Without Navigational Instruments

On one occasion they sat, becalmed, bothered and bewildered, until his geographer’s ears came to their aid. As the wind started up again, a crew member happened to open a hatch. It emitted a loud squeak.

That sound told Professor Creamer unequivocally in which direction the boat was facing: Only dry air from the Antarctic, he knew, would have caused it. Moist air from the opposite direction would have lubricated the hatch, yielding a more congenial noise.


He called at Whangarei, New Zealand.

Mr. Creamer is receiving much adulation in some maritime circles, for his accomplishment. In his many interviews, he refers to “the ancients” as early as 1978 (remember that date) and how he was amazed they sailed around without any navigational instruments. Not once in this NYT article or in any other reference I can find associated with him, does the accomplishment of the #HOKULEA even come up or mentioned. I have always been stunned by how the academic community has almost purposely overlooked the first voyages of the #Hokulea and the efforts of the #PVS in ensuing years. It’s purely speculation on my part, but I wonder if he knew of the Hokulea voyage two years before he committed to his own adventure. It would seem that was the catalyst for his endeavor.

I appreciate that he sailed around the world and that is distinctly different than a Pacific Basin round trip. I’m not taking anything away from his remarkable accomplishment. But I have always wondered … When will Historians see the first 1976 Voyage of the Hokulea for what it was? That trip was an amazing real-time demonstration of the human brain to conceptualize something very abstract, keep it recorded with respect to time, distance, speed, and to be able to use an abstract picture only seen in the mind of one individual (the Navigator, Mau) and deliver the canoe to a specific location thousands of miles away, 30+ days later. And knew ALL along the way, exactly where he was in ‘reference’ to his mental track line and his actual location. Making landfall in the middle of the ocean that is nothing more than a flat low lying beach that can hardly be seen from even just a few miles away, as any navigator can appreciate, is an amazing accomplishment.

It saddens me that most people in the world have little appreciation for what Polynesian Navigators accomplished. They must have sailed thousands of voyages that we will never know of, all across the Pacific Ocean Basin, from one island group just over the horizon to another island group several weeks away. They were all done without any navigational instruments. They were doing this for generations before the European explorers even entered into the waters of the Pacific Ocean during the early stages of western discovery. These gifted Polynesian men that obtained the wisdom and experience should be celebrated for who they were and what they (amazingly) accomplished. Routinely.

For those who don’t know or wish to learn more, start here:


Being a New Zealander I’m well aware of the ability of the early Polynesian navigators and their migration from present day Taiwan through in a great arc through Hawaii, Tahiti, Easter island, Cook Islands and down to New Zealand.
Marvin Creamer would have been well aware of this as well as the fact that the Orkney Islands and the Shetland islands were settled as early as 3000 BC. We have much to learn yet but if you don’t have any pressure to leave there is no pressure to retain the knowledge that makes trans oceanic voyages possible. The Maori over generations lost that skill.
Looking at the weather in the Orkneys today it must have been a lot warmer 5000 years ago.

Well said.

Edwin Hutchins has a paper on this almost incredible human ability.


Reading that Hitchens paper it’s description how people reason is very similar to the book The Enigma of Reason.

No coincidence that In both that book and the paper Watson’s four-card is mentioned.


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My wife is Micronesian, and her navigation skills have been lost. . . . .


I was telling someone a story about the time I lost track of where I parked in Portland (Maine ) one day. They laughed and asked how could I navigate at sea if I couldn’t get around town without getting lost.

My son was there and he had made a short transit with me one time. My son says “There’s a compass in the wheelhouse and it’s about this big” (holds his hands about a foot apart). “He (meaning me) always stands next to it.”

From the paper - the compass rose is where the action is.


I had an ex-girlfriend ask the same when I couldn’t find my car in lower Manhattan (where streets aren’t in a grid, and have names, not numbers). It would have taken less time and less walking around if it was in Portland (where I lived at the time).

On the other hand, I was taking a friend on his first multi-pitch rock climb on Cathedral Ledge in NH. I seriously underestimated how gripped he’d be and it took much longer than I planned. It was near dark by the time we got to the top, and we lost the trail on the way down. He too was questioning my at sea navigation skills, when we popped out of the woods, right in front of my car. I don’t think he was buying it when I said “I knew a shortcut.”

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When I’m walking about, day, night, sunny, overcast it doesn’t matter, I always seem to have a very good sense of direction. But if I go underground I’m screwed big time! I wouldn’t have made it as a miner!

A ship pilot conning a ship by eye can navigate just by using his senses. The same way we make our way to the kitchen for another cup of coffee. Call it method 1.

The ship’s mate by contrast creates an abstract version of the real world by taking measurements (bearing and ranges) and plotting on the chart, navigation using a series of steps to create a representation of the real world. This simplifies the problem (fix plots right of track, alter course to port etc). Call it method 2,

The Western celestial navigator uses method 2 in the open ocean. Takes measurements, the altitude of celestial objects and likewise uses a series of steps to plot on a chart creating a simplified representation of the real world.

By contrast the Polynesian Navigators were using method 1 in the open ocean, using their senses with no abstract plot.

From Hitchens


Yes, exactly.

Not to rub the old Navy guys the wrong way, but it’s a similar comparison. Onboard Navy ships (of all types and nationalities) I’ve seen many times the 20+ person bridge navigate their way into a confined harbor by screaming info at a poor slob standing at the forward centerline window (the OOD) as he stood there with a pair of 20lbs binoculars dangling from his neck, with his white knuckled hands gripping the rail he was leaning against, and wondering ‘what will I do next?’ These people amazingly get around most of the time just fine in spite of themselves. The grounding barely outside of Pearl Harbor of the PORT ROYAL is the poster child incident that proves, the Navy style has much to be improved upon.

Contrast that environment with a civilian ship with maybe 5, sometimes 6 people on the bridge while in transit thru pilotage waters (I’m being generous with that count), maybe in inclement weather, fog, traffic, etc. And they get there to their destination just the same.

Now that the NTSB has released their findings on the infamous McCAIN and FITZGERALD accidents, one would hope that the Pentagon leadership would simply “consider” a review of their standing procedures and be willing or open to seeing what other possibilities there are for improving the safety of our ships and their crews.

But I think the divide between civilian mariners and the Navy navigation is much the same as the Micronesian navigators versus what western navigators thought was possible. What the Micronesians did successfully ws inconceivable to early western explorers. Even today the academic community can hardly explain how they did what they did.

The US Navy leadership at the Pentagon will never embark down a path that they have no confidence that they can manage the outcome. And therein lies the real tragedy.

An unwillingness to learn and improve.

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The scene on the bridge of a US warship is not the same as warships of other nationalities.
As navigator I occupied the compass platform and in clear weather conned the ship armed with my notebook. The only time we ever took a pilot was the Suez and Panama Canals. The commanding officer sat alongside me in the only chair on the bridge. The wheelhouse was below the bridge and wheel orders were by voice pipe. The OOW ran the routine. Two ratings, one manning the public address and the other visual signals, with the Chief Yeoman (senior rating for tactical signals) hovering in the vicinity. The CIR was manned by an officer and radar plot ratings who followed an identical passage plan prepared by me as well as collision avoidance.
The CO took the conn just off the berth.

Could you elaborate please?

Your describing manning on the bridge of … what?
A US Navy ship? A foreign ship? If foreign what flag or nationality? “Voice tubes”?? What time frame are you talking about? What years were you serving at sea? How many people

Are you American? Other nationality? You’ve left big gaps in your description that beg for clarity.

Obviously it appears you are describing your personal experience on a vessel. Have you worked aboard numerous vessels of various nationalities?

My comments are based on personal first hand experience as a pilot aboard Canadian, French, Japanese, and New Zealand flag Naval ships. In addition, I’ve piloted many USCG vessels and US Navy ships in Harbors I work at. I’ve also observed as a pilot at Pearl Harbor Navy Base aboard more US Navy ships than I can remember.

If your experience is different than my own, I would appreciate clarifying that.

You may of gathered I was talking about a warship, a Royal New Zealand Navy warship to be precise. We were frequent callers to Pearl Harbour when I was in the Navy. I left the service in 1971 and went to sea in the Merchant Navy.
I have spent 55 years at sea and a great deal of that in command and held certificates of pilotage exemption for a number of ports.I have a box full of seamen’s books. I have sailed with many nationalities and at one time had 14 different nationalities among the crew.
I have traded to US West Coast Ports, ports in Asia, India, Europe and South America including up the Amazon to Manaus
Apart from that I’m still learning.

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I should mention that I retired 6 years ago.

Got it.

So to be clear, you have sailed aboard British Admiralty Naval ships that you left back in 1971. Then moved on to civilian seafaring.

Your comment to me originally was: “The scene on the bridge of a US warship is not the same as warships of other nationalities.”

Sailing WITH foreigners and on foreign ships (From my American perspective) is not the same as sailing on BOTH Navy ships under the US flag and Navy ships of numerous other nationalities. It’s a subtle difference but underscores my original comment.

I have stood on the bridge of Navy ships under the US flag, your British Admiralty, and others as well. The common denominator of ALL of them is the number of bodies on the bridge, out on the wings, and up top. The bottom line is, as you yourself have seen in civilian service. there are far more people on the bridge of a warship … ANY warship … then a civilian vessel.

Are they ALL needed? My perspective (also as an ex-Naval reserve officer) is no, NOT ALWAYS. During routine transits in peacetime through pilotage waters (and maybe coastwise) the Navy should consider a modified approach to manning. Also, the career path of SWO is getting in the way of training good deck officers (and others) than can confidently navigate his/her way through the “very routine” traffic found in Singapore Straits and approaches to Tokyo Wan. Moving people around through various billets getting exposed to different things all the time while not getting really good at any one thing is a big mistake, in my humble opinion. Officers should be groomed to continue where they want to be or where they show excellence. Moving them through various jobs like on a chessboard is the foundation of failure.

The CO of a Navy ship should not have to lie in bed at night wondering if the people on the bridge have the capacity to safely navigate on their own through water other mariners would consider, “just another watch at sea”

Your points are well made. I have been amazed that USN officers can be in the engineering department in one ship and on deck in the next and they have in the main been able to do the job.

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Or maybe just logging progress reports passed up from ratings.

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What truly frustrated me was seeing really great officers all around me, that were unhappy with their “assignment” but kept their head down because they were more focused on their long term career path and earning points, than they were on excelling at a specific job.

I NEVER fault the men and women that choose to serve. They are the best of the best. But our military leadership is to blame for not really taking an interest in basic self-evaluation or improvement.

“Are we really doing our absolute best?” is a question nobody at the Pentagon ever seems to ask themselves. At least not from what I’ve seen.