Marshallese have always been noted for their navigational skills and in the past only a certain few people, either men or women, were even 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 memorized. 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 traveled 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. The word wapepe literally means a canoe that is floating on the water.
Rebellip — Square or Rectangular Shaped Stick Charts
The rebbelip illustrates sailing directions for most islands in both the Ratak (eastern) and Rālik (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 — Small Square-Shaped Stick Chart
This 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 Marshall Islands from Woleai Atoll, located in Yap State which is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. A large outrigger canoe from Woleai was lost at sea and drifted to an island in the Marshalls. The people landed, or were taken by the iroojs (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 there 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 canoe 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). All three of these waves together are called no in ālikin 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 than to 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 canoe hits the aelokean̄ (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 canoe 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 very few men and even fewer women can sail in this manner, and since few tipn̄ōl canoes (sailing canoe) and walap canoes (large sailing canoe) exist anymore, sailing between atolls has basically stopped.