If you can read the ocean, you’ll never be lost.
                                                            — Mau Piailug*

Navigation may be defined as the science of managing the route of a ship, or kayak in our case, in a systematic manner from here to there. It’s a matter of position, distance and direction while avoiding natural hazards. There are many articles and books about the knowledge or science required for navigation, this will be not one of them. I would like to make an argument for the wider scope of wayfinding. It is the art or profound skill that add to safe seafaring and at the same time will connect you on a deeper level with nature and your surroundings. This article is about the difference between the art and the science side of navigation and my journey of shifting towards a better balance.

Modern navigation in a way is a specific subset of wayfinding, where wayfinding is all the means people use to find their way around in the environment. But let me define my idea of this modern westernised navigation concept first; it is all very objective, where, we use compass, clocks and, more recently, global positioning system (GPS), in combination with nautical charts, tidal atlases and tide tables. In essence, we created an abstract concept of the world around us, in numbers, shapes and coordinates to journey around in a real one.

This is a relatively recent concept, only from the 15th or 16th century onwards, where seafaring might be as old as 55,000 years. There has always been an ocean separating Asia and Australia and Australia’s oldest archaeological site is dated in that timeframe. In the Scottish history, we see evidence of extensive seafaring skills from before this modern navigation era. Think of Saint Columba and Saint Brendan for example, both well-known sailing abbots. I just finished reading “The Brendan Voyage” by Tim Severin, who sailed across the Atlantic in a leather boat. Using the 1,200-year-old Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot) he followed in the footsteps of Brendan the Navigator, an Irish Saint who lived from 484 to 577, to find “the Promised Land”. They must have known what they were doing because in the written and oral tradition there are numerously documented journeys by them over the sea and they still reached the age of 80. As far back as the Mesolithic (between 7500 and 5500 BCE), prehistoric people were travelling by boat along the coastlines of the British Isles to collect Arran pitchstone and Rhum Bloodstone for their tools at home.

So people must have used other ways to navigate successfully over the sea. Those people were closer to nature, and understood the art or intuitive side of “navigation by sense”. They used the sight, sound, motion, smell and even taste to find their destinations. We know that traditional way finders used the stars, the Sun, the Moon, ocean swells, sightings of whale and bird species and other natural signs for clues to the direction and location of a vessel at sea or the change of weather.

So let’s return to my personal journey. When you navigate the tidal waters of the Wadden in the Netherlands, every bit of water is meticulously documented, mapped and well-stocked with navigational aids. So in the tradition of our Dutch Canoe Union instructors, I would open Excel and create a punctilious plan to cross the open stretches of water from buoy to buoy. On the water, I had very little fun because navigation became like painting by numbers. By bringing your attention to the artificial marks, and even worse, technology like GPS, your focus shifts from an open non-judgemental awareness to your environment to a rigid and disconnected scheme.

The first thing we noticed in Scotland was that there are was a lack of detailed information about tides and currents and an almost complete absence of navigational aids. So there was more guesswork, we had to figure it out as we were going. Also, the rigid time planning lacked the time for what we started to call “Dolphin time”. As soon as you are in awe of the beauty of the landscape or the passing of a pot of dolphins and stop to enjoy the sight, the planning could be thrown overboard. So “planning” became soon writing the times of the turn of tide down and estimating on the way if he would reach the destination with the tide.

On our very first day, we did read about every submerged rock described in the pilot. We very soon realised, that in our kayaks, “submerged rocks” is our environment and we stopped reading the book on that aspect and started reading the water. Reading the water, I must say, is one of the most important skills. Not only to avoid dangerous rocks but also to read the eddies and flows around prominent points in the coastline. The eddies will help you to pedal against the tide, but more deliciously the eddy lines provide good spots for fishing to supplement our diet.

I still do carry a GPS, because I consider it an important tool for safety purposes. But I use it quite differently now from when we started. In the beginning, I would enter waypoints, especially for difficult trips. Our first rounding of the Ardnamurchan peninsula followed eight waypoints. It gave us a sense of security. 10 years later I would use only waypoints for the larger crossings. I don’t discard the GPS as a very good tool to learn to estimate the boat speed and the interference of tide, waves and wind. But now I rather use transits, based on rocks and mountains to get a sense of boat speed or drift by the tide. Distances, the other useful feature of GPS can also be replaced with observations. By the virtue of the curvature of the Earth, the sight of breaking waves against the rocky shore at the point of arrival means another 20 to 30 minutes peddling. Humans are good to estimate distances up to 1.5 km and buildings with windows are good indicators for distances up to 5 km.

In 2008, a friendly neighbour with a big moustache gave me an old anemometer. It is still one with the red line numbers, as usually found on 80s equipment. It reads the wind speed which can be useful, but the instrument had no waterproof qualities. So I used it on land, and soon it became a game of guessing the wind speed in knots. You close your eyes and focus on the movement of the hairs of your eyebrows, the sensation of your cheeks and sound of the wind playing around the helix of your ear. And before you know it, you can call out the numbers without looking on the anemometer.

The feel of waves is another useful sense. The differences in motion can be translated into the different kind of causes and actions. You can feel the reflections against the cliffs and note that there is little you can do. You recognise the waves breaking over a shallow seabed and push through them into the comfortable water behind. There could be subtle changes in both the wind waves and swell, which could make it difficult to land or mean a change in the wind.

The last one I would like to point out is time, I hardly use a watch. “Oh, you might use the sun”, you would say, but that can be a problem in Scotland. No, my real watch is the colour and species of seaweeds. You almost always know the time of the low and high water and the seaweeds are neatly stratified in time bands. If you see the kelp stalks bend, its low, if the Bladderwrack is hitting the water it half tide, if the pink flowers of the Sea Thrift are floating, it’s both high water and spring tide. Last year is started running, back to the bothy, where I knew I would find an annoyed Charlotte. The barnacles started to get wet and I knew I was too late for dinner. I still lose time when browsing the seashore or finding a Minke whale skeleton.

So next time, when you have done your homework, collecting your maps and travel plan, remember to use your intuition besides your cognitive navigation skills. Quiet your mind and pay attention to your surroundings. You’re given five senses (Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching) that you always carry. On the water practice your observational skills, watch nature pass by in a mode of non-judgemental open awareness. Traditional navigation was rooted in profound skill. In a sense, navigation is a fundamental and deep interaction with nature. It will make the journey and even life more fascinating and richer. I have no ancestral tradition that teaches me the ropes, like St Brendan and Micronesian master navigators probably had. So I’m not claiming to be an expert in this natural type of navigation. But I have noticed that there is a shift in the approach and to me, it is fun and gives me a lot of satisfaction.

I used the term “navigation by sense”, or intuitive navigation, which might suggest that navigation is something, which anyone can do intuitively. But I would like to warn you, it is a skilled performance where the perception has been fine-tuned through previous experiences. On the other hand, if you rely too much on the use of GPS, it could undermine our natural sense of direction as you surrender to the little arrow on your screen. If the GPS fails, however, and we trusted it too much, no mental map has been created and we might find ourselves lost. Very lost. So find yourself the right balance.


*Mau Piailug, Micronesian who sailed by navigating sun and stars

In 1976, Mr Piailug made international headlines when — using nothing but nature’s clues and the lessons he’d learned from his grandfather, a master navigator schooled in traditional Micronesian wayfaring — he steered a traditional sailing canoe more than 3,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti.

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