Navigating Without Batteries
The Threefold Path
By Farwell Forrest
March 2, 2004
We are all navigators. From first breath to
last gasp, we struggle to find our place in the world. We look for someone
or something to show us the way. And last but certainly not least, we want
to know when we'll arrive.
Canoeists and kayakers are no exception. To a paddler staring out across
the choppy waters of a large,
island-studded lake, intent on making his way to the portage at the foot
while avoiding the falls over which the outlet tumbles, with lunch only a distant
memory and storm clouds
building on the horizon, three questions loom very large indeed. They
- Where am I now?
- Which way do I have to go to get to my destination?
- When will I get there?
Call these questions The Threefold Path. Get the answers right, and
you'll never lose your way, no matter how long the distance or how stormy
the journey. That's Job One for any navigator, whether he's piloting a
supertanker through the Bosporus or just trying to get to the bathroom in
the middle of the night without waking the rest of the family. In both
cases, he must determine position, direction, time, speed, and distance. And
it isn't enough to do the job once. The questions have to be asked (and
answered) over and over, from departure to landfall. Not only does your
position change as you move, but fate and nature occasionally throw you a
curve: an unexpectedly strong current in the center of the buoyed channel,
say, or a child's forgotten toy, abandoned in the middle of the hall between
your bedroom and the bathroom.
Some journeys are easier than others, to be sure, and we do a lot of our
everyday navigating unconsciously. Few of us give much thought to staying
found on our way to the bathroom, for instance, and many commuters have
discovered themselves in their driveways at the end of a hard day,
remembering nothing of the trip that brought them there. But canoeists and
kayakers can never rely entirely on old habits. We're
explorers, aren't we? Few of us revisit any one place often enough to
navigate it unconsciously. And even on the rare occasions when we do, things
can still go wrong, requiring that we abandon the familiar paths and strike
out in new directions. Competent navigators usually rise quickly to the
challenge of the unexpected, but it's a rare paddler who hasn't been
confused at least once while on his home waters. (Warning! A navigator who
wants to safeguard his cred is never "lost." He may admit to being
confused, however so long as his confusion is short-lived.)
But I'm jumping ahead in my story. Before getting down to cases, let's
take a closer look at the tools that navigators use in charting the right
course along The Threefold Path. We'll begin at the beginning, with the most
important question of all:
Where Am I?
If, as I've said before, all navigation
boils down to staying found, this is the question. Easy enough to
answer in your bathroom, perhaps, or even on the bridge of an Ultra Large
Crude Carrier in the Bosporus (on a rare clear day, at any rate). But a
mighty hard puzzle to solve if you've been daydreaming down a long stretch
of sinuous lowland river, or paddling listlessly up a good-sized lake for
hours, not paying particular attention to the passing landscape.
One way to solve the problem at a single stroke is to wake your GPS from
its slumber. It's a mighty good way, too provided that you know how
to translate the letters and numbers on the display into a position on the
map, that is. And also provided that you remembered to
bring the map. (A couple of spare sets of batteries wouldn't hurt,
either. Just to be safe.)
But we're talking about navigating
without batteries here, aren't we? It's not magic. Restless folks found
their way across oceans and continents for thousands of years before the
human race started throwing satellites into orbit. And our ancestors
probably weren't much brighter than we are. What they did, we can still do.
OK. Let's say you're lost. No, that's not right. You've got your
reputation to consider. You're
confused. How do you put yourself back
on the map?
You've got three choices a three-way fork on the first leg of The
Threefold Path, if you like. But here you can pick more than one way to go.
The choices aren't mutually exclusive. This isn't a case of the road not
- Eyeball the Area. It's probably the oldest trick in the book, but
under the name "terrain-matching guidance" it's still state-of-the-art. What
works for cruise missiles can work for you, too. Match up what you see
around you with what's on the map. Sometimes it's almost that easy
but not often. And sometimes it's just plain impossible: in the
night, for example, or in a thick
fog, or in a featureless bog. Or in the middle of the deep blue sea.
Even when all systems are go, you'll still need a good map
not to mention an educated
- Plot a Fix. If you're not sure where you are, but if you can
recognize a couple of prominent peaks or other landmarks, your problem's
solved. Take compass bearings on two (better than nothing), three (better
than two), or four (best of all) known points and plot the resulting fix. In
addition to your compass,
you'll need a map or chart, and maybe a protractor. That's all. There's a
catch, however. You'll also need at least two known points. But what do you
do when nothing around you looks familiar? Or when the landscape is a
featureless plain or an empty expanse of sea? What then? Well, you can
always take your bearings from the heavens. The sun, moon, and stars can put
you on the map anywhere on earth. But you'll need more than a compass
you'll need a sextant,
some tables, and a good horizon, along with a few tricks of the trade. These
will come later.
- Make an Educated Guess. Mariners call this "dead reckoning."
That's "dead" as in "deduced," supposedly. It's better than it sounds. You
have to know where you started from, but that's not too much to ask, is it?
Dead reckoning got Columbus safely across the Atlantic to the Caribbean,
after all, and it's the way that a lot of us navigate on everyday outings in
waters. If you're planning on going further afield, though, be warned:
dead reckoning isn't for the lazy. If you've tuned out for the last hour
while you zig-zagged around some islands in a lake that you're visiting for
the first time, for example, it's probably No Go. When you're relying on
dead reckoning, you've got to look lively and keep notes. You also
need a watch, a compass, and a pretty good idea how fast you're traveling.
There you have it: the three forks on the first leg of The Threefold
Path. Or three tickets to the Fukawi lottery, if you've heard the old joke.
(You haven't? Well, it is an old joke, and it's not really family
fare. But the tag is useful. So useful, in fact, that a navigation software
company now markets its stuff under the same name though with a
slightly different spelling.) Just three tickets. And those are the only
chances you get. So you'll want to make time for a little practice before
your Big Trip. Later articles in this series will show you just how it's
done. For the time being, it's enough to reiterate that your first duty as a
navigator is to Stay Found. Know where you are at the beginning of your
journey. Then, as you paddle along, keep comparing what you see around you
with what you see on the map.
Of course, knowing where you are is only the start. You're going
somewhere, aren't you? And you need to know how to get there. So the second
question you have to answer is
Which Way Do I Go from Here?
If you're on a river, and you plan to stay there, this is a no-brainer.
river opens out into a delta, there are just two answers: go with the
flow or head upstream. The river shows you the way. Lakes are different. So
is the sea. As the horizon slides off into the distant haze, your compass
comes into its own. You do know where you are right now, don't you?
Good. Locate your position on the map or chart first. Next, find where you
want to go. Now connect the dots and determine the bearing, making allowance
for the fact that the North on the
compass card isn't the same as the North at the top of the map. What's
that? You don't know what I'm talking about? Don't worry. We'll get to it
soon in the next article in this series, in fact.
Lastly, correct your calculated compass course for the deviation caused
by the metal in your gear. (You say you don't know how to do this, either?
Then watch this space.) Finished? Good. You're ready to take your departure.
You've got your Course to Steer. Pick a prominent landmark in the right
place or keep you eye on your deck compass and go.
It's not always that simple, obviously. It's hard to keep to a compass
course in a seaway, for one thing. Try it just once and you'll see why the
cards on mariners' compasses used to be divided into 32 points, rather than
360 degrees. Sea kayakers will also have to make allowance for tidal streams
and other currents. And most longer routes will require that you pick
one or more intermediate destinations ("waypoints" in GPS-speak) on the way
to wherever you're going, each one with a different Course to Steer.
Complicated? Yes, but not impossibly so.
Only one question remains on The Threefold Path, but it's important. Even
in the back of beyond, time can't be ignored. In fact, the further you get
from your home waters, the more important it is to keep on schedule. Get
back late from an afternoon paddle around Golden Pond and you won't have to
worry about anything worse than a cold supper or missing Eastenders.
Arrive too late at your rendezvous point on an arctic river, on the other
hand, and you may have to wait a mighty long time for your flight out, not
to mention pay a budget-busting bill from your air charter company. Even on
weekend trips to nearby waterways, you'll want to keep an eye on your watch,
as well as the sky. Towering
thunderheads or approaching dark lend special urgency to the
When Will I Get There?
Here's where you'll meet dead reckoning in another guise. Time. Speed.
Distance. As a child in school, you probably encountered those three
variables in hundreds of boring homework problems. And I'll bet you were
glad to see the last of them. I know I was. But I'm afraid they're back in
your life now with a difference. Out on the water, you'll be solving
the same problems for real, and solving them many times each day.
Again and again, you'll find yourself looking back at your last known
position to figure out where you are now. That's dead reckoning. Or looking
ahead to determine when you'll make your next landfall. Time, speed, and
distance. These and a little arithmetic, along with your watch and compass,
will take you as far as you want to go and tell you when you'll
arrive, into the bargain. In future articles, we'll show you how.
See you down the trail!
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights