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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Lost Art

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 are:

  1. Where am I now?
  2. Which way do I have to go to get to my destination?
  3. 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 taken.

  1. 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 eye.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 our home 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. Until the 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 question…

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 reserved.

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