Simplicity offers a sense of security

October 2006

By Dodge Morgan

I read “We, the Navigators” by David Lewis during an eight-day solo cruise this August. The author has intensely studied the navigation techniques of the South Pacific islanders as they linked Polynesia to Melanesia to Micronesia by sea voyages in outrigger canoes from a time, evidence says, several thousand years before the birth of Christ.

There are no written explanations or records of the voyages. The navigational art was once passed on only by word of mouth. There were no tools outside of the navigator’s eyes and mindset. A navigator would assume the existence and position of another island by noting the direction of the flight of land birds from his island. He would steer the bird’s course by a series of early rising and late-setting stars at night and by the sun with wind and wave orientation during the day.

The book is a compelling study that reveals a scheme of navigation totally different from western methods, but which resulted in a world of discovery by sea well before that of any western civilization exploration.

As I read, my memories went back to the ’60s, when I sailed the old schooner Coaster through some of those Pacific islands with compass and sextant, fueled by hope. It brought to mind the story of a poetically colossal screw-up by one “navigator” with all the modern tools of that day, well before any satellite technology. And it brought up another story of a navigator whose challenge evolved because he sailed a crossing on a long single tack.

The story of the screw-up unfolded as several of us looked at the navigation log of a 45-foot ketch that had returned to Hawaii after more than a month at sea from a proposed passage to San Francisco.

The skipper, who was learning navigation as he sailed, kept a daily log of runs made, but did not plot his positions on a chart for the first several weeks. When he figured out how to dead reckon his positions on a chart, he did so but applied variation to his compass headings incorrectly and “found” himself at sea way west of a course to his destination.

He determined that he was closer to Hawaii than to San Francisco, so he decided to return there. Since he was bright enough to use his outgoing log with reciprocals on the return, he came right back to where he started. But when we plotted his positions with the correct variation applied, we found that he was within 100 miles of San Francisco rather than mid-ocean south of the Aleutians. A Polynesian navigator 1,000 years before Christ would have done a better job.

The story of the one-tack challenge is of a small, home-built schooner sailing from Los Angeles to Hawaii. The boat was recently painted black and launched. Her running rigging was that bright-colored polypropylene line and her spars were knotty pine. His plastic sextant had warped in the sun.

But Hawaii is very easy to find because one can see the Big Island for a distance of some 100 miles as it is 13,000 feet high and its active volcano hangs a cloud overhead. This fellow’s passage was several weeks of sailing only on the port tack with the southern sun beating down on his weather side.

When he finally came about to head for Hawaii the boat filled like a sieve since the planks on her exposed side had opened like lattice work. He was forced to tack the leaking side underwater for short periods to swell her up. It was a tack, leak, tack, pump process for a week of non-directional sailing. An outrigger canoe at least would have leaked equally on both tacks.

During my 49-day passage from Panama to Hawaii in 1965 (about 4,700 nautical miles great circle route), I too was learning my navigation on the job. I found Bowditch and Mixter fascinating reads, but more intellectually encumbering than enlightening for practical celestial study.

That is until I found a section on lifeboat navigation that explained the noon fix, a method of using sun angles on either side of the latitude noon sight to compute a more precise time of meridian transit (the sun appears to remain at the same angle for several minutes during zenith making the required precise transit time an error-prone wild guess), thus applying the equation of time to get longitude.

Only later did I discover that this simple noon fix system was the prevailing technique for small-boat ocean passage making. The need for accurate time of day was more often met by the WWV or WWVH radio signal than by a chronometer.

Since my sailing experience was coastal cruising, I did have a good grasp of dead reckoning techniques and probably could have found Hawaii with them. But I doubt I would have found Palmyra or the intended Society Island or the precise passage into Ketchikan. Oh how the satellites have obliterated our current use of those old tools and relegated the South Pacific islands navigator to an even more obsolete curiosity.

Each time I cruise the coast or take a sea passage, I take some comfort that no act of terrorism or major technical glitch will eliminate my magnetic compass, my wind-up watch, my pencil and dividers, and my view of the passing sun.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he singlehanded American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985-86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.