The wave pilot vs. the flickering screen

June 2021

By David Roper

Let’s face it: We humans are fascinated with screens. They’re everywhere. At every boat show there are throngs around the latest electronic breakthroughs. The marine store catalogs are filled with page after page of electronics. On boats, these electronics have elevated the neophyte boater to a supreme level of confidence; everyone is now a Prince Henry the Navigator. It’s that way on land, as well, thanks to GPS.

Years ago, I wrote about how the GPS map has taken the exuberance out of finding a mark or harbor entrance; how the dynamics of our expectations were flattened by the instant reliable answers of where we were. Of course, there have always been gadgets. But have today’s gadgets left nature behind? Are we paying enough attention to the natural world around us while using them? Have gadgets supplanted much of our ability to observe, deeply ingest knowledge, and reason the best outcome?

A number of years ago, Steve Thomas (of “This Old House” fame) wrote “The Last Navigator,” a remarkable book about the dying breed of some remarkable navigators. Steve sailed to Micronesia and met Mau Piailug, one of the few surviving palu, who belonged to a dying breed who used only natural signs – stars, waves, birds – to successfully guide their sailing canoes across thousands of miles of open ocean. Think of it: miles and miles at sea in a sailing canoe, a hand in the water, “feeling” the swell to navigate. That is about as close to nature and as far from electronics as one can get. As the old navigators have passed away, so has any opportunity to learn the Talk of the Sea, and the highly secret Talk of Light, both of which were taught to Steve.

Many years ago, young men and women learning wave piloting would spend hours floating in the ocean blindfolded, memorizing the minute sensations of waves, currents and swells beneath them. Then they’d study stick charts – maps made of curved sticks that show the locations of islands and predominant swells – to place those waves in a larger mental geography. Later, if they became disoriented at sea, they could close their eyes and use the reflections and refractions of waves to determine the direction of land.

In Kim Tingley’s article “The Secrets of the Wave Pilots,” which appeared in “The New York Times Magazine,” in 2016, she wrote: “Though mankind has managed to navigate itself across the globe and into outer space, it has done so in defiance of our innate way-finding capacities (not to mention survival instincts), which are still those of forest-dwelling homebodies. Other species use far more sophisticated cognitive methods to orient themselves. Dung beetles follow the Milky Way; the Cataglyphis desert ant dead-reckons by counting its paces; monarch butterflies, on their thousand-mile, multigenerational flight from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains, calculate due north using the position of the sun, which requires accounting for the time of day, the day of the year and latitude; honeybees, newts, spiny lobsters, sea turtles and many others read magnetic fields.”

Last week my daughter finished “The Address Book,” a treatise on how where one lives has been acknowledged over the years in America and around the world. Fascinating: People used to use landmarks for addresses (imagine that!) E.g., “You’ll see it just past the yellow house with the big beautiful oak tree in front”; or, “right after the old brick school and just to the north of the pig farm with the duck pond with the small island in it, you’ll find . . .” What that did, though not so accurate sometimes, I admit, was add texture to one’s life experience, as the seeker must look, observe, think and even imagine on their way, rather than just hitting “find.”

In our water world, in the late 1950s, my dad taught me to pay attention to the natural environment around me – to never cut close to a lee shore; to look for the wave patterns and colors to tell deep and shallow water; even to use a lead line to tell the depth when getting close to shore. And when we made it safely in (mostly), there was a feeling of exuberance, even relief, in the accomplishment of what is today a mere expectation.

We won’t give up our electronics. I know that. And I don’t blame us. But why not do both types of navigating? Try things the old way, with the new way as a backup. Chart your course, follow the natural landmarks, pay attention and try to feel what the sea and wind are doing and saying. Who knows? Your next journey may be an enriching process rather than just a means to a destination.

David Roper’s latest book, “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends,” is finally on bookshelves. It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-times bestseller, and is available on