May 17, 2012

Fathoming the way to land

SOMEONE IN RATHER A HURRY to get away and sail south before the start of the winter storms once asked me if he should make time to study emergency navigation. A friend had given him a copy of David Burch's [1] excellent book named (appropriately enough) Emergency Navigation, but it was rather long, and while some of it was simple and obvious, other parts required a fairly deep knowledge of physical science and the movements of the heavens.

The best advice I could give him was to read through the book, simply to know what was possible, and to stop worrying about emergency navigation until it happened.

Like most sailors who have ventured over the sea horizon, I have read books on emergency navigation with great fascination. But I came to the conclusion that much of it was plain common sense and some of it depended entirely on luck (what charts, instruments and tables were left available to you). The rest was rooted too deeply in the actual science of navigation for my liking and, indeed, my capabilities.

It is indeed fascinating to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies and to use simple mathematical formulas to make them divulge information of use to you, but it requires more study than I was prepared to devote to it.

As I pointed out in one of my books, deep-sea voyaging covers so many different disciplines, from medicine and aerodynamics to culinary arts and mechanical engineering, that there just isn't time in one human lifespan to plunge headlong into the depths of each and every one.

Anyone with common sense, a reasonable amount of reading, a broad-based education in the arts and sciences, and enough guts to attempt an ocean crossing, should be able to fathom a way back to land if it's at all possible.

If I were forced to make a choice, I would rather devote time to studying survival techniques than to emergency navigation. The ability to catch fish, find plankton, and gather fresh water might be worth far more to a sailor than a deep knowledge of navigation.

This is purely a personal observation, of course, and in no way diminishes the value of reading books like David Burch's (which I urge every deep-sea sailor to do) nor the added pleasure, interest, and satisfaction such books can bring to a voyage.

But I am sure most sailors would find it easier to head toward a large piece of land they can't possibly miss, such as South America or Australia, while surviving indefinitely off the sea. They don't really need to study in any great depth the very fine techniques of emergency navigation that might—or might not—guide them to the safety of a smaller but nearer island.

[1] David Burch is the Director of the Starpath School of Navigation in Seattle.

Today's Thought
The stars above would make thee known,
If men here silent were;
The sun himself cannot forget
His fellow traveller.
— John Owen, Epigram on Sir Francis Drake

I dislike all puns, but jokes about German sausage are truly the wurst.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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