March 20, 2016

Navigating without instruments

ONE OF THOSE New York Times Magazine articles that goes on forever came to my attention the other day. It said that Alson Kelen, the world’s last-ever apprentice in the ancient art of wave-piloting, had just successfully found the atoll of Aur in the Marshall Islands.

Now, wave-piloting is the art of looking at the sea and deducing which way the nearest land lies, and how far away it is. This is the art that allowed to ancient Polynesians to find and inhabit the far-flung islands of the Pacific.

Wave-pilots can apparently detect very subtle wave trains in the deep ocean that are reflections from the steep-to volcanic islands, and even, it seems, from the low reefs surrounding atolls. But now everybody is getting worried that the Polynesian navigators who possess the gift of wave-piloting are dying out, and the ancient art might be lost to mankind forever.

Alson Kelen is the man in the Marshall Islands who seems to know most about wave-piloting, so it was arranged that he should give a practical demonstration of his abilities to some scientists and a journalist by navigating a sailing canoe from Majuro to Aur. Which he managed to do, apparently, without any navigational instruments or tables.

The New York Times writer was obviously very impressed with this feat, but I can’t help wondering if he has ever heard of Marvin Creamer.  The distance that Kelen covered, between Majuro and Aur, is about 70 miles. You could do that trip reasonably easily using dead-reckoning alone.

On the other hand, 68-year-old retired college professor Marvin Creamer, of New Jersey, sailed his yacht Globe Star right around the world in the 1980s. For 18 months he navigated without a compass, sextant, electronic instruments, or even a wristwatch.

“What we demonstrated,” he concluded, “was that information taken from the sea and the sky can be used for fairly safe navigation. How far pre-Columbians sailed on the world’s oceans we do not know; however, it is my hope that the Globe Star voyage will provide researchers with a basis for assuming that long-distance navigation without instruments is not only possible, but could have been done with a fair degree of confidence and navigation.”

Creamer discovered he could depend entirely on the sun, moon and stars. In overcast weather he studied currents and wind patterns. Further clues came from the composition and color of the sea, cloud formations, the horizon, drifting objects, and different types of birds or insects.

He got latitudes by identifying stars with a known declination that lay directly overhead, something that must take a lot of practice on a small yacht heaving and rolling on waves, but then, of course, he had only to sail due east or west to make a landfall.

I guess that wave-pilots are the short-range navigators who find the atolls and islands when they’re fairly close to them. I have tried to detect the deep-sea wave trains that they say come back as reflections of the land masses, but I’ve never been able to feel them among the regular waves and swells,  and neither has anybody else I’ve sailed with.

In any case, it seems that Polynesians aren’t the only ones with the gift of navigating by natural clues alone, and if the art of wave-piloting does die out, it won’t be a disaster. All we need to know is right there in Professor Marvin Creamer’s notes. Google his name and see what I mean.

Today’s Thought
If you will be a traveller, have always the eyes of a falcon, the ears of an ass, the face of an ape, the mouth of a hog, the shoulders of a camel, the legs of a stag, and see that you never want two bags very full, that is one of patience, and another of money.
— John Florio, Second Frutes

“I’ve just sold my second novel.”
“Great! What did you use for the plot?”
“Oh, a brand new idea: the film version of my first novel.”

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


JP said...

You might be interested in this book that is due to be published shortly which will cover a range of topics including Polynesian wave reading:

Jeff Bander said...


I listened to two fascinating Podcasts where Creamer was interviewed in 2008 about his amazing journey and covering some of his techniques. A very humble man and very inspiring.

Find them on podcast called Furled Sails, 1. Sept 28, 2008 and 2. Oct 15,2008 The links on the web appear broken but the podcast player on smart phone still has them.


Unknown said...

Also check into a book called "We, the Navigators" by David Lewis, first published in 1972. It is filled with lots of the author's firsthand accounts of voyages with indigenous navigators in several of the island nations of the Pacific, with detailed discussion of the variety of natural clues they used. Among these are not only wave patterns, but also memorized star paths, relating a bearing to an island with the series of landmark stars that parade over that bearing during the appropriate voyage season, also understanding weather and birds and currents. Most importantly, traditional ocean navigation was a synthesis of all the inputs, and knowing what sign to look for on a given part of a voyage -- and each group of islands had certain emphases on different factors, based on their specific needs.