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Star Power
April 22, 2013 8:47 PM   Subscribe

"No GPS or weather reports—just a sailboat, the wild open ocean, and the constellations. Think you could find your way across the South Pacific? James Campbell rides along with a master navigator in the Caroline Islands, where they’ve been sailing this way for thousands of years."

Traditional Navigation In The Caroline Islands. How Did Polynesians Find Their Homeland? The Polynesians travelled as far as Easter Island with outrigger canoes and complex star charts. Micronesia has its own tradition of ocean voyaging.
posted by the man of twists and turns (19 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've been surprised to see Outside magazine putting out some outstanding long form journalism of late. I wonder why they give it away and don't make me subscribe.
posted by anewnadir at 8:53 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


From a few years ago, I remember the news that Mau Piailug had died. It's been a while since I read Steve Thomas' book about him, but I'm glad to hear that Mau's sons are still sailing.
posted by spacewrench at 9:22 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]



I've been surprised to see Outside magazine putting out some outstanding long form journalism of late.


Honestly, they've been doing it for years. The archives are rich with stuff.
posted by smoke at 9:26 PM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


There's been such a fuss made over the past few years about supposed sailing 'feats' made by people with GPS, radar, more or less constant contact with shore-based experts via radio or satellite phone etc. Compare that sort of voyage with those you have linked here, or even the story of Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly by sea and it's pretty clear to me that 'adventure' and 'single-handed' mean something entirely different these days.
posted by dg at 9:35 PM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just came here to post about Joshua Slocum, but dg beat me to it. This Ideas episode on Slocum and solo sailing is very fine, one of the best Ideas programs I've heard in many years.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:59 PM on April 22, 2013


And "Joshua Slocum" is a cool name.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:59 PM on April 22, 2013


It is a cool name. His book is a great read, although not very 'modern' in that it has pretty much no sex, drugs or swearing, so probably not much there to attract the reader of today. A very understated tale that almost makes light of the enormous challenges he faced. In common with the sailors from the pacific islands, he relied on little more than his own knowledge and intuition - an art that hardly seems to exist these days. it's good to see that, at least in some parts of the world, the traditions of seafaring are being kept alive, although it's hard to imagine that will last more than another generation or so.
posted by dg at 10:07 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not that GPS is not useful or that I've got lots of ocean crossings under my belt, but really, going the right direction is not the hardest part of sailing. This isn't to take anything away from these people who obviously have a unique skill, but really, try to put in a reef in 35 knots, and you're not going to look at steering a compass heading as the hard part.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:14 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, steering a straight course isn't all that hard. Unless, of course, you are trying to do so for a couple of thousand nautical miles. With no modern navigation instruments. Or autopilot (unless you call tying the tiller up and going to sleep an autopilot). Not to mention doing that at the same time as putting in a reef in 35 knots. On your own.
posted by dg at 10:35 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I’ve read that Polynesian navigators invert their frame of reference when sailing: the boat and the sky remain still, the ocean and island are raised up and pushed back. Sounds weird, but similar to our own inverted concept of the sun moving across the sky throughout the day.
posted by migurski at 10:50 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The second link seems to imply that the stick chart was some kind of map of the constellations. It's not. It's even cooler than that. It's a map of the interference patterns the swells make as they interact with the land masses. Navigators could tell where they were by looking at the water which is pretty mind blowing.
posted by ctmf at 1:29 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're inclined to enjoy fiction, I suggest The Navigator, by Morris West.
posted by Goofyy at 1:35 AM on April 23, 2013


The Polynesians travelled as far as Easter Island with outrigger canoes and complex star charts.

You think that's impressive -- they settled Madagascar, sailing there from the islands off the west coast of Indonesia. That's a straight shot across the entire Indian Ocean without even knowing whether there was anything on the other side. They were the first humans on Madagascar, even though it's right off the coast of East Africa, because the island is so difficult to approach.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:40 AM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not just star charts but bird migration routes, reflections in the sky, wave/swell directions, sea colour and a host of other methods. I recommended it in an AskMe the other day but Harold Gatty's "Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass" is a fantastic book covering land and sea navigation. Gatty was also responsible for writing The Raft Book, a Survival/Navigation guide designed for downed USAAF pilots in WWII.
posted by longbaugh at 2:39 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


They were the first humans on Madagascar, even though it's right off the coast of East Africa, because the island is so difficult to approach.

Well, maybe if they wouldn't shut down the shipyards every time anybody sneezes...
posted by delfin at 4:58 AM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Navigators could tell where they were by looking at the water which is pretty mind blowing.

No, true in lots of places. Back before we tamed/ruined the Mississippi, a big part of being a riverboat pilot was reading the waters. The river, being so large and silty, changed constantly, so charts were useless for safe navigation, as was knowing where you were. You might know that you'd just reached Cairo, IL*, but you had no idea where the sandbars had migrated to.

So, you watch the water, and things upon it. Did that log just spin? Yes. Something's there, close to the surface. Hey, that looks like a wind line, but it's not moving. That's a shoal. Why's the water slick there? Something's making it flow towards the surface, maybe a ledge....

And so forth. *All* pilots read the waters, deep or shallow. They read them for different reasons -- the riverboat pilot didn't need to read the river to find St. Louis, and the Polynesian outrigger pilot didn't need to worry about shoal ground if he couldn't see an island, but all pilots read the wind and the waves.

Well, all the good ones do, and the good ones survived longer.




* Which was pretty obvious by the fact that the Ohio and the Mississippi meet there...
posted by eriko at 5:46 AM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just the South Pacific? Marvin Creamer did a circumnavigation in the 80's without any instruments.

No sextant or compass would guide him on his long journey — only stars, winds, water currents and occasional signs of life served as his guides. With no normal navigational instruments, Marvin knew that there was a good possibility of hisspending days or weeks on a raft or marooned on a desert island awaiting rescue.

I think he took a radio in a sealed box but had no instruments at all not even a compass! 18 months around the world, just amazing.

If you're planning to go "Emergency Navigation" seems to have an incredible number of practical methods depending on what is available, a clock being really useful but just understanding the implications of the angle of the sun gives useful information.
posted by sammyo at 7:30 AM on April 23, 2013


I came to the thread thinking we'd be talking about navigation by lunars. That requires nontrivial skill, though it's not nearly as hardcore as sailing without a sextant.

Thanks for the thread.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:16 AM on April 23, 2013


James Campbell rides along with a master navigator in the Caroline Islands, where they’ve been sailing this way for thousands of years.

If they still haven't gotten where they're going after thousands of years, maybe they should rethink the whole no-GPS thing.
posted by Zed at 2:12 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


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