Book Review: "The Lost Art of Finding Our Way" by John Huth

I recently reviewed "The Lost Art of Finding Our Way" by John Huth for Atlantic Coastal Kayaker magazine and for readers who have not yet read the review in the magazine, here it is: 

         This is a highly unusual and ambitious book.  Though written by an academic - as well as being an avid sea kayaker, John Huth is Donner Professor of Science at Harvard – “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” is intended for the general public, specifically with sea kayakers and small boat enthusiasts in mind.   It attempts, under the general theme of  ‘navigation’, to pull together such diverse fields as physics, earth and planetary science, cognitive psychology, the neurosciences, anthropology and history.  But don’t be intimidated: somehow Prof. Huth has done it and done it well.

            It’s a big book of over 500 pages, and at a list price of $36 for the hardcover,  does not come cheap.  If you’re a beginning kayaker, there are a number of classic books on sea kayak navigation out there, notably Franco Ferrero’s “Sea Kayak Navigation” and David Burch’s “Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation”.  Both are excellent resources and both cover the basics and more of the topic.  However, for seasoned sea kayakers who know something about navigation and for those with a scientific or historical as well as a practical interest in the subject, you might just find this to be a gem of a book. 

            Far-ranging in both scope and depth, the author discusses obscure yet fascinating topics such as the construction of ‘mental maps’ we use to find our way in the outdoors traditionally and in current practice.  How can the navigational methods of traditional societies like the Norse, medieval Arab traders and those of the Pacific Islands be at all relevant to the sea kayaker in today’s electronic age?  Even without the use of handheld GPS, shouldn’t navigation by chart and compass be sufficient?  Well, yes and no. Huth’s thesis is that we may have lost our ability to ‘read’ the signs that are out there – the stars, Sun and Moon as well as wind, waves and currents and that by relearning some of the navigational techniques used by the ancients we just might become better mariners, more attuned to the environment, more enriched by our deeper understanding of things we have lost the ability to ‘see’. 

            That said, the book does not fall short in its discussion of topics, which might be more familiar, such as tide and wind – both of which are always in mind when on the sea in a small boat.  His clear and measured explanation of the effect of Sun and Moon on tide, for example, is the best I have seen - you get the story, so to speak, straight from the scientist’s mouth.  Only a physicist would have you understand tide by envisaging the Moon and the seas on Earth being stationary and the continents rotating on Earth’s axis!  As well as chapters you might expect on topics such as Currents, Dead Reckoning, Maps and Compass and Latitude and Longitude, there are also more esoteric subjects such as one on the behavioral psychology of ‘getting lost’ and even one - my favorite - entitled ‘Urban Myths of Navigation’.  


           Throughout the book Huth often begins a complicated topic with a simple or obvious premise and then builds systematically to more complex conclusions or arguments.  For example, in a discussion on the development of the notion of ‘time and navigation’ he writes, “The hour was, and is, one of the most widely used units of time.  It has its origins in the ancient Egyptian use of rising stars to reckon the time of night.  The passage of one night was associated with the passage of twelve stars which would rise in turn just before the Sun at different times of the year.  This gave rise to the night being divided into twelve hours”.  And this is just the opening paragraph in the discussion!  Obscure, yes, but profound. Huth’s narratives might just encourage us to look up at the stars more often when out on a nighttime paddle.

            As you may expect, the “The Lost Art…” has a long list of primary and secondary references as well as a comprehensive glossary of current and traditional navigational terminology.  It can be read either as a treatise on how traditional voyagers found their way across long distances or, alternatively, as a guide to developing your observational skills and developing a lifetime practice of looking for ‘seat of the pants’ clues to kayak navigation from the skies and from the water.  

            The book begins with an image of a traveler getting travel and weather information exclusively from his smartphone.  From Huth’s perspective, there is still much value to be had from reading the signs on the water to find our way. 

September 2017

Last Multi-Day Trip this Summer

    We paddled back to Stonington Town Landing last weekend in 10 - 15 mph winds just in time to miss the late afternoon downpour and the gusts which reached 30 mph later in the day.  Closely monitoring the weather during the morning, we somehow, by luck or by judgment, managed to enjoy another perfect day on the water.  While an easy paddle with sunny skies and flat water would have been our choice, the conditions as they were mean't that we had a rollercoaster of a ride getting back from Steves (sic) Island without mishap.  It was a LOT of fun.  
    We'd camped overnight on Buckle Island which has become our go to island for two-day trips.  Wind on the first day had picked up in the afternoon which mean't that rather than circling McGlathery Island we settled in and enjoyed the island serenity - it seemed even more peaceful than usual since lobster boats were in port due to the Labor Day holiday.  We saw groups of terns scurrying along a beach and also guillemots - smallish black and white birds of the puffin family - diving almost in sequence.  Gulls circled as they feasted on shellfish - clams and mussels - first cracking them open by dropping them from a height on the rocky shelves at waters edge. In the early morning we saw cormorants which go through a complicated routine of shedding water from their wings and body after diving - apparently they can dive 100's feet and do so by first soaking their feathers in water to reduce their buoyancy.  After surfacing from a dive, they spend several minutes  flapping their wings then find an exposed rock where they spread their wings wide to dry in the sun.  There they hang out in groups looking like huge vampire bats.  We also saw a kingfisher and a few ospreys diving for small fish which they catch below the surface.  We could hear bald eagles calling across the water on Spruce Island and caught a glimpse of one where they perch high up on fir trees. Eagles are far more common now and it's not unusual to see them up close from the kayak. A lone harbor seal observed us while we were drinking coffee first thing - we must have looked to be an uninteresting bunch, after a glance of just few seconds the seal dove and didn't resurface near our beach.
    We decamped and paddled away reluctantly from our two tent sites - one in the woods, one at the waters edge - not only because skies had now become grey, but more simply because we were sad to leave our island haven.

Tide and Tidal Current

    As I've written in previous newsletters, wind and fog are two of the environmental factors which we consider when planning a sea kayaking trip.  Tidal current and tide times are also factors to think about and both impact our decisions about where to go and when.
    Tide - the vertical movement of water due to the gravitational effect of the moon and sun -  affects our planning and we are always aware of whether we're paddling on an incoming or outgoing tide.  The rate of rise or fall of water is not linear but follows a sigmoidal curve - in the first hour after turn of tide, typically, water rises or falls a foot or less; during the third and fourth hours it rises or falls at three feet an hour or more. Three vertical feet may not seem a lot but in those two hours between low and high tide, for example, 10 or 20 yards of beach may be covered with water, enough to carry kayaks out to sea if they are not secured after being left on a beach.  On the other hand, on an outgoing tide, we can safely leave kayaks at the waters edge while we explore an island.
     Tidal current is horizontal movement of water resulting from tides and in this part of coast is significant in the hours right between low and high tide and is often the reason why boaters are 'swept out to sea' when not cognizant of tide times. Tidal currents, like the tide, increase when the moon is full or new (Spring currents), and decrease when the moon is at first or third quarter phases (neap currents).  Current is affected by geography - by the rising of the sea bed closer to shore and by the 'bottleneck' effect of bays, harbors and headlands - and also by the flow of water from large rivers. 
     It's useful to take both wind direction and tidal current into account when planning a route.  Wind and current together can create complex water movements which are difficult to predict and can make paddling tricky especially when wind is blowing against the direction of the current.  For example, around the islands near Brooklin, water moves in and out of Eggemoggin Reach with the tide and creates significant tidal current.  We often see whitecaps building in the early afternoon when winds are 12 mph or more and if we know that we're at maximum current speed between low and high tide, we'll always head back to the mainland to avoid 'bumpy' water. 'Reading' the water becomes another tool in the sea kayakers toolkit for having fun on the water.  

Book of the Month:  "Sea Kayak Rescue" by Robert Schumann & Jan Shriner

     Sub-titled "The Definitive Guide to Modern Reentry and Recovery Techniques", this Falcon edition published in 2001 covers all you need to know about safe paddling to prevent capsize and describes rescue techniques for recovery in the event of capsize.  Every experienced sea kayaker should know how to do deep water rescue - I do this twice, perhaps three times in a summer and I am probably typical of sea kayaking guides.  The most valuable information is knowing how not to get into trouble.  This starts with using the right gear, and is illustrated perfectly in a figure in the Guide, shown here.


In the photo, the paddler in front is wearing a wet suit, paddling jacket and PFD, and she has a paddle float, bilge pump, boat with adequate flotation, spray skirt, spare paddle and other safety gear (compass and marine chart, VHF radio, spare clothes, medical kit, repair kit, flares and strobe light).  The paddler in the back is wearing cotton, is in a 'wreck' boat and carrying no safety gear, and is a poster child for hypothermia.  A picture speaks a thousand words.

A highly recommended book for your kayaking bookshelf.


August 2017

      As I've written in previous newsletters, fog, tidal current and wind are three of the environmental factors which we consider when planning a sea kayaking trip.  In a previous newsletter I've talked about advective fog.  Fog is an occasional feature but wind of whatever speed and direction is a given.  We see wind speeds this time of year around Deer Isle anywhere from 5 knots or less to 20 knots or more and we are usually paddling in the 5 to 15 knot range. Anything more and unless we're with an advanced group, we are off the water.
       Our plan for the day will depend on the wind and starts before we leave land.  Our route will also depend on the the group, for example how physically fit group members are and whether they've had prior experience of paddling in windy conditions.  NOAAreports hourly prediction of windspeed and direction which we discuss before we leave and observe throughout the day - do the observed wind conditions agree with NOAA predictions?...can we train ourselves to know wind direction and speed by surface wind patterns on the water?...can we take advantage of the island geography to avoid the wind? do we keep the boats going in the direction we want to go when, for example, we're paddling with a beam wind which pushes the stern so that the kayaks 'weathercock' into the wind?  
       NOAA predictions of wind speed and direction are essential and useful but local geography impacts both.  When winds pick up speed we can find quiet stretches on the lee side of islands which means that we can alternate hard slog in open water with relaxed paddling on the lee side.  As mentioned, sea kayaks, being longer in the stern than in the bow tend to turn into the wind and strategies to prevent this include shifting your weight in the cockpit to one side ('edging' the boat), angling, or 'ferrying' the boat into the wind to reduce lateral exposure and even simply paddling harder or more often on the opposite side to the wind. 
       In the summer afternoons, heat rises off the land creating a partial vacuum which is then filled by air moving onshore across the colder water.  Onshore winds in the afternoon and early evening compound surface winds in both speed and direction.  This often means a hard paddle against a headwind at the end of the day.  It is also the reason why inexperienced paddlers sometimes have trouble making it back to shore.  Talking with locals who are familiar with local wind conditions is often helpful. 
       The upside of understanding the wind is that you can use it to make paddling easier and more fun.  'Surfing' in open water on a following wind, paddling into a headwind, successfully maintaining a course with a strong beam wind..these are all a lot of fun and will worth perfecting and adding to your repertoire of paddling skills.

Special Offer:

   I If you've paddled with us before and want to book a multi-day trip for at the first two weeks in September, you're eligible for a free night's stay w/ breakfast (a $95 value) before the trip.  Wake up on the morning of your trip refreshed and ready to go with no traveling involved.  Call us at 617-957-8802 to reserve this special deal.

Joys of Kayak Camping

     A couple of years ago I wrote a guest blog on 'Kayak Camping' for the blog, 'The Naked Kayaker' (nothing to do with nakedness) and by request I thought to revisit this blogpost here. For those interested in the complete post, check out the link at the end of this excerpt...
     The upside of embarking on an overnight kayak-camping trip can be huge.  At the very least, it’s a fun time where you’ll get a good work-out for a couple of days, hone your camping skills, enjoy the outdoors, and get to know some like-minded people who enjoy paddling.  At best, it can truly be a life-changing experience, particularly when you think about the interpersonal dynamics that can develop between paddling buddies - parent-son/daughter, spouses, partners, friends, siblings, etc.
     On a multi-day trip, regardless of weather and sea conditions, you’ll probably experience a certain ‘discomfort level’, hopefully minor, that can be both physical and psychological. And when things work out, which is usually the case, getting over this barrier with friends/family might just be one of the coolest things you’ll ever do in the great outdoors.  (complete blogpost)

Book of the Month:  "The Complete Sea Kayaker's Handbook" by Shelley Johnson

     First published in 2001 this 2nd edition of this popular book is packed with information which is particularly useful for the beginner to intermediate paddler planning to venture out onto the ocean on longer trips.   It's the book I recommend to anyone who asks ' Is there one book which covers all the basics?'   Well, this is it!  Topics include how to select the best kayak for you, choice of gear, the basics of paddling technique, navigating from the cockpit of a kayak as well as chapters on trip planning and logistics and kayak camping. - it's all there, including a great section on Resources and References on specific topics.  Highly recommended.