Fascinating book by John Huth discusses navigation in a whole new way

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

Reviewed by Peter Jones

         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.