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Monday, April 09, 2018

Review: The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

Larry Hosken highly recommended The Lost Art of Finding Our Way on his book review. I love navigating and navigation problems. When I walked across England, I got lost nearly every day on the trip and loved it. One of my favorite things about cycle touring is that you get to do it all: you pick the destination and decide on the best way to get there, based on what you get to see and do along the way. There are some who just want to be told where to go, but to me that's missing the joy of exploration.

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (LAFOW) is written by a Harvard Physics professor. It doesn't, however, read like dry academic prose, though it's hardly a practical manual of navigation either. It starts out explaining his explorations by kayak during which a fog bank rolls in and obscures the view of land. He then used the wind to navigate back, and upon returning discovers that two young women in kayaks had gotten lost and were not found until their bodies were discovered days later, dead.

He then discusses a bunch of topics near and dear to navigation: what people do when they get lost, and how search and rescue operates. Surprisingly, most people are found within a mile of when they got lost: the definition of being lost is that you've completely lost track of where you are, and hence it's easy to literally walk around in circles without aim. I guess that by that definition, I've never really been lost, because even as a kid, if I lost track of my parents I always knew where the car was, and would be found crying next to the car waiting for my parents to get back.

The typical topics include triangulation, use of landmarks, use of sun and wind for direction finding as well as the rules of thumb used to gauge distance by measuring it against your fingers or your hand. Then there's coverage of celestial navigation and an unfortunately short description of the use of the sextant as well as how it was developed. The methods of determining longitude have been covered elsewhere, so fortunately Huth doesn't spend too much time on it. One of the best sections of the book covered the use of waves and swells for direction finding as well as predicting the weather and determining current. In one particularly educational story, the book describes some ocean navigators discovering some unusual wave patterns, and upon checking against their celestial reckoning realized they were miles off where they thought they ought to be, and realized that a huge storm was coming and changed direction, escaping a storm which claimed the lives of other sailors who were caught in the same storm.

The final part of the book surprisingly enough, goes into the design of hulls and sails that allow ships to sail into the wind, but of course, have little to do with navigation. (Hey, how could a Physics professor abstain from a treatise on the Bernoulli effect) And the entire book is finished off with a story of a navigator who led a tribe to invade another island, but on the return trip, didn't explain her approach to navigating home, whereupon the rest of the tribe rebelled and threw her off the lead canoe. She was picked up by a loyal member of the family at the tail end of the flotilla, and of course, she survived to navigate home while the rest of the tribe, having lost the only person who knew what she was doing, got lost and were never seen again. It's both a parable about the importance of navigational skills as well as the need of even a star navigator to be able to explain herself to her friends, which is something I need prodding on as well.

The book is full of illustrations and pictures and wouldn't translate well to a Kindle (one of the Amazon reviewers also noted that the Kindle edition of the book is terrible and full of typos), so it's one of the few paper books I've bought in recent years. Recommended. If you'd like to borrow my copy please let me know.

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