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  • Writer's pictureBarefoot Bookseller

Natural Navigation

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Natural Navigator Tristan Gooley is on the island and he’s managed to prise me away from my book to take part in a different sort of reading altogether. We’re going on a boat cruise around the Atoll, where Tristan is going to teach us to read water, using techniques from his New York Times bestselling, award-winning book How To Read Water.

We’re joined by a family of keen water-readers, who have signed up for the cruise to hear Tristan’s tips for navigating the waves and understanding waters’ movements, tides and currents. We’re warned by the boat crew that the water is extremely choppy, but climb aboard enthusiastically regardless and soon we leave the shore behind, heading towards the horizon and the setting sun. It’s not long before we hit a rough patch, our bodies propelled from one side to another as the boat cascades up and down the waves. We’re all giddy with excitement at the force of the ocean, giggling as each new wave knocks us sideways.

Tristan’s philosophy is that everything we observe in nature is a clue that help us unravel the mysteries of the world around us, and further afield. Learning to identify and read the signs in nature can help us navigate to a specific location, or allow us to determine other clues that an untrained eye might otherwise have missed:

Waves The length of time between each wave will tell us the force of the sea at that time, but the strength of the waves can also tell us our more about our position. Two islands next to one another create a disruption in the ocean’s expanse; not only will the water need to find new channels as it hits land and bounces back out to sea, creating new currents and wave patterns, but the gap between the two islands forms a wind tunnel, like those we experience between two tall buildings in the city on a windy day. This stronger wind gives energy to the water, increasing the size of the waves, and causing our boat to rock as we steer over them. Underneath it all lies swell, which a force that carries water across thousands of kilometres over a longer period of time.


The wind is a crucial factor in water-reading but the water can tell us about the wind, too. We know that waves are created by wind, and the patterns of the waves are determined by three things: the strength of the wind, over what distance the wind has blown, and for how long it has been blowing. The direction of the waves and the swell are all clues to the strength and direction of the wind, not only where we are but thousands of miles away. Wind causes ripples, which may become waves, which can become swell.

Wildlife But it’s not all about looking at the water below us. Animals also give us important clues and Tristan encourages us to look up at the sky, too. As we peek up, we spot birds flying overhead. At this time of day – sunset – the birds are flying back towards land for the night, so the direction that the birds are travelling can point us towards land, a critical part of survival in nautical navigation.

Sun Looking at the sky has other benefits. The sun can tell us a lot about the time of day. If the sun is directly overhead, it’s midday. We can also find North, South, East and West from the sun’s position. If the sun is setting, we know it’s in the West; if it’s rising, we know it’s in the East. But there’s more to reading the sun than this basic navigational tool. Tristan teaches us how to use our hands to determine how many minutes there are until sunset. By extending your arm fully and placing the bottom of your hand above the horizon, you can count how many finger widths there are between the horizon and the sun. For every finger width, it’s approximately fifteen minutes until sunset.

Clouds We can use the shape of the clouds not only to look for bad weather ahead, but also to locate the position of islands underneath. Clouds that look like islands are often signifiers of an island just beneath them. Precipitation rises from the island beneath to form a cloud above. As most other clouds are blown across the sky by the wind, these clouds caused by islands are constantly being reinforced by the continuous cycle of precipitation from the land. The cloud above the island remains static, while all other clouds blow over. A static, island-shaped cloud is usually a good sign of land.

As the boat turns back towards our own tropical island, the sun sinking to kiss the horizon, I’m amazed by how much we have learned. These are so much more than survival skills; Tristan’s techniques for reading simple patterns in the landscape have changed my entire perspective on nature. A beautiful sight is now so much more; it has a purpose and a connection with everything else I am witnessing around me. Best of all, natural navigation has left me exhilarated in a way that only reading can.

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