Navigation Masterclass: Secrets of the South Pacific Wave Pilots

March 2021

Dr Sam Willis speaks with John Huth, the Donner Professor of Science at Harvard who works mainly in the field of experimental particle physics. He is in fact a member of the international team that discovered the Higgs Boson particle. He has also, however, written a rather wonderful book on navigation – The Lost Art of Finding Our Way – in which he contends that even the most confused of us can improve our navigational understanding by paying closer attention to the world around us. Long before GPS, Google Earth, and global transit, humans traveled vast distances using only environmental clues and simple instruments. And the question John wants an answer to is this – what is lost when modern technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way? We’re exploring some of those themes today by looking at the wave pilots of the Marshall Islands who read the patterns of swell in the ocean to orientate themselves in their unique archipelago.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. It’s the first week of March, and although we’re still in lockdown, the temperatures are rising, the sun is spending longer in the sky. And we begin as always by checking on the sailors of the whaler Swan, of Hull, trapped in the ice off the west coast of Greenland in the spring of 1837. They know there is now a little hope, inspired rather wonderfully by them drifting to within sight of an island called Disko. The readings come from a transcription of the Swan’s logbook made specially for the podcast. The original and very splendid document is held at the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

    Whaler Swan

    Sunday 5th of March. Strong gales in the northeast the whole of the day. At 11pm our flow broke on all sides of us but thank God our ship remains still in the middle of a long smooth body of water. The darkness of night prevents us seeing the burghs, which are doubtless the cause of it but we fear they are not far off. A 360-gallon shake, number 11, cut up this day for fuel. Thermometer 14 degrees below zero. Monday 6th of March. Strong breezes with thick weather. Middle and latter part light variable winds. A 217-gallon shake cut up for fuel, number 18. During the last night we have drifted through a reef of burghs, but we are now a few miles to the southward of them, wonderfully preserved. The land has not been seen these last few days though it has been tolerably clear. Thermometer 15 degrees below zero. Thursday 9th of March. Strong breezes the fore part of this day with fine clear weather. The island of Disko a-line a beem of about 30 miles distant. Our prospective relief from this desolate place being better than we expected a month ago. The week’s allowance of bread this day was increased to four pounds being an additional half pounds since the 14th of December last. A 260-gallon cask, number 22, cut up for firewood this day. Thermometer 16 degrees below zero. Latitude 69 degrees by 50 north.

    Sam Willis

    Hello everyone. I now have to drag you back from the frozen north to transport you to the balmy climes of the Marshall Islands in the middle of the Pacific. I’m speaking today with the excellent John Huth, about the wave pilots of the South Pacific. Yes, you heard that right. These are people who use traditional understanding of the shifting pattern of the waves that they come across to navigate between islands. The sea itself tells them where they are going. It’s a wonderful chapter in the history of navigation, and no one knows more about it than John. John Huth is the Donner Professor of Science at Harvard. And he works mainly in the field of experimental particle physics. He is in fact, a member of the International team that discovered the Higgs Boson particle. He has also, however, written a rather wonderful book, ‘The Lost Art of Finding Our Way’ in which he contends that even the most confused of us can improve our navigational understanding by paying closer attention to the world around us. Long before GPS, Google Earth and global transit, humans traveled vast distances using only environmental clues and simple instruments. And the question John wants an answer to is this – what is lost when modern technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way? We’re exploring some of these themes today talking about the wave pilots of the Marshall Islands, they’re in a really interesting area of ocean. The Marshall Islands are 70 square miles of land in total, comprising five different islands and twenty-nine atolls, but 870 different reef systems, scattered over 750,000 square miles of the Central Pacific. These islands, they’re rings of coral islets that grew up around the rim of underwater volcanoes millions of years ago, and now encircle gentle lagoons. They’re sort of dots or donuts, I suppose that make up two parallel north-south chains separated from their nearest neighbours by on average 100 miles. Now, swells generated by distance storms travel 1000s of miles to these low line spits of sand and when they hit part of their energy is reflected back out to sea in arcs, a bit like sound waves emanating from a speaker, while another part curls around the atoll, or island, and creates a type of confused chop. Wave pilots read these patterns by both feel and sight to work out where they are. The way that a particle physicist became involved in a project to study this is quite some story. And I hope you enjoy it. Here’s John.

    Hi, John, thanks so much for talking to us.

    Professor John Huth

    It’s a pleasure, Sam.

    Sam Willis

    So, tell me about how you became interested first in navigation and the ways that people find their way around the world.

    Professor John Huth

    Well, I’d always been interested in maps and that sort of thing as a kid, but what really propelled me was an accident. And it happened, actually about a half a mile from where I am at the moment. I’d taken up sea kayaking, mostly to fish, and one summer in 2003, I was up on an island off the coast of Maine, and I rented a sea kayak from somebody there. And I’ve been there the year before, so I kind of knew the area, at least mentally, I had a mental map of the area. And I decided to paddle around the island that I was staying on. And as I was crossing, a large embayment, about two miles across, all of a sudden, a very thick fog descended. And I hadn’t thought about that as a possibility. But there was nothing but open ocean to the south of me. And I realized that if I couldn’t orient myself, I might very well get lost out to sea. So, I had to very quickly think about what I was seeing and feeling as the fog was descending. So, there was a wind out of the southeast. So, I figured, well, that probably would keep up and make a good compass. There was a swell running out of the south, and so I said, Okay, that’s another sign. And then I could hear waves crashing on the beach, to the northeast. And I knew that I would sort of see that go kind of from the 10 o’clock position to maybe the 8 o’clock position as I was moving. And there were some shallows where waves crashed in opposite directions about a mile away. So, I knew if I kept my orientation and paddled for about 20 minutes, I’d get there. So, in fact, I did. And I was relieved to see the waves crashing in opposite directions, and I turned north. And I saw then lobster buoys, the lobster fishermen were dropping their lobster pots only so close to land, because when the tide went out, you know, they didn’t want to have them high and dry. So that line of demarcation gave me another orientation. And so, it was just all this information that all of a sudden was kind of rolling into me in the fog, it was kind of like, you know, your turn off the site and you key in another piece of information. Well, I made it back fine. Although I realized I should have been wearing a wetsuit because the water temperature was cold. In any case, I got one. And I went back to my house in Cape Cod, which is where I’m sitting right now. And then Columbus Day weekend, which we’re now only some of us are calling Indigenous Peoples day, in October 2003, I went out for a paddle, the water was wet side, my cold I had my wetsuit on. And just out of reflex, I noticed which way the wind was blowing. And it was a clear, bright sunny day. And after half an hour thick fog rolled in. And, you know, it was like second nature to me, I was using the wind as a natural compass. And if I ever got out of sight of land, I could just turn north and hit the coastline and follow the coastline. So, I made it back without a problem, enjoyed myself even and then took a shower, had dinner, all that good stuff. And then the next day I went out paddling and the harbourmaster came up to me in his boat and asked me if I saw two young women kayaking, and I said, ‘well, no’. And then I later learned that about almost exactly the moment I launched my kayak and only about a half a mile down the beach, two young women had launched their kayaks and gone out into Nantucket Sound, and evidently got lost in the fog, same fog I was paddling in. And at that moment, there was a massive search and rescue going on for them. And the next day they found the body of one of the young women and never found the body of the other. And some weeks later I was walking down the beach and at the site where they launched their kayaks, there was a memorial to the young woman whose body wasn’t found, and her picture was on a little placard and the saying said, ‘no one is lost to God’. And this was really disturbing for me, and I guess, you know, if you hear about a fatality or something like that, you know, it’s sad, but you turn the page in the newspaper and you go on to something else. But because I was doing the exact same thing at the exact same time in the same conditions, I had a real sense of survivor’s guilt. Like, why me and not them, although, in the back of my mind, it was that I paid attention to the wind direction, and that was really the difference. So, kind of to work off the survivor’s guilt, and this wasn’t a conscious decision, but I just became obsessed with wayfinding with natural signs. And I decided to improve on those skills. So, I memorized the positions of major stars in the sky and came up with my own system for navigating using, without instruments, using stars in the sky and the sun and this sort of thing.

    Sam Willis

    Wow, it’s some story. I think we should say here that you’re not by your employment, a historian or a professional navigator, are you, this is something that you adopted. What do you do in your day-to-day job?

    Professor John Huth

    Yeah, my day job is, I’m an experimental particle physicist. So, you know, after this discussion, I’m going to return to that and talk about electronics and colliding protons together at high energies and making new forms of matter. So that’s it.

    Sam Willis

    It was a significant retraining to learn about the natural forms of navigation. But I think there’s an important lesson there and that, you know, it’s valuable, it’s a valuable skill for everyone to do. And you went on to write a book, didn’t you?

    Professor John Huth

    Yes. I started teaching it. I started to see the world in a different way. And I thought everybody around me was sleepwalkers, although I was once a sleepwalker. And I thought, you know, if I could kind of look at the world in this different way, maybe it could be taught. So, I started teaching it first as a freshman seminar. And then as a course, but there’s no real text for this. So, I developed texts called ‘The Lost Art of Finding Our Way’, which serves both as a text and a lot of other people outside have read it, and they like it because it’s kind of a unique perspective that I don’t think people have even thought about really.

    Sam Willis

    And there are so many neat tricks to navigation and sort of simple things you can do to help you find your way. It’s something I came across when I had to do a TV show and I was in charge of navigating, but at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and I knew how to use a sextant, and I got to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which is a mile deep, and realised I couldn’t see the horizon!

    Professor John Huth

    I would imagine!

    Sam Willis

    Serious problem, really quite a massive problem. And also, you’ve got you know, the river moving at uncertain speeds, it was incredibly difficult and utterly bewildering, even if you know you are skilled navigator to actually work out where you’re at sea. But in this alien environment, very difficult indeed. And I did a bit of work, and one of the little tricks I loved the most was walking in woodland when you just looked at which side of the trees got moss on and that will help you understand which is the side in the shade. And ever since and I’ve loved this as well. And I’d encourage everyone listening to try and find out a little bit about navigating. What are your favourite tricks that you came across?

    Professor John Huth

    Well, the moss and the tree thing is not always reliable. So, you have to be, you have to be a little careful about that because it depends on you know, the shade and that sort of thing. But I use shadows a lot. And the shadows, basically you can think of like every telephone pole or power pole or tree as kind of a natural sundial. And if you think in those terms, and you start to observe it, you know, the shadows just tell you a huge amount. You have to know the time of day, of course, but there’s also the height of the sun in the sky and the combination of the height of the sun in the sky and the position of the shadow can act like a natural sundial. And I find over time, by observing it, you can almost build in this intuition about you know, where’s north, east, south and west. Just by observing shadows. So that’s my favourite go-to. Of course, you can say what do you do on a cloudy day? And then I fall back on wind directions and that sort of thing.

    Sam Willis

    So how did you get interested in wave navigation – this extraordinary project that you became involved in?

    Professor John Huth

    So, let’s see. So, in writing the book, I did include something about wave navigation because I knew of it. And I sent the book to an anthropologist to make sure I had the facts right – mainly about Pacific Island culture (because most of it was stuff I’d read), and he was very gracious, and it turned out I didn’t make too many mistakes. But then he said you probably want to talk to this other guy, Joe Genz. And Joe is a professor now at the University of Hawaii. And he did his dissertation on wave navigation in the Marshall Islands, which is a cluster of islands close to the equator in the Central Pacific. And so, we went through a lot of detail on that. I went out there and we had a crew, Joe, somebody, a Marshall Islander who specialises in building canoes, outrigger canoes, and then a numerical specialist, in numerical simulation of waves. And we did a non-instrument voyage between two atolls and also learned from a navigator, who learned from his grandfather and all this information that again, gotten passed down. And it was really a question of sort of taking the physicist toolkit, if you like, and then applying it to this cultural tradition of navigation using waves. And, to my knowledge, it was kind of a first and it was actually very enjoyable. And in fact, tomorrow, I have a meeting with some of these people to do a follow-up expedition.

    Sam Willis

    You might find me tagging along, it’s all sounds too much fun. I love this interdisciplinary aspect of it, you know, bringing the mind of physician to a problem, did that really kind of feel like it benefited you?

    Professor John Huth

    I think so because we found, I found many new things. One of the things that they talk about is you don’t – it’s not seeing the waves; it’s feeling the waves. That is to say, feeling the motion of the vessel. And I didn’t really understand that until I started looking in detail on the physics of ocean waves. And it turns out that the longer period waves, you know, the time between the crests, the longer that is the more that carries information about land nearby. But the short stuff, the chop, the windblown chop doesn’t. And so, the motion of the vessel kind of averages out the windblown chop, and you’re left with the real information in the motion of the vessel. And so, when I was out there in the middle of the night, between two atolls, I could feel the motion of the waves acting on the boat and could start to understand why they develop that. So here was something that started out as an equation that I kind of knew about and vaguely understood the tradition, but then in the middle of the night, sitting on the vessel, I understood (put two and two together) and really understood why they felt the motion of the vessel. So that’s one example.

    Sam Willis

    So, in simple terms, what is the tradition? How does this work?

    Professor John Huth

    Well, so

    Sam Willis

    I suppose those are two different questions, aren’t they? So, let’s do the first one first. What is the tradition?

    Professor John Huth

    So, basically, waves will interact with land in some way. Ocean waves can get extinguished by land, so you can be kind of in the wave shadow, they’ll reflect off of a coastline. So, you can see the reflections off the coastline, or rather, feel the reflections off of coastline. And then they’ll sometimes they’ll bend around islands as well, and kind of create a crossing pattern of waves that are crossing in the wake of the island, if you like. And so, the Marshall Islanders keyed in on this and developed a rather elaborate tradition and language that was very specific to using these waves to find their way from one place to another.

    Sam Willis

    And I mean, is the answer to the question, how does it work? Is it that different to the way that they understand it in their tradition?

    Professor John Huth

    Well, that’s the interesting challenge, because you deal with different words or terms that they use for different wave patterns. And then it’s a challenge to get them to explain it because they don’t quite explain that in terms that a scientist might understand or explain it to another person in details. So sometimes you get: ‘there it is’. And it’s like, ‘where what is?’, you know, ‘I don’t understand?’. So, in particular, one that was rather interesting to me was, Joe, the anthropologist, I mentioned, he was working with Captain Corrent, who was taught wave navigation by his grandfather. And they were looking at reflections. And I got a little video from Joe about Corrent pointing at it, and Corrent was basically saying, you know, in marshalese: ‘there’s the reflection, see it, there’s a reflection’, and Joe couldn’t see it, and an oceanographer couldn’t see it. And they had a wave buoy that was supposedly out there to measure it, and the wave, buoy couldn’t register it. And being a sea kayaker, I kind of realized what was going on was that the reflected wave was smaller than the incoming wave, because you lost some of the energy on the coastline, and it got broken up into little wavelets. And so, once you knew what to look for, you know, I was able to explain this to Joe. And I so what so I went back to the video and I said to Joe: ‘hey, you see what’s happening is the reflected wave is smaller, and it’s broken up into little wavelets. And you see, that’s what he’s pointing at’. And Joe said: ‘Oh, yeah. Ah, now I see!’ And so, it’s the difference between somebody saying, ‘there it is, there it is’ and you’re like ‘there what is?’ and then being able to sort of understand actually what it is in detail and say, ‘it’s this little wavelet, and it’s smaller and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’. And so, I was almost acting kind of like an interpreter, between kind of their culture and being able to explain it to somebody else. So that was kind of interesting.

    Sam Willis

    An amazing position to find yourself in. And when you did the trip, did it work? Was it accurate? Did the traditional navigation techniques put you roughly where you expected to be?

    Professor John Huth

    It was actually remarkable. So Alison Kealan, was the name of the navigator. He was the – he navigated the outrigger canoe between the two atolls, and we followed in a chase boat, just to be safe. We had a VHF transceiver so we could communicate with him. And so, at three in the morning, he liked to sail at night, because he says, his eyes get fooled, and he likes to feel the motion of the vessel. So that’s kind of tracks with what I understand. And about three in the morning, as we were sort of off of one of the atolls, we called him up on the VHF and said: ‘Where do you think you are?’ And he said: ‘Oh, I think I’m about 12 miles to the southeast of the southeast corner of Aur’, which is the atoll we were sailing to. And he was dead-on accurate. I mean, it was unbelievable how precise he was. And, you know, on the return voyage, the wind kind of dropped out, and we were getting swept off course by a current, and he knew that I mean, he just seemed to know everything that was going on. And I was just there, kind of dutifully recording the voyage, and always, you know, ‘yes, there’s a current, yes, we are where we are, yes’, you know, everything he was saying was spot on. But I had like a little GPS because I had to record this and record the wind and you know, sort of just about everything to sort of figure out what was going on. But he had everything nailed. It was crazy.

    Sam Willis

    That’s extraordinary. I mean, there’s a material culture to this as well. They have these extraordinary wave navigation maps, which were built at the time. Tell me a little bit about those.

    Professor John Huth

    Yeah, those are called stick charts, generically. And they can be as simple as being effectively like a map that shows you where all the atolls are located. But they can also depict the ways that waves can interact with land, and also currents close to land as well. And so, there’s a lot of information that’s used. So, they’re kind of teaching aids in the sense. So, you look at these stick charts on land

    Sam Willis

    Can you describe one?

    Professor John Huth

    Yeah, so basically, they’re sticks that are tied together by strings, sometimes, hibiscus threads, typically. And they have arcs on them for depicting waves. So, waves are always depicted as arcs, and directions of passages are straight lines. And some of them sort of have a twofold symmetry, so they look like a cross with some arcs in them. Some of them have a one-fold symmetry, so that’s more like a line with arcs on them. And then some of them are some mixture that has places that have shells that are tied to the lattice of sticks. And the shells represent islands or atolls as well. So, it’s really a mixture of waves plus islands that are all represented by these sticks tied together.

    Sam Willis

    And they’re functional and beautiful as well, aren’t they? Some of them are objects to be looked at as well as to be used I suspect.

    Professor John Huth

    Oh, yeah. They’re in museums across the world. So, if you just Google up ‘stick charts’ or something like that, you’ll be treated to a page full of these and they’re quite amazing looking.

    Sam Willis

    So, what do you reckon the next project is? What’s the next step in research trying to understand what’s going on here?

    Professor John Huth

    You mean wave piloting? Well, actually tomorrow I’m having a conference with these people. From what we got from the last voyage, there seemed to be an important feature, there’s something called dilep, which actually would be spelled d-i-l-e-p. So, you would think it would be pronounced di-lep. But that’s just the problem of translating, you know, things from the native language. And it’s supposedly a path of disturbed water that connects pairs of islands. And when we sailed, we sailed on a path – especially our return voyage – that seemed to be sailing, I guess, parallel to the wave crests the entire time. And we figured out what was going on by using numerical waves simulations, but then there was a much simpler way of understanding what was going on by how the waves were interacting and spreading out with the atolls. So, this is kind of the hypothesis that this is the way to sail up and down the chains of the islands. So, what we want to do is go back and test that. And another thing I want to do is try to instrument the canoes with inertial sensors. So, we can basically record what the body is feeling. And then you know, sort of correlate that with the sensation. So, I could feel the motion of the vessel, myself of rocking back and forth and pitching up and down. But now I’d like to record that and sort of compare my own sensations or the sensations of the navigator to what we’re recording with this instrument.

    Sam Willis

    It sounds absolutely extraordinary. I think it’s exactly entirely appropriate that a scientist is doing this rather than a historian. I think I’d be wholly lost. But it sounds like we might be able to find some really new interesting information. We’ll have to keep us informed or come back and find out how it’s going on. Tell us about your book, what’s the title of your book? If anyone wants to find out more.

    Professor John Huth

    It’s called the ‘Lost Art of Finding Our Way’. And it was actually great fun to write. Because I had to dig up a lot of stories of, you know, mistakes, and people getting lost. And doing research as it turns out, the way people get lost and get un-lost is rather fascinating, because it almost mirrors the way people live their lives. So, you know, people could, some people they go on a random walk – they sort of walk around randomly. And so, you kind of know people that do that – they pick up something and do something else. The other people that try to get un-last, they go in a straight line. So, they’ve been told that if they just go in a straight line soon enough, at some point, they’re going to cross a road or a river or something like that. And we all know individuals that sort of blindly pursue one vocation over their entire lives. And then another strategy is called ‘route sampling’, where you actually follow a route for some distance, but then maybe you go back to your starting point and follow another route. So, you know, some people reset their midlife aims and that sort of thing. Another thing is to get onto a high promontory and kind of survey what’s going around. And so, I found that the behaviour of lost persons is almost like a metaphor for personality types, in some ways. And this is one of the amazing things that I found in writing the book. I mean, researching it was just so much fun getting all these stories.

    Sam Willis

    And so much on the edge as well. I think, you know, the terror of getting lost. It really is a fascinating kind of moment in people’s lives, whether you have the security of knowing where you are, and the terror of being lost. How much admiration do you have for the early navigators?

    Professor John Huth

    Oh, incredible! I mean, and I’ve met some people who navigate for the Polynesian Voyaging Society. So, this was a group, is a group in Hawaii that wanted to prove wilful navigation and sailing across the vast expanses of the Pacific and develop this double hold canoe called the Hokule’a. And they employed first a native to an island called Satawal in the Federated Republic of Micronesia, as the first navigator, but he taught somebody named Nainoa Thompson, who is now the president. And then Nainoa then taught other navigators, and I met some of these navigators who would do, for example, the Hawaii to Tahiti run and they said that they were terrified because they were out there without instruments; they knew kind of what to look for, but they weren’t sure it was going to work. But then, sure enough, it did work. And so, there is a sort of terror, the first time out where it’s like, is this gonna work? I don’t know! And, and then it does.

    Sam Willis

    I’ve always been fascinated by the way that the sea has different seascapes within it, there are somewhere enormous waves are coming, they have some areas where, like the doldrums, where it’s very still; some which are covered in weed; and the sea is not just the sea, it is fundamentally physically different in locations within one ocean. I find that extraordinary.

    Professor John Huth

    Yeah, no, it’s definitely true. And you know, the sea has a personality and has to be respected. And you have to kind of know where to where to piece these things together. Like you say, the doldrums are quite calm, or you could be off the coast of South Africa and ended up with incredibly scary waves because you have a very strong current going against the wind down there. So those are just a few examples.

    Sam Willis

    Oh, for 10 minutes, with Ferdinand Magellan after a nice meal.

    Professor John Huth

    One interesting story I found about the first circumnavigation was that basically if you count the days, right – just sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset – if you sail around the world, depending on which direction you go, you either gain or you lose a day if you take it off of the calendar, right? If you think about it, it’s true, but you didn’t think about it until the survivors of the Magellan voyage, when they finally got back to you know, quote, unquote, ‘civilization’, they found that they were off by a day, and they were celebrating the Sabbath on the wrong day. And they didn’t think about it. But that was this weird thing that they just hadn’t thought about. And all of a sudden, you know, you sail one way around the world or the other way you gain, or you lose a day.

    Sam Willis

    Must have been utterly bewildering. They’ve actually managed to survive, but they’ve literally lost 24 hours.

    Professor John Huth

    Yeah, exactly.

    Sam Willis

    Extraordinary. Well, listen, thank you so much for your time. I very much hope you’ll come back and let us know how things are progressing.

    Professor John Huth

    Yeah,

    Sam Willis

    Fascinating stuff.

    Professor John Huth

    Pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    Thanks, everyone so much for listening, as always. Now, how can you help? Well, you really can help. What you can do is you can go on to iTunes and you can leave a review of the podcast, every big, good review does make a huge difference. Otherwise, please find the Society for Nautical Research on snr.org.uk. And please become a member. Your subscription fee will go towards preserving the maritime past and helping us to publish the most important maritime history. And also, please do get in touch with us on social media, either the Society for nautical research or the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. You could join either one or you can find both and join both that would be wonderful. And do please get in touch and let us know if you’re enjoying it.

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