Traditionally Pacific Islanders have sailed vast distances without compass or instruments, steering by the stars, the flight of seabirds, the shivering air of thermals rising above islands, the green hue of a lagoon cast on the belly of a cloud, or the feel of the swell generated by familiar winds.
At any time the ocean’s surface is an incredibly complex interference
pattern of waves generated near and far away, new waves and old and waves bent
by proximity to land. Waves created by the persistent trade winds were
recognizable. Young navigators were taught to lay in the bilge with eyes closed
and identify the swell patterns by the pitch, yaw, and scend of the boat. They
learned to map these patterns to the movement of their bodies, feeling for the order underlying chaos, navigating by kinetic knowledge. Experienced
navigators would usually stand with legs braced, eyes closed, and plumb the
complex pattern of swells by the swing of their own testicles.
Redefines the concept of sailing by the…er…seat of
I remember once sailing blind for more than a week on a passage back from Hawaii. The engine was inoperable and we were conserving the battery for critical functions – powering the stove’s solenoid for meals and the SatNav for occasional fixes. Through the moonless nights, beneath a clouded sky, we sailed without a binnacle light, occasionally checking the course with a flashlight, judging the point of sail by the wind’s pressure on face and hands. Despite our experience and skill, we would still be frequently taken aback when we tacked unawares or accidentally gybed. I can’t imagine the exquisite sensitivity required to sail simply by the feel of the swell.