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The Barefoot Navigator: by Jack Lagan

The Barefoot Navigator: by Jack Lagan

Lagan wants to extol the merits of “barefoot navigation” and then provide the reader with extensively detailed instructions for such a navigation style.

The Barefoot Navigator: by Jack Lagan

3 / 5

The Barefoot Navigator is a specific book with a specific purpose. Namely, author Jack Lagan wants to extol the merits of “barefoot navigation” and then provide the reader with extensively detailed instructions for such a navigation style. Beyond a short opening section on the history of navigation, Lagan’s book is not all that entertaining, nor is it trying to be, but, nevertheless, it remains informative and interesting to read.

Barefoot navigation is, per Lagan, the process of steering an ocean vessel without relying on satellite systems or any sort of electronic equipment. For Lagan, it is less an aesthetic choice – but it can certainly be one – and more of a worst-case survival scenario. Any prolific mariner may find herself stranded at sea, with none of her navigational devices functioning. How will she survive such a situation? Barefoot navigation. For Lagan, every responsible seafarer needs these skills. He also finds barefoot navigation as having merit even in non-survival scenarios: it offers challenges and it links today’s ship captains to one of the most primordial of human tasks, namely piloting a ship with only the sky and sea for reference. Navigating barefoot connects us with our ancestors.

The Barefoot Navigator contains four parts. The first part provides a brief historical overview of ocean navigation from the ancient world through the early modern period. Lagan discusses the Polynesians, the Vikings and the Mediterraneans, who are sort of the Mount Rushmore of sea exploration in terms of their accomplishments. Then he covers the more recent explorers: the Arabs, the Chinese and, finally, the early modern Europeans. In each case here, Lagan skips the long list of navigational accomplishments achieved by each people group; instead, he explains their navigational techniques and tools. He cites historical and archaeological scholarship and discusses the major debates among academics about the ways these people spread throughout the world.

The next three parts of The Barefoot Navigator are about how to navigate in the twenty-first century, but without all of the current technology. Lagan describes multiple techniques for ocean exploration that involve no technology more advanced than a pencil and paper. These mostly involve measuring the sun’s position at noon, reading the tides, wind and ocean swell (terms he carefully defines) and calibrating latitude from observing the position of the stars when the rise above the horizon. He sneaks in a few pointers that are a bit more surprising, such as looking for aircraft with their landing gear deployed, which is not exactly how the Polynesians found Hawaii, one would imagine. These sections feature lots of star charts, world maps with prevailing winds marked and drawings of various constellations. Lagan also offers a primer on making low-tech tools – like what the Vikings or Phoenicians would have had – to speed the process of navigating barefoot.

While the book is clearly intended for recreational sailors, The Barefoot Navigator is still fascinating for non-mariners. Understanding in detail how to use the sky and the sea for wayfinding, for example, sheds much insight into the limitations of being human. Birds, after all, can fly thousands of miles without ever getting lost. Additionally, Lagan reveals the white whale of ocean navigation, the one thing that cannot be determined with certainty without the intervention of modern technology: longitude. The evasiveness of longitude measurement has been a persistent and pernicious shortcoming for all explorers, even those sailing the seas who had no concept of what longitude meant or even that the Earth was round. Even after thousands of years, no one has found a way to calibrate it (without modern equipment). One final reason The Barefoot Navigator is worthwhile for those of us who have no intention of piloting a vessel out of sight of land is Lagan himself. His expertise is without question and his writing ability is quite impressive; the book operates on two levels simultaneously, providing a basic primer on ocean travel and terminology for neophytes while also offering detailed instructions for veterans of the yacht life. Plus, Lagan weaves in personal stories of sailing in the Grenadines and some deliberately awkward humor, which keeps the pages turning.

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