Nature, Navigation and the founding a school

Below is the transcript of an article written by Tristan Gooley and published by the Royal Institute of Navigation in Navigation News in November 2008. For a copy of the original article please contact the RIN.

‘What next?’

That is the question that greeted me more than any other when I returned from my air and sea transatlantic solo crossings in January of this year. The editor of this esteemed organ posed that very question during an interview. I think that most people who asked the question had classified me as the sort of person who absolutely has to keep upping the challenges. Although a little taken aback initially (feeling that I had perhaps done enough for a while at least), I quickly came to realise it was a compliment of sorts.

There was a ‘next’, but it probably came as a surprise to anyone that had asked the question. The next challenge was neither as physically adventurous as the Atlantic nor as relaxing as the answer I gave your editor of ‘navigating my way to some family picnic sites’. It has been the biggest challenge in many ways. This summer I set up a school called ‘The Natural Navigator’, teaching the rare art of natural navigation. Natural navigation is the art of finding your way solely by reference to nature, using the sun, stars, moon, weather, land, sea, plants and animals. No tools are used in natural navigation, not even a sextant.

My love of navigation has always stemmed from the simple impulse and of, ‘I am here, I want to get there, this is how I will do it.’ It grew from a plan as simple as getting to the top of a hill in a park, through the intense complexities of engine failure after take off drills over an icy Bristol airport, to being able to look at maps and charts and prod my finger over large parts of them. It was perhaps a simplistic view of navigation, a tad romantic even; I saw the navigator as the one taking on nature and occasionally emerging unscathed.
As the years passed and my understanding deepened, I noticed a trend along the way. For as long as navigation methods have been recorded there have been tools involved. From the kamal to the GPS, the history of navigation sometimes reads like a catalogue of ever-greater levels of technical sophistication and consequently accuracy. This trend is a positive one, it allows the human race more freedom to travel and to do it much more safely. It is to be applauded, but like so many other areas of human achievement, if we focus on development to the exclusion of all other considerations the result is rarely entirely positive. As an example, air travel has developed to the point where it is within easy reach of nearly all the western world and yet the air journey is now treated as something to dreaded. That is an amazing achievement but not a totally positive development.

The trend that I am referring to regarding navigation is again a good one. Walkers, sailors and pilots are generally safer and more confident as a result of compasses and radio navigation aids, not least the ubiquitous GPS. Journeys that would have sown fear not long ago can now be attempted with confidence. And yet… I recently asked a longhaul airline pilot where the sun rises and beyond ‘in the east’, he did not know the answer. The purpose of this article is not really to comment on others’ knowledge or lack of it, after all the pilot in question is skilled using bits of kit that I would not know how to spell let alone use professionally, it is really to explain my personal experience and how it has led to a small school.

I feel privileged to have cut my teeth on land, sea and in the air in a pre-ubiquitous-GPS (PUG?) age. I certainly feel more at home using a compass than the next generation might, and yet even as I reached a reasonable level of experience in those three areas I still did not feel as connected to the world around me as a navigator as I would have liked. Perhaps it is testament to the technological navigational achievements of our race that it is now possible to move around the earth confidently without actually understanding it. However true that may be, there is a big difference between safe movement and a satisfying journey. It was this feeling of dissatisfaction more than anything else that made my pulse quicken when, about ten years ago I came across a book called ‘Nature is Your Guide’, by Harold Gatty. It was a life-changer for me. Gatty was one of the greatest navigators on earth in his day and he was certainly no Luddite (he was a pioneer and helped develop tools like the air sextant) and yet this book focused on the art and skill of using nature to find your way. It ranges from mountain to sea, but my favourite sentence is taken from his aerial observations,

‘I found that it was much easier to tell the direction the wind was blowing on Mondays than on any other day by watching the clotheslines, for Monday is washday the world over. ‘

From the moment I first read his book to this day I have viewed the world and indeed the world of navigation differently. The strange world of natural navigation has held a fascination for me ever since. As I built my conventional experience using all sorts of acronymmed gadgets, including ADF, ILS, AIS and of course GPS, part of me also strove to build my understanding of the natural world, always searching for clues that could be used for direction finding.

I also began a process of seeking and reading every book, article or reference that I could on the subject. It is not a well-documented area and so even in the age of the internet I have had to resort to some unusual methods at times, including procuring manuscripts of books that have lain unpublished for years. One of the things that I have noted during this ongoing search is how irrelevant the art is considered by the mainstream navigation community. Put another way, of the thousands of books that have been published on navigation and related topics, the vast majority (I’d guess at over 99%) make no reference to natural navigation at all. Far from discouraging me this only spurred my interest – I am a contrarian by nature.

Over the years I have made some small observations and developed minor methods and techniques that I had not been taught by anyone or read anywhere. Examining the position and colour of puddles being one such area. The satisfaction derived from pioneering, albeit in a very small way, only served to stoke the fires of interest and keep my senses alert.

The Atlantic crossings had served their purpose well, as an education in conventional navigation I could not have selected a better goal, but even before their completion I knew that my navigational interest lay on the natural side of things. It is, however, very much a complementary skill, so regardless of how closely I study the natural world I do still use GPS, compasses et al. I would be a fool and a potentially dangerous fool at that if I did not. A love of natural navigation need not be synonymous with a desire for greater risk, quite the opposite in fact, when used as a complementary skill it improves safety.

The big question for me was whether I was alone in this fascination. I wanted to set up a small school to research and teach this rare art, but I don’t mind admitting that there were doubts in my mind. I remember reading a small business guide many years ago that said, ‘Before starting any business, work out who the competition are and study them carefully. A lot of new businesses start because they believe that there is no competition. If that is the case it is likely that there is no market.’ While my aim was not to build a multinational corporation, those words did still seem to have some relevance and I did find it odd that a subject that I had become so engrossed in was not seemingly being taught by anyone else in the world. I mulled it over, weighed the pros and the cons, and then made the decision. Dr Rita Gardner CBE, the Director of the RGS, recently introduced me at a lecture as a ‘safely reckless’ individual. This was certainly one of those exhilarating moments where the line between sensible and rash becomes blurred.

After an exciting couple of months spent setting up the one-man school, building the Beginner’s course and trying to get the word out, there was an anxious wait. Would anyone have any interest in a course like mine, a course that had never existed anywhere else before?

The first real interest came from the media, which was a surprise but not an unpleasant one – there was no marketing budget to speak of for this little venture. The Natural Navigator school appeared in all the main newspapers and lots of magazines and soon the bookings started to come in. I have been overjoyed by the interest and the popularity of the courses. Never in my most enthusiasticly reckless moments did I imagine that there would be waiting lists for some dates. After spending so much time as a solo navigator, it’s wonderful to know that I am not completely alone in my interest in this arcane subject.

It’s been a great 2008 so far, but before you ask, the next challenge is to ensure that I make time to continue my research into this wonderful subject.

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For a complete guide to Natural Navigation read Tristan’s books.