The art of navigation

Our friend Michael and Chris in the back blocks of Tajikistan, 2 days after leaving the road. We were on loaded bikes, progressing around a route that was dotted on the map, using old Russian topographic maps on a cell phone, together with compass and altimeter readings and information from the locals. We were headed to a river of unknown depth (variously reported by locals as from knee to over head height). There are no helicopter rescues in Tajikistan and we didn’t have an international emergency beacon (we now do). We were on our own.

The finding of two lost trampers in northwest Nelson this week was a relief and an irritation. It is great that two young people were found and didn’t die. However, it is really annoying that two young people couldn’t navigate sufficiently well in order to save themselves (or not get lost in the first place), rather than requiring a rescue costly in time and money.

The media did a poor job of investigating the reasons why the two got lost and then couldn’t navigate their return. Media articles left us none the wiser as to whether the pair had a compass, a paper map, or any other mechanism for identifying their location and reliably planning a route to another location. We know they didn’t have an emergency beacon; this was commented on frequently while navigation devices or methods were not. The media now deem it incumbent upon people to carry an emergency location device, because a beacon will reduce the cost of a search and rescue. But shouldn’t the first call be for people to be adequately prepared to minimise the chances of needing rescue in the first place?

Much was also made of the skills of the two in surviving for multiple days with very little food. One commentator mentioned that they would need to know how to sterilise water. Presumably that radio personality didn’t realise that there isn’t too much contaminating water in the deep back country; you can just drink it au natural. The media also commented on the need to know how to light a fire. That is a good skill, practised by most with the use of a lighter or matches; there are relatively few people capable of starting a fire with no tools at all.

Which brings me back to navigation tools, and the apparent lack of capability of millenials to use tools other than those which provide continuous feedback on the route one ought to take, via GPS-enabled tracking. Supposedly a majority of millenials find it difficult to navigate without their phones. I vacillate around whether this is a normal progression of human advancement, or a problem.

I certainly found it frustrating when a younger Sarah couldn’t tell us which direction north is (she has improved on this mightily in recent years). I found it gobsmacking when I worked with a qualified engineer who couldn’t use the scale on a map. When asked to replot his location he asked me what the scale meant – it said 1 to 50 000, but what units should he use? In desperation I suggested matchsticks. I find it even more frustrating that Mum still has no idea where north is and has never particularly wanted to know; when asked which way is north she waves vaguely in a direction which could be any point on the compass! Mum, clearly, is not a millenial, and lack of navigation capability is not unique to millenials.

Does it matter whether younger (or any) people can read paper maps and use compasses to navigate? The Polynesian settlers of New Zealand (as the Phoenicians, Greeks and many others) navigated using the stars, winds, known land masses and characteristics of the sea. The earliest known compass is a 3rd century Chinese example; Europeans started using the compass in the 12th century and they were commonplace by the 15th century (technology uptake has never been universally rapid). Sailors gradually discovered that magnetic north varied in space, and became able to compensate for those variations.

Other early tools included the quadrant and astrolabe, used to estimate latitude from the stars (also requiring knowledge of the constellations), and the hourglass, which was used to estimate the speed of a ship. Although the first nautical charts were used by Italians late in the 13th century, the technology again spread slowly and was not taken up by the British until late in the 15th century. In the 18th century, maritime navigation breakthroughs were the development of the marine chronometer, which allowed accurate timekeeping, and the sextant which allowed estimation of longitude. The 20th century saw the rise of telecommunication devices and installations, a major shift again to allow accurate calibration of time, communications from land to sea (including navigational warnings), and then satellite location methods.

I could no more navigate with a sextant and chronometer than many millenials can navigate with a map and compass. So who is superior? The Polynesian or Phoenician seafarers of old? However, they would be completely befuddled by our much more accurate modern systems. The Polynesians did not, however, ever expect rescue. I expect a modicum of rescue – if I hurt myself such that my party cannot evacuate me safely, I would be hoping for a helicopter to appear or a team of people to carry me (Chris’s aunt was famously evacuated after a fall on La Perouse near Mt Cook in 1948).

A millenial appears to have a higher degree of expectation around rescue, as exemplified by the Nelson duo (who simply hunkered down and waited, despite not being injured or stuck in place by weather) and an 18 year old who took a dinghy into Cook Strait from the Marlborough Sounds this week. The youth wanted to visit his brother in Wellington and thought a dinghy a good option; he had extra fuel but no warm clothing, food or water. His engine broke down so he rang the harbour master with his cell phone to ask for a rescue. It was noted that it was good he could communicate with a cell phone; that was probably more luck than good management or prior knowledge on his part. So are the millenials right to expect rescue? Is the problem one might have about the rescue related to rescues risking the lives of others? Or is the problem about the cost – we don’t want to have to pay for the mistakes of others? Would rescues therefore be acceptable if people paid their own costs?

Switzerland has a fantastic rescue system called the Rega. One pays a 40 Euro annual fee to cover the costs of air rescue anywhere in Switzerland or Lichtenstein, for any reason. If you haven’t paid the annual fee you have to pay the full costs of your rescue. Given Swiss culture, enough people pay their Rega fees that the system can run its non-profit operation almost entirely on the fees paid. I have often wished for a similar system in New Zealand – participate in the social structure, or choose to bear the cost individually, it is up to you. This is very much in contrast, say, to the US medical system, where you bear the cost individually, or miss out entirely. And also at odds with the New Zealand health system, where we all bear the cost, no matter how feckless or responsibly the individuals behave.

Our COVID-19 lockdowns have been remarkable in that society has chosen to bear the cost to save individuals, whose identities will never be known, because they didn’t get sick or die. We have chosen collective action, not knowing its full cost to ourselves or components of our society, over a choice of survival of the fittest in the face of the virus. New Zealand is not the only country to have done so, such behaviour has been close to universal across the globe, and would seem to be a testament to a fundamental component of human nature – we are social beings.

In New Zealand our prize for our collective action has been a week in which the South Island considered itself COVID-19 free, and the country has only one active case of the virus. We appear unbelievably close to eradicating the disease, at least until we open our borders again. Our collective prize is the individual freedom to have the trips and social interactions which are our norm for Queens Birthday holiday weekend. Here’s hoping that the millenials manage to safely navigate their weekend trips with their devices and that our country needs no further lockdown to rescue us from COVID-19.

In Chile the number of COVID-19 cases and death toll are rising but they still can make jokes: when entrepreneurship runs through your veins, the washers of car windows for a donation offer PPE screen washing as a lockdown alternative.
Dominic Cummings memes are rife this week. If you missed the news, he is Boris Johnson’s advisor on matters including lockdown measures. He drove 30 miles to see if his COVID-19 affected eyesight was good enough to drive the 260 mile trip to Durham, to find childcare for his son. Apparently it was good enough, because he and his wife, both ill with COVID-19, then drove to Durham while the United Kingdom remains in lockdown. Cummings says he has no regrets, and the Prime Minister considers that Cummings ‘acted with integrity’. Go figure.

Published by janecshearer

I'm a self-employed life enthusiast living in Gibbston, New Zealand

One thought on “The art of navigation

  1. I have lots of maps. I love the richness of information they contain and I love your practical suggestion to use matchsticks to utilise the map scales :). However, outside of the urban environment, I’m embarrassed to admit my navigation skills are barely average if that and I certainly couldn’t use the stars to save myself in an emergency.

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