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Let Nature Be Your GPS

Even in the high-tech modern world of satellite positioning and communication, nature sends us plenty of signals of its own, helping us to know more about where we are and what’s going on around us, reports Frank Taylor, author of the Google Earth Blog, and captain of the sailing vessel Tahina, on a five-year circumnavigation of the globe.

By Frank Taylor

When first departing one land for a deep ocean passage, most people experience a variety of feelings. Excitement about going to a new destination. A sense of adventure into the unknown of weather, seas, and unexpected troubles. And, many will experience some seasickness – especially at the start. When still near land you see other boats, the beaches and land of your departing country, fish, dolphin, and birds.

But, soon, you leave most everything behind. At sea, you still see the far-ranging sea birds, flying fish, the occasional school of dolphin may give you a visit, you might see a whale, and if you’re lucky a nice blue-water fish may land on your hook for a fresh dinner. You rarely see another vessel at sea. If you travel near a frequent route between islands, you might see a cargo vessel or two – usually several miles away, possibly only seen as a mark on your radar or a more informative symbol on your AIS. On rare occasions, we spot another sailboat or motor yacht while at sea.

With today’s GPS technology, sailors are well aware of how close they are to their destination. But, there are many physical signs you can look for. Mariners for centuries have used many signs to help identify the approach of land. After several days at sea, everyone on board is excited to see signs of land.

“There are many physical signs

you can look for.”

Naturally, you have a greater chance of seeing other vessels as you approach an island. You might spot a deep sea fishing vessel heading out. As you get closer, you may find the blue-water game fishermen. And, by the time the islands are in sight, you will usually find the local fisherman in their smaller boats.


The Signs in the Air

Most often your first sign is an increase in bird sightings. Some are birds that are not normally found far away from land. Fish are normally more plentiful around the land – thanks usually to healthy coral reefs. Where there are birds at sea, there are almost always fish. If you are keeping a sharp eye, you will actually see some fish in the water. But, the birds and fishing vessels are the easiest signs of land.

Another sign is often a change in the weather patterns. It may be clear or partly cloudy around you at sea, but suddenly you see some clouds holding still near the horizon. Islands have moisture that produces clouds, and the clouds will often hang over the island during the afternoon – producing the afternoon showers that help nourish the lush vegetation found on most tropical islands. If it’s sunny, and you are closer to your destination, you can often see the turquoise and blue of the water reflecting off the clouds. Another sign is that the winds, and other weather, often shift due to presence of the land.

“…Suddenly you see some clouds

holding still near the horizon.”

Low-Tech Excitement Over High-Tech Gadgets

Another sign you are close to land is the presence of radios. Every boat is required to listen to hailing and emergency frequencies. While still far away from land, you may suddenly hear your radio blast a few words between boaters chatting about their daily fishing or recreational activities. That always makes everyone smile as they realize they are back in the presence of people. You can often turn on your regular AM/FM stereo and start picking up stations at this point.

A more modern sign people look for, is the presence of cell phone signals. It can be fun to make a call to your family and say you are just a few hours or minutes away from arriving at your destination.

It’s always exciting to be the first to spot the sight of land. Often a silhouette of mountain land appears in the distant haze, or, if the islands are flat, a string of trees along the horizon. Suddenly, you, or someone else, shouts “Land Ho!” and there are smiles all around as everyone rushes to the top of the boat to look.


So Close You Can Smell It

One final sign you are closer to land, which is particularly surprising to those who haven’t experienced it: smells. When you are in the deep sea, you are far away from the smells we are accustomed to on land. After days away from land, the air is pure and clean. But, as you approach an island, you will usually experience a sudden pungent smell. The vegetation and odors of fish near the shore can be quite strong. And, of course, the presence of man has its own distinctive smells. Thanks to human evolution, our sense of smell quickly adapts to the sudden onslaught. And usually within minutes we no longer notice the worst of the smells. But, it can be shocking to those who first experience it.

“…Away from land

the air is pure and clean.”

The best sign that you have arrived, is when you first greet another person. Usually people will wave and smile at an arriving boat. It’s always such a happy experience to see new people – no matter how much you like those you have been traveling with for days, in a small space, on your boat. And, we’re always happy to finally have steady seas under our boat. That first time you walk on fixed land is always a happy experience (even if it doesn’t seem to “move” right). Now its time for new experiences, new people, new foods, new drinks, and new adventures.

Follow all of Frank Taylor’s updates on the official Tahina Expedition blog, starting with this 360-degree panorama from the deck of the boat.

In addition to being a father and husband, Frank Taylor is an avid outdoors-man who loves to hike, swim, backpack, sail, scuba dive, mountain bike, etc. He spent years working at NASA hoping to further our ability to explore space, but since manned exploration of other planets has not yet become practical, he’s decided to explore the Earth for now. He’s currently on a five-year circumnavigation of the globe with his wife Karen, aboard their sailing vessel Tahina.