Posted by: Paul Clark | March 27, 2011

Lost at sea – the bootstrap challenge

If you were lost at sea with no navigation aids at all, how could you find out where you were, and where to sail to? A thought experiment on “bootstrapping” navigation the old-fashioned way.

Map of North Atlantic, but not sure whereBootstrap Bill

I’ve been thinking for a while about how one would go about rebuilding our technological culture from scratch if for some reason it suddenly disappeared – how to ‘bootstrap‘ it, if you like.  The standard scenario for this kind of thought experiment is some kind of Armageddon – think Mad Max or Waterworld – but remembering both Dougal and Douglas Robertson’s books about the wreck of the Lucette, combined with hearing about my favourite ship‘s rather exciting time in mid-Atlantic last week, brought to mind a nearer term, more manageable version…

Lost but not in immediate danger

Here’s the scenario:  Imagine you are on a boat or ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean – let’s say the Atlantic, somewhere near the Azores, but not so near you can reach them in less than a few days sail.  Then imagine for some reason you lose all your navigation gear – GPS, sextant, log, compass, charts, tables, the lot.  Maybe you have to abandon ship to a lifeboat, or you have complete electrical failure on a yacht, and lose the other stuff overboard due to a freak wave.  Either way, you end up reasonably safe in a vessel that can still be sailed, or adapted for sail.  You have enough water (or means to make water) and enough food for this not to be a pressing concern, or you can get someone else to worry about that part!

Only the basics

The questions are going to be “Where are we?” and “Which way should we go?”.  Remember you have no GPS, no compass, no electronic log, no charts, no sextant, no astro tables or calculator and no means of communication (definitely no Internet!).  Let’s be somewhat generous and assume you have a basic toolkit, some wood, nails and plenty of paper and pencils.  I’ll be even more generous and throw in a small but assumedly accurate steel ruler and a working digital watch.  Extra points if you can get by without either or both of those things, though.  Oh, and it’s sunny and relatively calm.

The challenge

So how should you proceed?  Let’s assume you want to head towards the Azores and you happen to remember these are roughly 38° N, 28°W.  Answers on a postcard please, or failing that in comments below or trackback!  As you may guess I think I have a possible plan, but I’ll leave that for another post in a week or so, to let you have a go first.  This is not a trick question;  the answer is going to be detailed, practical and involve some GCSE-level maths and geography…

Over to you!



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