Book Review: How to Read Water

A poetic treatise on the art of natural navigation.

Published November 14, 2016

For the past 30 summers, I’ve returned to a rugged stretch of northerly Cape Cod beach that lies on the far side of a steep clay dune. Toes dug into the sand, I’ve discussed with my fellow beachgoers the changes to the scene: the deepening curve of the coastline, the higher break of the waves, the influx of red or bulbous seaweed, the washing back out to sea of that 18th-century shipwreck. Little have any of us known that we haven’t just been passing the time with polite conversation. We’ve been sharing the kind of information that’s highly valued by the natural navigator, a seaman who can sail from shore to distant shore using only the tools provided by the Earth, the sky, and the water. But what’s the significance of this information to the casual observer?

The third book by British explorer and sailor Tristan Gooley provides the answer. Hardly a dry manual, How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea combines elements of natural navigation history, techniques for observing the weather and the way waves hit the shore, and personal narrative to encourage readers to become something eminently more attainable than professional navigators: engaged noticers. Anyone who’s ever remarked on the changing tides already has one foot on that path.

Not every chapter in the book deals directly with the ocean—some pertain to reading the movements in puddles or how the sun reflects off a stream. But each provides at least a small clue to also reading the ocean. If you can learn to read the “ripple map” of conflicting swell patterns around a clump of water lilies in a pond, for example, you can begin to understand the swell patterns that develop around islands, too.

Gooley’s language is evocative, but the book’s 30 color photos are nevertheless a welcome supplement. The images elucidate the nature of glitter paths on water and backwash marks on sand, the difference between a “kissing” and a “kidney-shaped” rise, and the way wake patterns change shadows, providing their own kind of visual poetry. But the best part of the book may be the references to the ancient Marshall Islanders, whose navigational techniques form the backbone of Gooley’s own methods, and which he is ultimately describing here. The Marshallese could find an island by feeling the way the waves hit their canoes, by watching the position of the Sun, by noting where certain sea animals were feeding and, of course, by following those ripple maps. In an era of lidar and GPS, such abilities seem almost supernatural. But this book gives hope that we, too, can evolve into skilled water-watchers, with a little practice.

How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea
By Tristan Gooley
400 pp. The Experiment