A skill that was almost lost to the ages has been resuscitated. And the skill is completely bizarre, but scientists think they have an explanation.
In the Marshall Islands of the central Pacific “wave-pilots” would attach sails to glorified canoes, and then sail dozens of miles across the open ocean from atoll to atoll.
And they didn’t miss.
Because, you see, if you’re going from one Marshall to another Marshall and you miss, there’s nothing to stop you for thousands of miles. Except death.
So how did they go past the horizon … tens of miles outside of sight of land … under sail power … and not miss?
(Now, the islanders had stick charts — a form of map of the islands — but where the heck did they get those???).
The human interest story is that older wave-pilots trained younger wave-pilots. Then modern technology came along, and that training became scarce. The the Cold War intervened and disrupted training. In 2003 the last wave-pilot died. All that was left was a 55 year old who had apprenticed as a boy. He renewed his skills alone, and had trained his cousin.
The science story is that scientists went out on the boats with these guys and dismissed all the easy answers as to how they get from island to island.
They’re not sure, but they’ve settled on an unusual answer. The wave-pilots swear they are following invisible “roads” they call backbones that lead from island to island. Legend had it they were put there by the gods.
Many cultures have legends that humans get unsettling symptoms in the presence of the divine. In the Marshalls, they say:
The di lep feels like pidodo …
That translates to:
The backbone feels like diarrhea …
The scientists couldn’t feel the backbone. They just got seasick, and watched their GPS data as the wave-pilots felt the backbones and followed them safely from island to island.
Then they compared their GPS data to data on swells. What they found was that the swells were influenced by the underwater seamounts the atolls sit on. When the swells hit an island they reflect back off of it. The creates outgoing counterswells to the ingoing swells.
The wave pilots are not dead reckoning at all. Instead, they have recognized that the backbones that run from island to island can be followed by steering in the direction that maximizes your rocking (and chances of seasickness) as the counterswells interfere with the swells. This is true even when the backbones are comprised of segments — each coming from the swell hait a different island — that appear to curve or arc from one island to another.
There’s a story here for economics. Economists presume humans are optimizers. The islanders had figured out that maximizing seasickness is the key to navigating their domain.
That’s an interesting point, given that humans started setting out over the horizon perhaps 60,000 years ago.