Where in the World?

According to various surveys, Americans, and young Americans in particular, are woefully ignorant about geography. You’ve heard the scandalous stories: the college grads who can’t name their state capital or point to their state when shown a USA map; the adults who think New Mexico is part of Mexico and that Rhode Island abuts New York. Americans are said to be even more clueless about the rest of the world, and here I do have a personal example to cite, a young man of Eric’s acquaintance who burst out laughing at the idea that there was a country called Chile. They named a country after a food?

I’m sure Americans aren’t the only geographically challenged people on the planet, and being separated from most of the other continents by vast oceans doesn’t help. With foreign travel being logistically and financially out of reach for many Americans, studying the geography of far-off places may seem to be of no practical use. Nevertheless, I would still argue that it’s important for anyone who aspires to be an informed citizen. How can you support a vote to invade Iraq or impose tariffs on China if you haven’t the vaguest notion where our troops and our products are being sent?

Most of all, it’s hard for me to believe that anyone who attended public school in my generation could be dense, or worse, incurious, about geography. Didn’t we all take Social Studies in grades 4-6? Didn’t every homeroom have a map of the United States on the wall? Surely, those black outline maps of South America that the social studies teacher peeled off from a thick pad and handed out for homework weren’t exclusive to one Detroit elementary school? And what fun homework! Fill in the names of the countries and major cities, then release the Crayolas! Color Brazil red, Argentina orange, the mountains green, the rivers blue.

I love maps—can you tell?—and for a voyage like ours, they are not just fascinating but vital. Aboard Corroboree we have maps and charts that would make early sailors gasp in astonishment. Indeed, they are amazing to us. Forty years ago on Duprass a plastic sextant, paper charts, a plotter and a trusty #2 pencil summed up our navigation tools. Even with a clear horizon and a good sun sight, our calculation of our position might be off by miles. After several days of overcast, only dead reckoning and the compass kept us on course.

Now, thanks to GPS and digital technology, we know precisely where we are to within a few feet, day or night, no matter the weather, almost everywhere on Earth. Pause a moment and just think about that.

We purchase the charts through a popular app called iNavX, download them to our iPad, and open the one pertinent to our current corner of the world. We can start with an overview of, say, Tahiti to Bora Bora, then zoom in to any point in between, say, Moorea. We can zoom in even further to the anchorage at Moorea’s Opunohu Bay and study the contours of the lagoon, the location of the shoals and marker buoys, the condition of the bottom (sand, mud, coral?) and the depth of the water. Once we have maneuvered in and anchored, we can set an alarm that will buzz should the anchor drag and we drift off position by as little as two boat lengths.

Moorea on iNavX

Closeup of Opunohu Bay

But GPS and iNavX deliver far more than a boat’s latitude and longitude. A finger tap on the screen enables us to set waypoints from our starting point to our destination, connect them into a continuous route, and track our progress every step of the way. An information banner across the top of the screen computes and relays, second by second, our speed over ground, the distance to each waypoint in turn, and the estimated time of our arrival. If wind, weather or a change of plan causes us to veer off course, the screen immediately displays the diverging line and supplies our crosstrack error. At twilight, we press a button, and presto! The screen switches to “Night View,” a special lighting that helps preserve our night vision by diminishing the daytime screen’s glare.

Night View chart of Moorea

This is not to say the GPS is infallible. Back in the Bahamas, eyes nailed to the GPS track, I was congratulating myself on piloting Corroboree straight up the center of a narrow, unbuoyed channel when she ran aground on soft mud in opaque water. No harm done and the rising tide floated her free in due course. But it drove home the lesson that even GPS can be off, and in this instance I would have done better to trust the depth sounder. Along more remote shores, the digital charts themselves exhibit warnings that certain areas are not well charted and that mariners should exercise caution.

And what if we drop the iPad overboard? That’s why we have two, with duplicate apps and charts. One fits into a special holder in the cockpit above the wheel to consult while we are underway, the other stays safe on the nav table below. But what if the worldwide GPS fails? That’s why, once again, we carry a sextant and paper charts and practiced with them during our crossing from Panama to the Marquesas. I love these artifacts, too, because they speak to me of the long voyages and the bravery of men and women who traversed the sea in centuries past, whether as explorers, traders, or passengers bound for a new life somewhere.

Paper chart of Moorea

Moorea for real

Today, though GPS makes navigation almost too easy, it also makes cruising exponentially safer and more accessible. Happily, there is still much geography to absorb, and Eric and I study it as we go. Before we left Panama, for example, I couldn’t have told you, beyond the Marquesas, the exact order in which the South Pacific islands would rise from the sea to greet us. Now the maps have become real, and I know. When we reach New Zealand, we’ll start examining charts of Australia and Southeast Asia to determine where next to go.

From time to time, I’ve thought of including a map with my blog posts to pinpoint where we are. But if you’re reading this, you’re already hooked on travel, armchair or otherwise, and curious about the rest of the globe. So while I’ll continue to name and write about the beautiful, engaging places we visit and post photographs and videos, I’ll refrain from including maps. Not for the world would I deprive you of the pleasure of opening an atlas or calling up a map on the Internet and discovering some new geography for yourself.