Finding North

By: Books

Finding North — “How Navigation Makes Us Human” by George Michelsen Foy

Finding North is an interesting play on words as author Foy intertwines many aspects of navigation. He explores the history of navigation, the science of our modern GPS system and its weaknesses, the biology of human and animal navigation, the history of his great, great grandfather’s unfortunate shipwreck because of poor weather, and thus, lack of navigation, and a voyage up the eastern seacoast in his own sailboat using only navigation tools his great, great grandfather had available. In addition, Foy had recently lost his brother to illness so there’s an aspect of personal introspection as he deals with that loss and deciding in which direction his life should now go.

The book is enjoyable to read, however, it does skip around, and at times it is difficult to follow the narrative as all the themes mentioned above are intertwined. Along the way, Foy does make some very interesting points and raises some very interesting thoughts. Some of which follow:

On the biological side he explores the science on the hippocampal part of the brain. He also quotes a research study that …

“points strongly to a single, frightening conclusion: our addiction to advanced navigational technologies is physically harming our brains.”

Concluding, that we as humans are losing our natural sense of navigation, or more simply, the ability to get around without technology. Plus, we are losing our ability to choose what we analyze as tons of information is thrown at us through our devices.

On relying on modern GPS navigation for everything today:

“… what we need to question is our relationship to the technology and the assumptions we make about it; why we choose to put our lives in the silicon grip of machines whose operation we know causes effects, both good and bad, dramatic and subtle, that we don’t fully understand and cannot always predict.”


“It’s an issue that has serious implications for all of us who live therein. To what extent are quality of life and physical safety affected by everyday changes that our systems-saturated, information-drenched routines bring about? And how much have our native navigational faculties been altered, even degraded, by the kind of lifestyle such a society forces us to adopt?”

On our ability to process it all…

“The sheer volume of data people in a wired society must ceaselessly deal with exceeds the ability of our minds to analyze and use. … We use different terms to tag the problem: information overload, cognitive buffering, data smog; but the names don’t point to a solution… Instead of concentration, we are shallowing our attention and skimping on response. …. The effects of such shallowing and skimping on navigational tasks are numerous and sometimes scary.”

And when he’s sailing up the northeast coast and his electronics are turned off, he sees whales gathering to feed near the bank and he realizes he’s near the coast.

“This is what it means to navigate truly, I realize: to switch off everything that tells us what we’re seeing and where we’re going. To open our eyes and see for ourselves.”

Finding North Finding North

Book review written by Captain Bob Solliday, a Master licensed 50 ton USCG captain with over 15,000 blue water sailing and boating miles in over forty years on the water. He resides near Marina del Rey, CA and is an ASA certified sailing instructor. He does boat deliveries and continues to race sailboats and teach sailing.