Tristan Gooley is a natural navigation expert and he explains the ocean’s colour coding and many more intriguing saltwater signals in How to read water – clues & patterns from puddles to the sea.
Call yourself a friend of the sea?
Picking up on a best friend’s body language and the unspoken messages they share is instinctive, and an important part of maintaining friendships.
Every surfer worth their salt will know if their local break is angry or calm whenever asked. They can tell you if it’s offshore, or where the rip currents run within a few seconds of looking. It’s how we make friends with our favourite waves.
When the sea is dark in front of you and lighter to the sides, is it onshore or offshore? Tristan Gooley knows, so dip into How to read water and enrich your saltwater experiences. Can’t wait? Here’s a few tidbits to tide you over…
Waves of wisdom
Did you know the line of shimmering light cast by the sun across the water is called a ‘glitter path’? It gets narrower as the sun sets and it’s wider where the waves are steeper. On the North Coast of Cornwall where I surf most, glitter paths rarely cast a straight line as the seas are usually rough. But if you’re looking at a setting sun across a lake, you might notice how even a duck’s wake will cause a seemingly solid shaft of light to broaden.
Know the difference between a swell, wave and ripple? Here’s a concise way to differentiate: anything over a 10 second period is swell, under one second a ripple, in between is a wave!
There are literally hundreds of fascinating nuggets like these in How to read water, and I don’t want to spoil your fun by listing them all here. But I think this is one of my favourites: you can measure the size of raindrops by looking at the colours in a rainbow – more red means bigger drops.
A helpful guide
What I really like about How to read water is the little gems of natural knowledge you can easily remember and will be bursting to share.
Tristan is clearly very enthusiastic about natural navigation and an expert on what many of us might think of as ‘hidden clues’ to the way nature works. The truth is the clues are not hidden, they’re on display for all to see every day of the year. You just need a friendly guide to help you solve these natural mysteries and Tristan is your man.
In fact, Tristan is such a nice chap he even answered a few questions I couldn’t resist asking.
Q&A with Tristan Gooley
Do you surf / ride waves?
When I was 19, my best friend and I took two weeks out of a backpacking trip around Southeast Asia to try to learn to surf properly on a beach near Kuta in Bali. We hired our boards and got stuck in, trying to watch, learn and teach ourselves. We found it a lot harder than we expected. On the last day of our two weeks, a local told us that we’d picked a terrible place to learn as the waves were the worst shape for learners.
I now know that the waves were being unkind to us because of the shape of the seabed on that break, but it was too late by then for us to do anything about it. We convinced ourselves that we were born surfers, but had made one bad decision!
More recently I have enjoyed body surfing. My whole philosophy is minimalist when it comes to kit and equipment, so I guess it is fitting that I enjoy body surfing. That’s what I tell myself anyway… It’s definitely not that I never did master a board. 🙂
Why should surfers read ‘How to read water’?
There are good safety reasons for understanding how to read water, not least understanding the anatomy of a rip current. But that’s not actually the main reason for reading the book, which is to make your time by the water even more interesting than your time in it. It’s all about finding signals in the visual noise.
Readers of the book can look at any seascape and find meaning where others, even seasoned sea-watchers, just see waves and water. Once you’ve learned the signs to look for and what they mean, the sea itself becomes your book.
Any tips on sharing our new found wisdom without sounding like a dull professor?
This is a personal and tribal thing. Nobody finds every water clue fascinating, but we did all evolve to read our landscapes, because we can’t survive without that talent, even today.
So it’s a question of trying lots and then finding the clues that suit your character. It’s a tribal thing because each person finds certain areas more interesting than others. The wild swimmer finds some clues more interesting than the surfer who finds others more interesting than the kayaker.
There are over 350 in the book and if I had to guess, most people will find roughly a quarter of those leave them cold, a quarter of them are totally fascinating for them and the rest lie somewhere in between. But they are different for each person. For some it is wave shape, for others it’s learning that no natural river runs straight for longer than ten times its own width, and for others it might be decoding the meaning of lights flashing in darkness.
Here’s a very popular one: we can make a compass out of puddles. There are more puddles on the south side of paths (as they are more shaded). Sometimes being fed the clue doesn’t get the curiosity juices flowing in the same way as a question. Why are so many beaches curved? How can we predict a storm by reading waves? How can we sense where an island is with our eyes closed? The answers are simple, but if I gave them here, it’s too easy to pretend you’re not interested.
What is it about water we all find so captivating?
This question strikes to the heart of the book. The way I put it is this: picture your favourite patch of water, doesn’t matter how big or small, fresh water or sea. Now ask yourself, have you ever seen it looking exactly the same two days in a row?
We can look at the same water every day for a year and not see the same thing twice. It’s tempting to see all this change as random, but the whole point of the book is that it’s definitely not random, quite the opposite. We are looking at a series of patterns and once we know how to read them, every change gives us a new clue and helps us make sense of what’s going on around us.
Any new adventures or projects planned?
I’ve just launched the world’s first online natural navigation course. It’s been an amazing project, very hard work, but I’m so excited to share it now. It’s only £89 for a year-long membership, and brings to life the best of my books and courses. There’s over two hours of video tutorials across 12 chapters and 100+ individual micro-lessons with 30 specially-commissioned illustrations that help to explain some of the key concepts as well as images and video footage from my expeditions and personal library.
We’re creating a community of nature lovers and intrepid adventures, with a course discussion area so that students can share their own clues with each other and where I’ll be regularly adding exclusive material.
The course is based on land clues and signs, with only a small part on the sea, but the lessons in it will help everyone who spends time outdoors to understand the things they see and enjoy them more, and it’s designed to be watched, applied out in the real world and dipped back into time and time again.
As people start practicing what they’ve learnt and honing their skills, re-watching the chapters becomes richer as different clues and tips can be pieced together to create a much bigger picture and deeper understanding.
Congratulations to Simon Harwood, who won a free copy of How To Read Water in our giveaway.