How To Read Water: Book Review
How To Read Water: Book Review

Date: Tuesday 5th April 2016

Lynne Roper reviews Tristan Gooley's new book, "How to Read Water: Clues, Signs and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea"

Tristan Gooley of The Natural Navigator fame has written the ultimate enthusiast’s book for anyone who loves water; the applications for the various tribes of outdoor swimmers, from wild swimmers to competitive open water swimmers is vast. Gooley himself is a wild swimmer, sailor, explorer, hill walker and all-round obsessive when it comes to observation of and immersion in his environment; his inquisitive nature extends to the deep cultural, historical and scientific research with which he explains his vast first-hand observational and experiential knowledge of the natural world and how we, as humans, engage with and move through it. He writes with passion, humour and clarity and engages so deeply with the tributaries of inquiry that reading it feels as exhilarating as being towed by a dolphin.

"An absolute gem of a book - a must have for anyone who loves water"

As a water-watcher, a diver in and ducker under, a swimmer through currents and big waves, I engage on an elemental level with Gooley’s inquisitive mind. You’d think, as a friend I showed the book to the other day said, that a puddle is a puddle. Far from it. Puddles form for a reason, and their shape and behaviour holds an entire geological and tracking history that will stun you. The way that puddles behave has implications for larger bodies of water, and Gooley works his way out from the mud and across the range of inland marine environments on a delightful journey of understanding and insights into every aspect of water from how it moves, its colour, the wildlife that lives in and around it, and even how you know it’s there.

There’s an extension in this book of the incredible tale of ancient marine navigation techniques that caught my imagination so utterly in The Natural Navigator that an art installation and the many developing ideas we’d been developing for a new holistic approach to outdoor wild swimming safely coalesced in one day.

Polynesians and Vikings knew how to find their way through observation, from types of birds and distance to land, to the stars, to watching the way that groundswell bends around different islands and interacts with sea chop. Stick charts were a way of training sailors how to perform such complex navigational tasks around thousands of tiny islands with incredible accuracy. Gooley’s research on and explanation of this is spellbinding, and extends to using one’s testicles for navigational purposes to identify the groundswell beneath the sea chop.

One of the most unexpectedly delightful journeys is one that Gooley takes with a fly fisherman along a river. It transformed my opinion so utterly I fully intend to stop the next fly fisher I see to quiz him or her on our local rivers. The level of knowledge is simply phenomenal; for instance some insects can fly only in such a tiny range of warmth and humidity that if the sun dips behind a cloud they drop at once from the sky into the water where the fish pounce, picking up the shadow signal. These are the minutae to which fisher folk are tuned. The occasional animosity between fisher folk and other water users surely can’t survive a conversation about such wonders.

It’s clear there are many uses for this book for wild swimmers, by which I mean those of us who love to be immersed in the aquatic environment and who engage on a physical level with the movement and actions of the water we’re in. But I think this goes far deeper.

One of my concerns around outdoor swimming as it develops into a sport is the reliance on kit, the often shallow water knowledge of people who are expert swimmers, and yet they don’t somehow engage with the water itself; their interest is in moving through it as fast as possible. As Kari Furre will tell you, technique outdoors develops from that relationship with water, and many swimmers have never played in it or really tested what happens to their bodies when they do. Developing that relationship can transform any swimmer. This book will set you on the way to doing that.

To give an example of how I think athlete open water swimmers might benefit here; Gooley’s comprehensive chapter on Ship Watching is invaluable if you’re someone who swims in tidal waters where there’s a lot of traffic. You can learn, through reading the wealth of detail, what these vessels are doing, predict what they might do next.  I can only suppose that those in boats have no idea what swimmers are up to either. So this is a key way in which we might improve water safety in a mutually beneficial way based on knowledge and understanding rather than simply tying a tow float to your waist and hoping the people on the boat are looking your way.

There’s so much here that I can’t do it justice; chapters on water at night; currents and tides; reading waves; the coast. I learned I have a huge gap in my knowledge in the latter area, despite having spent a large chunk of my life scrambling around it.

This is an absolute gem of a book. A must-have for anyone who loves the water, and most especially for we outdoor swimmers. Thank you Tristan Gooley for sharing your knowledge and expertise and for writing it in such an engaging and fascinating way.

To buy: How To Read Water: Clues, Signs & Patterns from Puddles to the Sea

Lynne Roper, March 2016