The Hard Voyage North

L Ron Hubbard was in his seventh year of continuous writing, spending half of each year in a room in New York City’s Hotel Knickerbocker turning out story after story for the day’s leading magazines. Ron had been an avid explorer and sailor in his youth--with voyages to China, the South Pacific and the Caribbean--and now, at the age of 29, he was yearning for a return to adventure. He was also thirsting for new story material and, naturally enough, his thoughts turned once again to the sea.

From his hotel room he wrote, "I’m mighty tired of sitting still, talking to editors and farmers and generally getting disgracefully like a good citizen." Consequently, he was soon formulating plans for a new expedition--which he named the Alaskan Radio Experimental Expedition--one that would take him along the coast of British Columbia from Seattle, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.

From his earliest voyages, Ron acquired a keen interest in navigation, and always kept abreast of the latest advances. By January of 1940, in fact, he had discovered a possible solution to the navigational problem of quickly solving one’s position through the use of radio direction finding. And so, even as he continued with plans for the voyage, he simultaneously pursued the development of a new navigational device.

By March, with assistance from a mathematics professor, Ron had perfected the idea: a simple instrument, called a nomograph. [For more insight into navigation and Ron’s work see the article "Blindfold Navigation"] As Ron described it:

"With this one, we take two bearings, move the arms, read the position directly in terms of longitude and latitude. It is revolutionary in navigation because it may be as accurate as a sextant shot and it is certainly more simple to work out."

The "Laboratory" in which Ron would test this revolutionary navigational aid consisted of nothing less than the infamous channels and passages of the Pacific Northwest. Nowhere is the threat of Old Man Sea more evident than upon these tortuous watercourses, where ocean tides and currents clash with gushing rivers, narrow channels accelerate their flood and ebb. Acting like funnels, these labyrinths create yacht-sized whirlpools and rapids--while submerged beneath them lie hidden shoals and vaulting rocks capable of sinking a boat as suddenly as an onrushing torpedo.

Add to these threats the wild and unpredictable wind and weather that is an everyday occurrence along this northern coastline, and it was no wonder that the route from Puget Sound to Ketchikan in the 1930s and 40s was dared only the most experienced of mariners, usually in large motor vessels capable by sheer horsepower of dominating such a mix of elements.

But in addition to testing the nomograph, there were other reasons Ron sought a change from the tedium of New York’s publishing world. One was to continue his ethnological studies. In fact, one of the reasons he wrote novels and stories (he is one of the most published fiction writers in the history of literature) was to finance his ongoing investigation into the mind and the spirit of man.

Yet another reason for the voyage involved the U.S. Department of the Navy.

As many a mariner knows through bitter experience, incorrect charts lead to devastating surprises. Imagine steering a course to avoid a marked rock or shoal, only to suddenly feel the yacht shudder as it runs aground on the very object one is attempting to sail around. Worse yet, imagine sailing a course through "clear waters" to suddenly find one’s rudder warped and useless after hitting a rock entirely unmarked on a chart. Such was the case with the charts of the waters Ron was about to navigate, and the Navy looked at his voyage as an opportunity to correct them.

So while investigating the origins and customs of the various tribes of native Americans which peopled the coast and islands of the region, and completing the field testing of the nomograph, he would also undertake an assignment from the Department of the Navy to verify the charts, tide tables and piloting books of the region.

And aside from these matters, the completion of a voyage north to Ketchikan and back in the thirty-two-foot Magician would demonstrate a properly prepared small vessel was indeed capable of such a voyage. As Ron himself has pointed out, it was really lack of experience and knowledge, not size of their vessels, that kept most yachtsmen from such an undertaking.

The Magician’s Log

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