Whalers and Wayfinders

Oct. 14, 2010
There Are Many Parallels Between Whalers and Wayfinders and Profound Lessons One Can Teach the Other
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Sometimes understanding comes like that old bolt from the blue. Other times it arrives like a one-two punch. The latest hit came when I watched "Into the Deep: America, Whaling and the World" on American Experience on PBS, which detailed the meteoric rise, mostly during the 19th century, and fall of U.S. whaling, which declined when geological sources of oil and lubricants took over. There are many parallels between both industries and profound lessons one can teach the other. You can watch it at

The documentary also highlights the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale on Nov. 18, 1820, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and was an inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Stranded in three boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the 20-man crew survived the initial disaster, but then slowly starved after deciding to make for South America 3,000 miles east, rather than the Marquesas Islands only 1,200 miles west, because they feared cannibals. The horrible irony is that the Essex's crew later had to eat their dead shipmates to survive, and so had to became the cannibals they were running from in their ignorance.

A few weeks later, I read Scientific American's September 2010 issue, and ran across "Last of Their Kind" by Wade Davis ( The article reports that Polynesians have been routinely sailing the open Pacific since long before Christ. They use a "wayfinding" method that combines detailed memories of each journey's winds, currents and speed,  highly detailed knowledge of the stars, and even have the ability to differentiate between ocean swells, recognize reflective patterns from different island groups, and then follow them wherever they want to go! So, not only were many Pacific islanders not cannibals, but they also were exquisitely capable navigators.

Of course, when I read about the Wayfinders and their sophisticated navigating abilities, I was reminded of the old-school process control engineers and system integrators I've covered. Many of these veterans also have priceless know-how, such as how to calculate Zigler-Nichols loop tuning equations or the ability to put an ear on a pipe or a hand on a tank and having a pretty good idea of what's happening inside it. Fortunately, many players in the process industries are capturing and preserving this knowledge before these experts retire.

However, it still ticks me off that business managers, manufacturing leaders and now IT administrators still seem to view process control engineers as some kind of mostly invisible support staff like clerks or custodians. This persistent, willful ignorance is spookily similar to those sturdy Nantucket whalers, who surged into the vast Pacific in a few years, but neglected to ask about how to get around from the folks who'd been living there for thousands of years. I'm sure it would've been mighty handy to have some of that Polynesian know-how onboard the Essex and its surviving rowboats!   

Much like those doomed sailors, we also fear the unknown. And, as we cast about to fill in the blanks, we populate the unknown with our reflections because that's all we have. One of the main lessons from "Into the Deep" is that the ever-discontented, American, God's-on-our- side, full-speed-ahead mentality often leads to huge waste, if not outright disaster. We're great at pursuing happiness. Not so good at finding and being content with it.

So, similar to the Wayfinders and process control engineers, we too must pay attention to the ocean swells, go out and check the plant's pipes and tanks in person, look beneath and beyond, and learn the unseen depths in people and familiar things we take for granted.
Even though many of us mistreat and exploit our fellow humans on a regular basis, I'm pretty sure we'd rather chart a smarter, subtler, wayfinding course away from eating each other rather than towards it. If not, bon appétit.