How would you find the nearest land?

Marilyn is Wrong Copyright © 1997-1998 Herb Weiner. All rights reserved.

Ask Marilyn ® by Marilyn vos Savant is a column in Parade Magazine, published by PARADE, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA. According to Parade, Marilyn vos Savant is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame" for "Highest IQ."


Alan White <> remembers the following Marilyn column from about three years ago. If you have this column, please send it to me.

If you were in a boat dropped into the ocean at a point where land was not visible, which direction would you head your boat to get to the nearest land?


Marilyn's response was that she would go in the direction of the waves, because waves always crash on to land.

Alan Responds

If Marilyn had been dropped in to the "roaring forties", she would go around and around the globe. The "roaring forties" is the latitude around the lower hemisphere (between about 40 and 55 degrees) where the winds average over 40 knots. The waves circle the globe continually.

There are some islands, for example Aruba, where in some directions, the waves head away from the island. On the eastern shore of Aruba, there are big waves heading towards the island. The water on the western shore, however, is very flat; and further west (away from shore), the waves head away from land.

The normal seafarer's answer would be to observe the sun and stars to determine the position on the globe where you found yourself. From determining where you were to begin with would give you a direction in which to head.

Observe the Weather

Chris Ashburn <> offers the following comments:

As most people would probably agree, if you were dropped off somewhere in the middle of the ocean, your luck has probably run out already. However there is one very important characteristic of islands to keep in mind. Because land masses have a lower heat capacity than the large water reservoir of the ocean, they tend to heat up intensely during the day. This heating causes thermal lows and results in a pattern of massive thunderstorms over and/or near islands. In fact, this is how many ancient seafarers found neighboring islands. It is easy to see towering storm clouds over Cuba from the shores of Key West, Florida.

An approaching hurricane could be helpful, as long as you knew what part of the world you were in. If you found yourself in the Eastern Pacific, you would want to be east of the storm. Most hurricanes travel north and/or west, so either way you're praying you hit the west coast of Baja California. In the Atlantic, you would hope to catch the winds and hope they throw you west. And if you happen to float into the Carribean Sea, you can use the thunderstorm method explained above and you're chances of survival have increased even more.

Keep in mind, however, that your ability to see a land-mass thunderstorm more than 200 miles away is virtually impossible. Also remember that this information is primarily only of use in the tropics where daily weather variation is more pronounced than seasonal variation. Furthermore a hurricane would more likely throw you on a random course, so trying to figure out east from north in that type of cloud cover would be virtually impossible.

I still think you would be in big trouble floating in the middle of the ocean, but these little tidbits of knowledge could be some things to keep an eye out for. last updated June 30, 1998 by