Lost and Found


November 2014
Ivan Obolensky


In 1818 London a book was published titled:

Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816; Undertaken by Order of the French Government, Comprising an Account of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, the Suffering of the Crew, and the Various Occurrences on Board the Raft, in the Desert of Zaare at St. Louis, and at the Camp of Dacaard. To which are subjoined Observations respecting the Agriculture of the Western Coast of Africa, from Cape Blanco to the Mouth of the Gambia.

It was written by Jean Baptiste Henri Savigny, the ship’s doctor, and another survivor, the Geographer, Alexandre Corréard.

Their account of thirteen days at sea on board a raft after the French frigate Medusa grounded and wrecked off the West coast of Africa is a story of mutiny, murder, cannibalism, cowardice, insanity, deprivation, and death that is scarcely to be believed. Abandoned by the Captain and the newly appointed French Governor of Senegal, 136 men and women, who could not fit in the frigate’s boats, were left to fend for themselves, aboard an unstable, poorly-constructed raft with more wine than water to drink and little food. Only fifteen survived the almost two-week ordeal before being rescued by HMS Argus, which happened upon the survivors by chance.

The result was a scandal that rocked the Bourbon government that came to power after the abdication of Napoleon in 1815.  The French Naval Department, in an attempt to put more Royalists in command, had put in charge an aristocrat by the name of Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys who unfortunately had hardly been to sea in 20 years and whose woefully poor navigation was largely to blame for the incident. Although the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII had no direct hand in the appointment, the extraordinary incompetence demonstrated by those in charge reflected badly on the government, which was pilloried by news journals of the day.1

The sinking also inspired the young artist, Théodore Géricault, to paint one of the Romantic Movement’s most celebrated pictures, The Raft of the Medusa. It was displayed in the Paris Salon in 1819 as: Scene of a Shipwreck to dampen the political overtones. The painting won a gold medal but was not initially accepted by the Louvre (which later purchased it from Géricault‘s heirs in 1824). As a result Géricault had it shown in London where it was more warmly received and viewed by more than 40,000 people. It was a sensation.2

The Doctor’s and the Geographer’s book was also a success. It was printed in five languages and went through five editions by 1821. It is one of the first detailed eyewitness accounts of survival at sea under desperate conditions.

It raised questions such as:  Why is there often a breakdown of rational thought when humans are lost at sea, and why do some people survive while others do not?

Two hundred years later, we still have only part of the answers.

In 2009, two NFL players and a third man perished after their 21-foot open fishing boat capsized in rough seas while weighing anchor in the Gulf of Florida. A fourth man survived and was rescued after 46 hours clinging to the overturned hull in 63-degree (17o C) water. According to the survivor, two to four hours after the boat overturned, one of the men gave up, took off his life jacket and drifted away. A few hours later, another one did the same. The next morning after the two were gone, the third man took off his vest and decided to swim for help when he thought he saw a distant light. He was 35 miles off the coast of Clearwater, Florida.

The attending doctor commenting on the survivor said, “This guy is very tough mentally.” 3

The incident was not without controversy because it involved well-known football players whose families could not agree that such robust individuals would simply give up. A year later, the survivor gave additional details in a book where he cited hypothermia as the cause of their irrational behavior and that it was only after 15 hours in the water that the first man slipped away.4

Of course, not all who are left at the mercy of the sea succumb.

Dr. Hannes Lindemann spent 72 days at sea. He was on the cover of Life magazine after he crossed the Atlantic from East to West in a 17-foot folding kayak in the late 1950s. He had made a similar trip a year earlier in a dugout canoe. His insights are worth noting. He concluded that the mind succumbs before the body and that it is the undisciplined mind that drives those in peril to panic. In his second voyage, he encountered storms of Force 8 gusting to Force 9 (40 to 50 knots) for days on end. He was capsized and severely knocked about but survived. He wrote in his account, Alone at Sea:

“Morale is the single most important factor in survival. Prayer, which brings hope and with hope optimism and relaxation, is a powerful aid in self-mastery. I cannot overemphasize the importance I place on a concentration on strengthening phrases* such as I repeated to myself during my second voyage.”5

Few people have experienced life and death on the oceans of the world, but many of us have experienced being lost. The psychological stress it produces in individuals is strangely similar to being placed in a survival situation.

Although GPS devices, Google Maps, and cell phones might seem to downplay the need for knowing what to do if one becomes lost, there are enough accounts even today of those who do manage to lose their way only to find themselves in survival situations to warrant looking into recent research on the subject.

One thing is certain: believing one is lost can have peculiar effects on the mind. It is not something new. In older times, it was called ‘Woods shock’ and was described by psychologists of the late 19th century. It is the term used for the complete loss of spatial orientation.

Location is handled by a specific part of the brain called the hippocampus. Humans and other mammals have two of them, one on the left and one on the right. They handle the specific functions having to do with short and long-term memory as well as spatial navigation. The hippocampus is one of the first organs attacked by Alzheimer’s disease, and it is no wonder that those who suffer from it become disoriented and lose their way.

Our brains constantly update where we are. Whenever we go someplace new, the brain tries to make a new map. It informs us as to where we are, our body’s position, and direction of travel. The hippocampus functions below our level of awareness. We simply get the results in that we are aware that we know where we are.

Movement and motivation, on the other hand, are handled by a different part of the brain, called the amygdala. This is also where emotions get stored. If we get disoriented, we feel stress; and if we feel stress, we can become even more disoriented.

Stress interferes with the working of the hippocampus making it difficult for it to create and update mental maps. This results in more stress as we start to feel ourselves lose our sense of location. It is an uncomfortable negative feedback loop.

Because motivation is handled by a different part of the brain than the hippocampus, it is not impaired by stress. Instead the motivation to keep moving, to get some sort of emotional relief, builds the more discomfort we feel. Unfortunately, as stress builds, the mapping function becomes unable to connect where one is to where one was. The result is a disconnection and breakdown that can lead to complete disorientation.

One characteristic of those who are lost is that they rarely backtrack. Perhaps it is because the eyes only look to the front. In any case, those who are lost simply keep moving forward. Often they wander in circles.

‘Being lost’ is defined as experiencing ‘not knowing where one is’ for thirty minutes or longer.

Research suggests there are five general stages one goes through when one is lost.

Stage 1 is denial that one is disoriented. There is a rise of anxiety and a pressing on. One tries to bend the mental or physical map to fit the reality one is experiencing. If one is looking at a map in a wilderness area, one tries to force the mountain one is seeing onto the map one is looking at, ignoring the fact that it is different.

Stage 2 is the realization one is genuinely lost. One realizes one is in an emergency. The normal “I’m in control, I know where I am” is over. Action becomes hurried, frantic, even dangerous. If one is in a car one might find oneself bending the rules such as speeding, or running a stop sign to get to a familiar location. If one is on foot, the frantic haste can lead to injury as one falls, stumbles, or runs into objects.

Stage 3 often follows injury or exhaustion as a result of the exertion of Stage two. One tries to find some place that matches some sort of mental map and one creates a strategy to do so. Often it is poorly conceived such as swimming to shore when one is fifty miles from land, or saying to yourself  “I’m going to climb down this cliff in the dark”.

Stage 4 is when the strategy fails to handle the situation, and the individual deteriorates physically and emotionally to a dangerous degree. Most resources, both physical and emotional, have been expended.

In the final stage, one loses hope, resigns oneself to one’s fate, and decides to accept where one is. In the wilderness this means one either starts to reconnect to oneself and the new reality, or one simply gives up completely.

Those who don’t rebound, having reached stage 5, are often capable of doing peculiar things that do not make sense. One hears of hikers leaving full packs behind on the trail that had several days of food and water or hunters leaving their guns to lighten their load. Those lost at sea often remove their life jackets and dive below the surface.

It is not an exaggeration to say that those who die out in the wilderness from being lost die from confusion.

Exhaustion, hypothermia, dehydration, hunger, anxiety form a deadly mixture that can rapidly lead to fatigue and shock. In a study of 229 Search and Rescue cases, 25 of them were fatal. Nineteen of these died within 48 hours.

One of the baffling mysteries of survival is that those aged six and under have one of the highest survival rates if they get lost in the wilderness. Despite their tendency to lose more body heat than adults, they often survive better than experienced hunters in the same conditions.

Part of this may be that they simply follow their basic instincts to sit tight, to rest, have a good cry, and curl up after finding a warm place to do so.

Of course we don’t often find ourselves in the wilderness lost and disoriented but how many times have we found ourselves after a few wrong turns in a place wholly unexpected with no idea how to find one’s way back? It is much more common than one thinks.

It happens all the time and not just to people.

Corporations, organizations, and perhaps even whole countries can get lost. Location and spatial orientation do not have to be just physical. Relationships and connections can form their own maps. These can be familial, financial, personal, or economic, and can help define the world in which one operates. If the outside world changes while one’s map stays the same, the result is similar to being lost. How many times have we experienced people or organizations who try and force what they believe to be a correct reality on their surroundings when it does not match up to the real world? That is stage one.6

In 1986 DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) had 14 billion dollars in sales. Unfortunately, it misread the microprocessor market and found itself with huge competition. It had a wrong map. At one time it was the second largest computer company in the world. It lost its way and was never able to find its way back. It was sold to Compaq in 1998.7

People, too, can become so obsessed with moving forward to discover emotional peace that they act like they are lost.

The key is to relax. It starts with accepting where one is.

There is the story of an Indian tracker who had led a band off the beaten path and when asked if he was lost replied, “I know exactly where I am. I am here. I am just not sure where everything else is.”

Australia’s aboriginal people used song lines. As they moved through the world they sang about everything they encountered. By remembering the songs that were about the objects they came across they were able to navigate back to where they came from even across trackless deserts.8

We do get lost. It happens. Such a small thing can escalate into something bigger and more perilous. We must relax if we are to maintain our ability to map our world and reconnect where we are to where we have been. It takes great discipline not to hurry, to not grow frantic. Above all, we must never give up hope, not ever.


*His phrases included: “I will make it…Never give up, keep going west… .”


  1. Savigny, J. B. H., Corréard, A. (1818) Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816; Undertaken by Order of the French Government, Comprising an Account of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, the Suffering of the Crew, and the Various Occurrences on Board the Raft, in the Desert of Zaare at St. Louis, and at the Camp of Dacaard. To which are subjoined Observations respecting the Agriculture of the Western Coast of Africa, from Cape Blanco to the Mouth of the Gambia. London: Cockburn. Retrieved November 11, 2014 from http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433006540110;view=1up;seq=1
  2. Beckett, W. (1994) The Story of Painting. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc.
  3. Donaldson-Evans, C. (Mar 4, 2009) Florida Boat Accident: 2 NFL Players Gave Up Hope. Retrieved November 11, 2014 from http://www.foxnews.com/story/2009/03/04/florida-boat-accident-survivor-2-nfl-players-gave-up-hope/
  4. Farhi, P. (April 7, 2010) Death and disbelief: Sole survivor of accident that killed three tells story, The Washington Post. Retrieved November 11, 2014 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/06/AR2010040603874.html
  5. Lindemann, H. (1958) Alone at Sea. Random House. You can retrieve this book at https://archive.org/details/aloneatsea006429mbp.
  6. Gonzales, L. (2003) Deep Survival. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.
  7. Jofr (2012) Rise and Fall of the Digital Equipment Corporation. Retrieved November 11, 2014 from http://blog.cas-group.net/2012/04/rise-and-fall-of-the-digital-equipment-corporation/
  8. Gonzales, cit.


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© 2014 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.



  1. craig

    Good one. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Silvia

    Very, very, very good article Ivan, thank you.

    The advice to be aware of where you are is correct, but most important the one of relaxing and keeping hope.

    I guess if I were lost I would sit and observe my surroundings until I had enough orientation to decide where to go, what to do.

    Again, thank you, I liked it a lot.

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