New York City’s Rockaway Beach, like most beaches, looks out onto a seemingly endless stretch of blue water. Standing at the edge of the sand and peering outward, it’s hard to say what’s beyond the horizon. From NYC, one might guess a ship sailing a straight path would first hit Spain, or perhaps Portugal.
But in fact, getting from A to B in a “straight” line is a much trickier proposition than you might think. Standing perpendicular to the ocean at Rockaway Beach, you’re actually looking toward parts of Venezuela; while the first beach you’d hit, sailing from Nahant, Massachusetts, would be somewhere around Western Sahara. “The Boston region mostly faces Africa or Australia, if it gets past the cape at all,” says Andy Woodruff. Woodruff is a cartographer with Axis Maps and the designer of a new set of mind-bending maps that show what lies directly across the ocean from any given beach, if you take into account our planet’s round shape and wonky coastlines.
Woodruff’s fascination with this idea began with a question. He wondered if it was possible to sail around the earth on the trajectory of a great circle, without hitting another landmass. It turned out that’s impossible, but it led him to another idea. “Say you are on land and were to look or sail straight out, what would you run into,” he asks. He wanted to find out. Woodruff had found inspiration in a series of maps, published in 2014 and 2015, which visualized the countries that lie due east and west of various points along the coasts of the Americas. Those maps neatly organize the world into color-coded common latitudes, i.e. how far north or south a location is of the equator. But Woodruff’s map doesn’t visualize latitudes, exactly. His is a stricter interpretation of “straight.”
To figure out what’s across the ocean from a coastline, Woodruff had to first know what direction the coastline was facing. “I spend a lot of time in summers at Jersey Shore,” he explains. “It’s the East Coast, so you think, oh, it faces East, but really a lot of where we are faces southeast, and if you get a particularly rugged piece of coast it faces every which way.” To determine what lies straight across the ocean from a given coastal point, says Woodruff, “we need to see what direction the coast faces at that point, then draw a great circle in that direction and see what it runs into.”