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Old 07-30-2002
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Mark Matthews is on a distinguished road
The Greatest Navigator

This article was originally published on SailNet in March 2001.


Take away the channel markers and unplug the GPS and depthsounder, and that leaves birds, celestial bodies, waves, and clouds—important tools for the early navigators.
From time to time our Ask the Experts program scares up topics that spark an idea for a feature article. So when we received a question about which seafarer we considered to be the greatest navigator, that cast open our ruminations. As you might imagine, we can't pretend to actually provide a definitive answer here. Indeed, we'd be lucky to scratch the surface as many of the personalities one would consider in this category have had entire libraries written about them. But the journey along the way is a scenic one, filled with tidbits of nautical lore and knowledge that may help you actualize your own greatest navigator within. With that little caveat out of the way, here are some familiar contenders, along with several other characters you may not have heard of, all of whom have a legitimate claim to the title of greatest navigator.

Among the earliest known navigators were fishermen and merchants in Greece who kept close to shore and used coastal landmarks alone to guide themselves along the way in their daily toils. The lead line was one of the early technological breakthroughs in this region, and remains with us even today in the form of depth sounders, enabling position finding by depth and bottom characteristics. From there, the skill set evolved toward learning to read cloud formations over the islands as an indication of land, as well as discerning the smell of land as it wafted out onto the Aegean. It's worth noting that many of the same powers of observation used in the fourth century BC are still valuable to mariners today.

Across the Med, the Phoenicians had taken it up a level, gazing to the heavens to use the sun and stars. Using simple instruments, sometimes only their fingers, Ionian sailors navigated by the Little Bear constellation some 600 years before the birth of Christ in what many regard as the initial phases of celestial navigation.

Weather in the high latitudes of Scandanavia meant that stars were few and far between, so northern mariners there were forced to find other techniques to make their way across open water. One intrepid sailor figured out that by watching sea birds that flew by, one could make deductions regarding where land lay. If the beak of a bird was empty, it was heading out to sea to find food for its young. If the bird was carrying a fish, it was headed toward land. There are records of one Norseman named Raven-Floki who made it a habit of travelling with deliberately starved ravens, which are land birds. According to historical accounts, he periodically released a raven and simply followed the bird to shore.


The present day horizon appears the same as it did centuries ago, and heading for a distant destination still demands an awareness of the elements.

On the other side of the earth, early Polynesians developed their own techniques for finding their way on the open blue. Hundreds of years before the Europeans made it to the South Pacific, these sailors systematically navigated through 16 million square miles of the Pacific. Surrounded by islands, reefs, and wicked currents, from 300 AD to 1200 AD, these seafarers sailed over thousands of miles simply by tuning into the elements. A heightened understanding of waves, their direction, and type allowed these sailors to know where they were on over-the-horizon voyages. Polynesians from what is now the Marshall Islands constructed early charts using palm twigs and shells that marked the position of islands and the prevailing direction of the winds and swell.

When the main Polynesian voyages of discovery ceased, the advent of the sextant was still 500 in the future, and Christopher Columbus had not yet ventured across the Atlantic. Yet, scholars believe the ancient Polynesians made repeated trips, even sailing against the prevailing winds—finding their way by memorizing the movements of key stars and by observing wind, waves, currents, clouds, and seabirds. The powers of observations again proved key. On the open ocean, clouds move rapidly when propelled by tradewinds and when a sailor sighted the high, stationary clouds that collect over land, the Polynesians were able to deduce their approximate positions. A modern-day version of a Polynesian navigator, master navigator Mau Piailug, became a central figure in reviving what was thought to be a lost art and led several voyaging canoe trips using ancient Polynesian techniques.

By now you're thinking, 'let's get onto the good stuff.' What about Joshua Slocum, the patron saint of small-boat voyagers and single-handers who alone logged 46,000 miles for a circumnavigation between 1895-1898 before sailing off never to be heard from again?

"Or what about Captain Bligh and his feat of navigating 3,600 miles in an open longboat after being ousted by the crew of the Bounty in 1789?"
Or what about Captain Bligh and his unparalleled feat of navigating 3,600 miles in an open longboat after being ousted by the crew of the Bounty in 1789? Or James Cook in 1768 whose considerable nautical abilities enabled him to explore great tracts of the unknown Pacific Ocean? He led three great voyages of discovery in the South Pacific before he was killed by Hawaiian islanders at the end of his third voyage.

Or what about the tenacity and ingenuity of Ernest Shackleton who drifted on ice floes for five months after his ship the Endurance was crushed in the pack ice in 1914? Shackleton and his crew escaped to a remote island in the South Shetland Islands, whereafter he and five others braved stormy conditions for 800 miles in a whale boat only to land on the wrong side of Elephant Island, and then make the first crossing of that mountainous island to reach rescuers.

Of course you can't discount China's Zheng He, one of the world's most masterful navigators. From 1405 to 1433, some 80 years before Columbus, he made seven epic voyages from China throughout the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Persian Gulf, logging over 30,000 sea miles. While Columbus' Santa Maria was 85 feet LOA, Zheng Ho's flagship was an astounding 400 feet long. And each of Zheng He's seven flotillas had more than 200 vessels, (for the record, flotillas of this size wouldn't be seen again until World War I), a combined crew in the neighborhood of 27,000, and the largest ships were at least 1,500 tons each. By comparison Columbus' first expedition had three ships, an 87-person crew, with the largest ship weighing approximately 100 tons. Perhaps this Chinese explorer's most notable distinction was that his goal wasn't trade, territorial expansion, or religious conversion, but instead the ultimate PR stunt—an effort to publicize the superiority of Ming China. We might as well add here that the Chinese invented the compass, although it wasn't used in a maritime setting until much later.


It remains to be seen if future generations of sailors will honor today's emminent navigators with larger-than-life statues like this one of Portugal's Prince Henry (above) who served as a catalyzing figure in refining navigation techniques centuries ago.

And as long as we're lingering in the 1400s, let's pay homage to the Portuguese explorers who faced down their fears of the open ocean, venturing further and further afield, first to the Azores, carried by winds, currents, and the paths of seabirds. Getting beyond the Azores required a mental leap of faith as these sailors moved into the realm of the then unknown. An increasing faith in science and celestial navigation was the catalyst for getting them over the hurdle. From 1434 when Gil Eannes first crossed the Bulging Cape until the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese became increasingly reliant on celestial navigation. By 1497, knowledge of the stars enabled Vasco da Gama and his four 120-ton vessels to embark on a 27,000-mile voyage in the search for a sea route to the east that helped establish Portugal as an international power. Eventually da Gama made it through the South Atlantic, to the Cape of Good Hope and onto Mozambique, suffering the ravages of scurvy along the way and hostile encounters with other would-be merchants. He ultimately made it to India, the South Pacific and back to Portugal. After da Gama, Magellan would take the ball and run, sailing from Spain, down to South America, discovering the Straits of Magellan and eventually crossing the Pacific. Although he was killed in the Philippines—apparently an occupational hazard for early navigators—his ship carried on to Spain, reportedly completing the first circumnavigation of the world.

Well, now we've made it to the celebrated discoverer Columbus, who as most sailors know made it to the New World in 1492 using little more than dead reckoning. Columbus' vessels averaged a little less than four knots in boat speed, although in the right conditions the could top out at eight knots, but drifting at zero knots was not uncommon either. A 100-mile day would be typical (so the next time you find yourself complaining about your own vessel's speeds or lack thereof, keep this in mind). In order to measure speed, say the historical accounts, a crew member would throw a piece of flotsam over the side and measure the time it took for the flotsam to pass two marks on the ship's rail. Since a sea-going timepieces hadn't been invented yet, a series of chants were used. The navigator/chanter would then note the last syllable in the chant, and used a memory device to convert that into miles per hour.

This method would not work when the ship was moving slowly, since the chant would run out before the flotsam reached the mark. Columbus was also the first navigator we know of that kept a running log of his journey, a practice carried on by prudent mariners today.

Well there you have it. An incomplete history of navigators and the schemes, techniques, and other erratum they used to determine their place on the open blue. As I mentioned earlier, there are countless other notable feats of navigation that haven't been mentioned here. Here's looking forward to exploring the rest someday as well.

Navigators' Hall of Fame

We polled several SailNet authors to get their votes for the greatest navigators of all time. It goes without saying that this is by no means scientific research. Nonetheless, we thought you'd enjoy the rationale these folks offer for their selections.

John Kretschmer    How about old Nathaniel Bowditch? Bowditch was an amazing scholar and a practical seaman. Between 1795 and 1799 Bowditch made four lengthy sea voyages. He fairly revolutionized the practice of marine navigation and secured his reputation as America's foremost navigator when he conned the three-masted Putnam into the harbor through a fog after a long trip from the Indian Ocean. Bowditch's masterpiece, the "American Practical Navigator," known to all of us simply as "Bowditch" is, I think, the longest continuously published book in American History. By the way, this year is the 199th anniversary of its first edition!

Tom Wood    My vote for the world's greatest navigators is a group, typified by Eric the Red. The early Vikings established the first lighthouses and sailing directions known to man. They explored uncharted areas in some of the most hostile seas, landing settlements in Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and possibly pushing into the Great Lakes as far west as Minnesota a half-century before Columbus. Vikings established trade throughout Europe and the graves of Viking sailors have yielded artifacts from the Far East and shell-money from the Maldive Islands. Their superior ships and navigation gave them both military and trade superiority up to the era of the Hanseatic League.

Brian Hancock    I do not have a single “favorite” navigator, rather have always been intrigued and fascinated by the Polynesian navigators as a group. As a single-handed sailor I believe in developing one's intuition or “sixth sense” and using it as a tool just like many other sailors would use navigation instruments as tools. The Polynesian navigators had acute intuition and were able to cross vast bodies of water without instruments or charts. They relied solely on intricate knowledge of the sea and sky, and knowledge of swells and currents, winds and weather, stars and the natural signs of birds and fish. The Polynesian navigators used a system that was home-oriented, in other words they kept a mental record of all courses steered and all phenomena affecting the movement of their vessel, tracing these backwards in their mind so that at any time they could point in the approximate direction of their home island and estimate the sailing time required to reach it. This is obviously a complex feat of dead reckoning which required careful attention. It also meant that they got insufficient sleep. It's been said that the Polynesian navigator could always be distinguished among his companions on a canoe by his bloodshot eyes.

Dan Dickison    I'd stick Thor Heyerdahl's name on the list of nominees, particularly if you're inclined to single out explorers from the modern era. People forget just how much this Norwegian accomplished on the open sea to help us better understand history. His inaugural expedition aboard the Kon Tiki (built mainly of balsawood) in 1947 took him across 4,300 miles of open ocean to Raroia in Polynesia, proving that these islands might have been settled by people from South America. He made numerous voyages after that, including those of the Ra I in 1969 (built of papyrus reed) from Africa to the Caribbean, the Ra II in 1971 (also made of reeds), and the Tigris Expedition in 1977, which covered over 4,000 miles in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea on a primitive vessel built of reeds. Heyerdahl wrote and published countless volumes detailing his expeditions and their findings and he even shot the footage for a documentary film made of his first voyage. That piece of work garnered an Academy Award in 1952. And afterall, isn't that really the true measure of greatness these days?




Suggested Reading:

Working with the Stars by Jim Sexton

Dead but not Deceased by John Rousmaniere

Sailing With a Master Mariner by John Rousmaniere

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