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.
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 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.
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.
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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