Early ways of navigating at sea

We have evidence that past civilisations were exploring the seas over 5000 years ago. Why did our ancestors want to travel beyond sight of their own land? There were several reasons; curiosity and the testing of expectations, trade, discovering new land for its potential wealth, establishing new settlements.

The Phoenicians, great traders who sailed in the Mediterranean Sea 700BC, mainly sailed within sight of land but they also used celestial navigation - they used the positions of heavenly bodies to tell them where they were situated and in which direction they should travel. By day they would use the sun, by night, the stars. To use this method an accurate knowledge of how the sun and stars changed position over the course of time was needed. Records of Phoenician voyages record the sun apparently changing positions indicating that they must have explored the southern hemisphere and the coast of Africa. Celestial navigation has been widely used by sailors all over the world until the last century.

Above: A Phoenician merchant ship
(awaiting permission)

Incidentally, the Apollo space missions also used the position of 37 stars in order to navigate, the scientists identified these stars that never changed their relative position in the sky.

When the Polynesians sailed the Pacific Ocean in 2500 BC, they navigated between tiny islands many hundreds or thousands of miles apart. It is believed that they used extremely subtle clues, such as wave patterns, for navigation.

In the northern seas that the Norsemen or Vikings such as Eric the Red and Leif Eriksson sailed, the sky was often cloudy and so celestial navigation was not reliable. These explorers were known to have used the flight paths of birds in order to find land. In fact, one captain was recorded as keeping ravens (right) on board which he deliberately kept hungry. When he needed to know where land was, he would release one and follow its path, on the assumption it would head straight towards the nearest land in order to find food.

An Egyptian, Ptolemy, has been credited with producing the first maritime map in about 120AD. Surprisingly, records show that his map (shown left - click to enlarge) was still being used as the basis for navigation around Europe as late as 1450AD. His map introduces the idea of latitude and longitude – although these terms were not used at that time. Other sea maps were produced in the 10th and 13th centuries, these included scales and bearings. The faces blowing across many of these old maps indicated the direction of prevailing winds.

Find out more about navigation:

Dead reckoning
Early navigation
Improved navigation
Modern navigation

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February 2007