All about navigation...

Navigation is the process of finding your way so that you know where you are going. Unless you found this website by good luck, you are probably familiar with navigating your way around the world wide web. You have probably experienced navigation on land – finding your way through a town or from one town to another. In both of these examples you have signposts which point you in particular directions and tell you where you are at present. Even so, you may still become lost. However, in these situations, it is rarely life threatening.

Pretend that you are in a small boat out of sight of land, how do you know in which direction to go? There are no clear signposts at sea. What help exists? This really is life threatening: What if you never find land again? What if a storm blows? Imagine the thoughts and fears of those people who have been ‘lost at sea’. Would these be the same for someone who lived a few hundred years ago and for someone alive today? How many people have drowned because they did not know where they were?

How our perception of the Earth has changed!
Above left: Homer's view of a flat Earth in 900BC (click to enlarge)
Above right: modern image of the Earth, as seen from space

Even if you are within sight of land, you may hit some submerged rocks which could damage the boat and cause it to sink! In Cornwall in the 18th century people called ‘wreckers’ used to deliberately set up false navigation lights which caused ships to crash into rocks just of the coast. The wreckers then salvaged the ship’s cargo and used it or sold it.

Navigation at sea is a real problem, not only is it harder than on land but failure to be accurate could end up in disaster. No wonder it took man so long to discover the world!

Signposts at sea

Can you think of five things you could look out for that may help you to find your way at sea?
Early sailors kept their journeys within sight of land. Using the principle of triangulation, if you can see two known points on land then you can accurately estimate your position at sea.
Clouds often form at the point where land begins. The damp air from over the sea rises and cools as it passes over the coast, so causing the water vapour to condense into tiny water droplets to form a cloud
The position of the sun and the stars. As stars are so distant from us, they do not appear to move in the sky. If you know where these are you can work out the direction you have come from and the direction you need to go to progress your journey.
Birds flying. They may be on their way out to feed or on their way back – so be careful!
Prevailing winds or currents. These are ones that are reliable in their direction, however, they sometimes change with the season. For example, the Gulf Stream is surface water travelling from the Gulf of Mexico to Northern Europe.

Find out more about navigation:

Dead reckoning
Early navigation
Improved navigation
Modern navigation

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February 2007