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The First Navigators
Alastair Buchan
from 'Pencil, Paper and Stars - The Handbook of Traditional and Emergency Navigation', England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2008


Once cavemen developed a navigational methodology it was not long before this methodology became formalised with certificates of competence, and a range of gadgets all promising to make it easy. It would be wrong to think of the early navigators as uncivilised, uneducated, unsophisticated, unqualified and fearful of losing sight of land.

The distribution of finds of Irish Bronze Age gold ornaments showed that there was a healthy trade between Ireland, mainland Europe, Scotland and Denmark. Any way in which you retrace those routes involves some wild water sailing and serious navigation.

In the fourth century BCE, Herodotus wrote that when you were in 100 fathoms and found yellow mud on the lead then you were one day’s sail from Alexandria. Mud from the Nile extends about 60 miles offshore, and soundings of 100 fathoms puts you some 50 nautical miles offshore.

Coincidentally, the Minoans had a harbour at Knossus on the south coast of Crete whose only purpose was to trade with Africa, a good two days' sail across open sea.

Around 500 BC Hanno, a Carthaginian, took 60 ships down the west coast of Africa, colonising as he went. He reached the region that is modern Sierra Leone.

The Circumnavigation of Africa
Herodotus c.480-c.429 BC
'The Histories' 4.42
translated by Aubrey de Selincourt


'Libya is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who, after calling off the construction of the canal between the Nile and the Arabian gulf, sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar.

'The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year's harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt.

'These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right - to northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered by sea.'

Phoenician sailing ship c.700BC
Phoenician trading ship c.700BC
Graphic from Courtlandt Canby,
'A History of Ships and Seafaring',
London: Leisure Arts Ltd 1962


The ship Phoenicia recreating the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa c.600BC
Replica ship Phoenicia - now recreating the Phoencian circumnavigation of Africa c.600BC
Photo: Jenny Hill

Follow the Phoenician Ship Expedition


Even earlier, in 605 BCE Pharaoh Necho II, upset by failure in his war against Nebuchadnezzar and keen to secure his place in history, commissioned a Phoenician fleet to sail round Africa. They sailed down the east coast, round the Cape of Good Hope, up the west coast and back along the Mediterranean to Egypt. This is a voyage of about 16,000 nautical miles and it took three years. Considering they stopped ashore for a few months each year to grow crops, they were either putting up eye-watering performances, or they had the capability to make long offshore passages, navigationally unequalled for many centuries.

Around 340 BCE another Phoenician, Pytheas of Massalia (present-day Marseilles) explored the Arctic Ocean and reached Utima Thule. Wherever that was, getting there involved offshore passages in some of the world's most inhospitable seas. Pytheas also invented an accurate method of calculating latitude using a calibrated sundial, theorised over the relationship between tides and the phases of the moon, and attempted to determine the position of true north.

On his return, he documented his voyage in Peritou Okeanou (On the Ocean), which was lost. Fortunately, other writers drew upon it and we know Pytheas estimated the coastline of Britain to be 45,000 stades. Using the best guess we have about the length of a stade, Pytheas made Britain's coastline 4,800 miles as against our figure of 4,710 miles.

In 146 BCE, Eudoxus of Cyzicus on his second voyage from Egypt to India was blown ashore below Cape Guardafui (then called the Cape of Spices) in Somalia off the Horn of Africa. There he found a wooden prow, carved with a horse's head, floating in the water. On his return to Carthage, he discovered that this was identical to those found on ships from Cadiz and Morocco. Did some navigator make it into the Indian Ocean a thousand years before Vasco Da Gama?

In about 100 BCE, the Roman geographer Statius Sebosus claimed that sailing for 40 days from the Gorgades brought you to the Hesperides, the legendary islands beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Some claim that the Gorgades are the Cape Verde Isles. If so, the next stop west is the Caribbean. On his third journey to the New World, it took Columbus 33 days to sail between the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean. Was someone making transatlantic round trips 1600 years before Columbus? If so, who? Sadly Sebosus does not say.

Pliny the Elder in about 50 CE related the tides to the phases of the moon. Sometime around 700 CE, the Venerable Bede, sitting in his monastic cell by the River Wear in North-east England, described the tides round the British coast. Bede's work was used by seamen into the 17th century.

About 4000 years ago, on the far side of the world, the Polynesians began sailing the Pacific. Polynesian sea lanes have been correlated to the flight paths of migrating birds. Some believe that Polynesian explorers were great bird watchers, and that when they set out to explore it was to discover land that they were almost sure was there to be found. As they had no iron, they did not have magnetic compasses, but instead evolved a navigation system that needed neither instruments, nor charts as the west understood them. Their system survived more or less intact into the 19th century, and on a diminishing scale, into the early 20th century.

It is possible that some of their voyages were accidental, forced on them by heavy weather, but most were not. When they discovered an island accidentally, those who did so were not lost, for they found their way home with sufficient information for others to retrace their steps.

Closer to home and prior to 1492 the Caribs, Mayans and other tribes in the Caribbean sailed amongst the islands, and to and from the mainlands of North, Central and South America.

The expertise that made these early voyages possible is not completely lost. When John C Voss was sailing across the Pacific in his 30-foot Tilikum in September 1901 the boat was pooped 1200 miles from Sydney. He lost his companion and only compass overboard. Unfazed, he steered by the sun, moon, stars and swell to reach Sydney 22 days later. His confidence in his Crash Bag Navigation was so great that 15 minutes after noting that he should see 'Sidney light before long', he did.

In the 1960s, using Polynesian techniques, David Lewis sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand and made landfall within 30 miles of his destination.

Between 1982 and 1984 Martin Creamer in Gold Star made one of the greatest circumnavigations ever by sailing round the world without using any instruments, not even a watch. Starting and ending at Cape May Harbor USA he called at Cape Town, Hobart, Sydney Whangora, and Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

It is unlikely the achievements of early navigators were lucky accidents. We know of Phoenician voyages, although not how they navigated, but to argue they did not develop a sophisticated navigational methodology is to believe they learnt nothing from centuries of voyaging. Look how far our own navigational skills have come in the last 500 years.

More to the point, early navigators probably had instruments. We think otherwise because we do not know about them or would not recognise them if we saw them. Sea power has always represented political power and wealth. Its skills and tools were jealously guarded secrets. Evidence of their existence was not left around for passers-by to pick up. This is still true today. Ask any military organisation for details of its latest navigational gizmos and you receive a bland and probably misleading answer.

Around 150 BCE the Greeks had a mechanical computer capable of predicting the movement of the sun, the moon, and some planets, as well as being able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Its remains were found in 1901 aboard a shipwreck. It took over a century to work out what it was.

The Greeks also knew about the astrolabe and had star catalogues. The Pharaohs used sundials and knew the earth was spherical. They even measured its diameter pretty accurately. Devices for measuring the altitude of celestial bodies have been around for thousands of years. It is presumptuous to assume this knowledge was not used at sea.

Lead line apart, the first instrument to come into widespread maritime use was the compass. It possibly appeared in several places at about the same time as the characteristics of lodestone were widely known. The first mention of the compass in the west was by an Englishman Alexander Neckham. In his 1187 book De Utensilibus (On Instruments), he described a needle that swung on a point and showed the direction of north. This is a dry, pivoting compass needle so it is possible that the simpler, floating compass needle was in existence earlier than that.

Almost from the beginning, it was noted that compasses did not point to true north. Variation was empirically calculated in the 15th century. Around 1600 William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I of England, suggested the difference was because the earth was behaving like a magnet, with its magnetic poles some distance away from its geographic ones.





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