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“Are We There Yet, Captain … ?”

Introducing Pirate Navigation 1690-1730

A new book The Pirate Round : Early 18th Century Maritime Navigation : How it was Done and How to Do it Yourself - is written by ukpiratebrotherhood member Richard Rutherford-Moore, a long-term re-enactor and historical interpreter - and will be published in the Late Summer 2007 by Heritage Books in Westminster, Maryland. The book contains easy-to-understand explanations, diagrams and exclusive photographs enabling any reader to grasp the navigational techniques of the period 1690-1730 in addition to applying basic navigational exercises and several anecdotes making the book an excellent sea-faring yarn to be read by any historical mariner or pirate! The presentation methods described above are detailed in the book with a special section on ‘Recreating the Ships’ Artist’. Richard will shortly be presenting an 18th Century Maritime Navigation display aboard a full-sized free-floating replica of Captain James Cook’s ship, HM Bark Endeavour. The author can be hailed on this e-mail address:-

Columbus saw ‘strange lights’ during his voyage of discovery and some of his seamen did have some odd notions about forms of life that dwelt in the oceans, some of which were capable of swallowing-up ships or an unwary seamen taking a swim (not that many ever did). We now know these to be based mostly on religious or superstitious speculation or more often, alcoholic-induced visions and most ‘unexplained’ ship-losses were due to extensive voyages and a lack of provisions, vessels simply being caught out in bad weather or mistakes in navigation leading to shipwreck : that we can’t do anything about the former save keeping a ‘weather-eye open’ or by staying ashore, how did seamen in The Golden Age of Pirates deal with the latter ? The basics of Maritime Navigation were well-established some years before the early 18th Century. The struggle throughout the 17th Century was to apply the emerging new techniques in a growing ‘scientific’ age to ships ; many of which were now sailing very long distances seeking or establishing new areas of trade. Many of the locations given in ancient notes of these faraway places are given as a Latitude ; accompanied by a map or a chart literally giving basic directional details - for example, the vague reference in 1578 to reach Panama from Europe based on a single known location - The Canary Islands - such as a simple translation of ‘set sail west a hundred leagues, then sail south : starboard at The Island of Fire and follow the sun to reach The Great South Sea’. You may laugh - but over a hundred years later this sort of thing was still the norm and any voyage into open water was still the terrific risk for seamen described by Doctor Samuel Johnson in 1750 ; between 1690 and 1720 four expeditions missed’ their intended destinations by anywhere between 300 and 50 miles and lost valuable time finding them (one ship sailing in the opposite direction for two weeks) during which many men died from scurvy. Two major fleets were lost when they sailed onto rocks and reefs - which had been charted and the ships even had pilots aboard - both resulting in several ship-losses and hundreds of deaths and the balance of naval power changing hands. Once you’ve learned the basics of ship-handling - in reference to the wind at any time decreeing which direction you can sail your ship towards in rather than the direction you might want to sail towards - you can then take a look at where your destination might be (I say might as some places were placed within an estimate and their location given by latitude only). A notorious ship-loss trial in 1817 had the Master of a wrecked ship giving in evidence his claim that the obstacle was in the wrong place as shown on his chart ; it later became obvious that the wreck was caused by his ship being in the wrong place on the chart. This Master had the latest navigational technology aboard so let’s deduct a hundred years from the above date and look at Pirates in the Caribbean where none of it was even invented … any ‘Introduction to Maritime Navigation’ at that time has it slowly emerging from being considered as an Art into what was to be soon dubbed a Science - but in terms of quoting Mathematics it’s a turn-off for most people at a pirate event. In an age whose maritime heritage has mermaids and sea-monsters still bordering somewhere between belief and suspicion and many ‘ordinary’ mariners perhaps still subconsciously thinking that the Earth is flat and if you sail too far you will fall off (seamen are notoriously superstitious), food preservation aboard ship meaning either salting or smoking and all the surrounding lands held by foreigners - and being a pirate, without having a Colonial Governor somewhere having a ‘blind eye’ - that makes an enemy just about everywhere puts any mistake in ship-position as potentially deadly. ‘Island-hopping’ is one possible way around it but you risk hostile guarda-coastas and you will be limited to prowling a relatively small area for a short time - when you are spotted and have to make a quick getaway into open water or your ship is blown off course for any reason you are in big trouble if you don’t have a clue where you actually are or where you are going ! ‘Plain Sailing’ requires some basic tools and a sheet of paper : plot your latitude at A (useful if you have a chart) and do a quick sum every hour during the voyage in calculating the ships speed and noting the compass-direction the ship is sailing towards on the paper (or of course, in your log-book). Add these up over 24 hours and you can mark the position of your ship on the paper and your course and distance from A - wind permitting, if you reverse this course through 180° you can calculate by your speed at that time both how long it will take you to return to A and in what direction to sail the ship to reach A. This method is known as ‘Deduced Reckoning’ (more often, known as ‘Dead Reckoning’). But - as any mariner will tell you - your ship won’t be in that position as it will have moved to port or starboard along the line of your course by a varying amount because of the action on the ship by the wind and any current. This is where ‘observing’ instruments come in : if you could take a ‘sight’ to fix your latitude, you can then adjust your position accordingly and calculate the ‘drift’ of your ship : this is known as fixing your position by ‘Observation’ (usually by measuring the altitude of the sun in the sky at noon, local time - if you can see the sun, that is !). Navigation is usually a blend of both methods and Instruments make both tasks simpler - but in accepting the associated risk, you can do both without instruments at all ; this is where experience comes in.

Author backstaff closeup
The author explains the use and application of a circa 1720 Davys Quadrant during a recent display presented at a historic 18th Century Dock in England.

In becoming familiar with the above, I might add that you don’t require a ship to learn the basics - I performed a ‘virtual circumnavigation’ on paper by simply adjusting the reality time-scale to one hour equals one day and having someone introduce ‘variables’ in terms of wind strength and direction just by throwing a couple of dice and adjusting a simple homemade instrument ; you can make such an exercise as simple or as complicated as you like but for a beginner, it’s best to start simple and work your way up through the basic principles applying changing wind, weather and ship-provisioning conditions later. I find a ‘living history’ presentation of Navigation easy if I stick to the basic principles - but ‘pirates’ grab the attention of children and when ‘plunder’ is on offer in the form of chocolate ‘gold bars’ or ‘doubloons’ it does give a definite incentive to learning! I found most after a short brief could ‘cast the log’ to calculate speed, read off a compass direction in a few seconds and overall grasp the basic ship-handling, navigational demonstrations and mathematics very easily (embarrassing a few adults, who couldn’t) so one of the ‘have-a-go’ presentations I give is to turn maritime navigation into a ‘table-top game’ using tiny model ships - and throw in the occasional squall, storm or war. The adults are also equally keen to take a look at the genuine navigational items I have on display - depending on the chosen year of the ‘living history’ session I display items that can be handled and examined such as charts, parallel rules, dividers, compasses, telescopes, Cross-staff, Back-staff, Octant, Chronometer - and offer a basic instruction as to how these were used in a general introduction before getting down to business on the chart-table. Navigation is not boring - it’s as challenging and interesting as learning to fire a musket correctly and is also something every seaman or pirate would equally aspire to as much as acquiring personal wealth. Pistols, cannons, swords and muskets are without doubt very useful tools when engaged in piracy : but without your pirate ship being in the right place at the right time and a crew starving to death through lack of food and water, it makes such things useless ! In the immortal words in Treasure Island of Long John Silver : “We can all steer a course : but who’s to set one … ?”

Sailing off to the Caribbean sounds romantic : but even ‘on paper’ if you can plot and maintain a course to sail your ‘virtual’ square-rigged ship in the year 1700 west along The English Channel on a period chart from Dover to Plymouth in ‘prevailing conditions’ without hitting a rock, running aground on a shoal or a sandbar or attracting a French cannonball you’ve certainly achieved something !


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