Navigating the seas in the 18th century was no simple task. Sailors did not have GPS, radar, or weather forecasts. They had no means of instant communication with people on shore or sailing nearby. They faced severe weather, rough seas, and a lack of food if the voyage took longer than predicted.
By 1790, Captain James Cook had circumnavigated and charted the globe three times for the Royal British Navy. His historic travels are depicted on the MOVA Antique Terrestrial Globe (pictured above). The globe is a visual historical representation of Cook’s view of the world, including the omission of Antarctica, for Cook did not believe the continent existed.
A Square Meal
Original nautical meaning: While anchored or during pleasant weather, sailors were served meals on wooden boards in the shape of a square. Modern meaning: A balanced meal.
Seafaring in the 1700s was a way of life for many around the world. Sailors joined crews as early as age 14, working their way up the ranks, learning the ways of the sea, and telling the tales of their journeys. Many men joined the Navy, others were merchants or tradespeople, some were whalers, and those seeking fortune became pirates. Yet they all shared one thing: they would set sail for months or years at a time in search of adventure, with their only constants being the sea, each other, and the constellations.
As The Crow Flies
Original nautical meaning: Ships lost in coastal waters would release a crow from the mast and follow it to the nearest shore. Modern meaning: The most direct route.
Navigation is a combination of science and art. During Captain Cook’s time, sailing the seven seas required understanding the currents, watching the birds, knowing the constellations in the night sky, and calculating the ship’s position on a nautical chart using a sextant—a tool invented by Royal British Naval Captain John Campbell in 1757.
As it turns out, nature is a great navigational tool. Birds with fish in their mouths fly toward land, the Sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, and the North Star always points north when sailing in the Northern Hemisphere.
When more precise measurements were needed, science stepped in. Sailors used a sextant (or similar device) to measure the distance and angle between two objects, such as the North Star and the horizon. The North Star is at a 90-degree angle to the horizon at the North Pole and is at a zero-degree angle (in line with the horizon) at the equator.
By Guess and By God
Original nautical meaning: A form of navigation that relied upon “experience, intuition, and faith.” Modern meaning: An informed guess.
From the earliest days of exploration, humans used the constellations to guide their way. Sailors were no exception.
When you can’t see land, and when the wind, the current, and the clouds tell you nothing, when your sextant has gone overboard and the compass won’t work, you navigate by the constellations.—Laurids Madsen, We, The Drowned
As noted previously, following the North Star (also known as Polaris) will always guide you north because it is a fixed star in the night sky. But how do you find the North Star?
The Big Dipper (also known as: Ursa Major, the Saucepan, or the Plough) points to the North Star, even as the constellation rotates counterclockwise around Polaris. The two stars that form the cup of the Big Dipper are commonly called pointer stars, for they point to Polaris. The North Star lies five times the distance from the Big Dipper as the distance between the pointer stars.
At times, the Big Dipper can be hard to locate. When this happens, look for Cassiopeia—the constellation named after the beautiful queen and mother to Aphrodite—which can be found on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper. The three middle stars in Cassiopeia’s “w” form an arrow that points directly to Polaris.
Sailors who need to know east and west in the night sky can follow Orion as he journeys from east to west each evening. Mintaka, the first star in Orion’s belt to rise and set point to within one degree of true east and west, no matter a ship’s position on land or sea.
These three constellations are not alone in providing guidance to sailors at sea. In total, there are 88 named and recognized constellations, as seen on the MOVA Constellations Globe (pictured above). Stars and constellations have been a valuable navigational guide for explorers since the dawn of time.
Around the Horn
Original nautical meaning: Before the Panama Canal, sailors had to sail around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of continental South America. Modern meaning: Take the long way.
The most treacherous route to sail in the 1700s was around Cape Horn. Some would likely say it is still the most treacherous route today. For the danger lies not in having rudimentary navigational tools, but in navigating through a trifecta of hazards: intense winds, gigantic waves, and icebergs. The extreme low-pressure systems that plague the waters at the southernmost tip of continental South America, where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet, cause williwaw winds—frequent, sudden, unpredictable winds.
Many sailors who make it through the passage comment on how noisy penguins are or about the dangerous accumulation of ice on the deck of the ship. Navigating Cape Horn was considered a rite of passage for the toughest of sailors from the time of Captain Cook in the 1700s until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.
In the modern-day epic about the port town of Marstal, Denmark, We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen, Knud Erik proclaims, “But you’re not a real sailor until you’ve sailed south around Cape Horn.”
When Your Ship Comes In
Original nautical meaning: Companies that invested in merchant ships took big risks and reaped big rewards. They watched for their ships (and with it, their fortunes) to return and pay off. Modern meaning: Hope that one will soon have good luck or fortune.
Should you find you are inspired to journey back in time to the Age of Sail, we suggest you set off on your adventures by navigating your way around the world with the MOVA Antique Terrestrial Globe, guided by the MOVA Constellations Globe, and bury yourself deep in a book rather than the close quarters (Original nautical meaning: Wooden fort-like structures on the quarterdeck of merchant ships used for protection during pirate attacks. Modern meaning: Tight space that offers little or no privacy) of an 18th century wooden sailing ship.
- Billy Budd: Herman Melville’s first novel (actually, a novella) that was published following his death.
- In The Heart of The Sea: A true historical book by Nathaniel Philbrick about the tragedy of the whaling ship the Essex. The events of the Essex inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick.
- We, The Drowned: A novel originally written in Danish by Carsten Jensen that follows generations of sailors from a small town in Denmark that even includes a series of cameos by Captain James Cook.