We continue our great voyage into the history of sailing with how the early sailors managed to navigate the waves and get to the places they set out to find. In part one of this blog we looked at some of the early innovations in sailing, including how to steer and we continue to see other great innovations that developed sailing into what it is today.
Early Navigation Techniques
Early sailors had to find a way to know where they were so that they could navigate the seas and oceans of the world. The prospect of trying to find your way across a featureless landscape is to say the least daunting.
And the fact that the ancient mariners were able to do this is a testament to their ingenuity. Early sailors used the stars as a method of fixing their position, and thus were able to navigate at night when they could not see any shoreline. It has been recorded that this method of navigation dates back well over three thousand years, and was actually mentioned in the great book written by Homer, the Odyssey. The text mentions of the hero using the stars to find his position.
It was the Vikings that invented the Keel which is a beam that runs the whole length of a ship that provided a rigidity to the whole craft. The Norsemen’s boats had square rigging which meant they were prone to lateral wind movement. They found that the addition of a beam that was lower than the rest of the hull was an ideal way of stopping this unwanted sideways movement. It also had other benefits that included more speed and stability.
The other positive effects of the keel are additional ballast, and the keel also lowers the center of gravity for the whole ship making it more unlikely to capsize. This can be seen on the racing yachts of today that have very large keels.
Marine engines were one of the last great innovations that took sailing into another dimension. Previous to marine engines ships relied on the wind and oars to provide power. But these two methods of propulsion have their obvious drawbacks. The very first marine engines designed to provide power for boats were steam engines. It was a man named Thomas Newcomen who first created the commercial steam engine in 1712, and it was this engine that was adapted for use aboard a ship.
The first purpose built steamboat was built by William Symington from Scotland, which was named Charlotte Dundas. And in 1819 history was made when the steamboat Savannah sailed from Georgia in America, across the Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool.
More and more innovations took place during the industrial 19th Century and gradually steam engines were phased out for the more reliable diesel engines that are used today. These powerful engines enable ships to keep constant speeds no matter what the wind conditions may be. Over the years there have been many great and wonderful innovations that have pushed shipping to remain as the only real way of transporting large amounts of goods across the world. And the ancient sailors of the past would definitely give their nod of approval at the changes that have been made.