Exploring the world in a large boat. Or, not so large. How safe were they really?

Cortez. Columbus. Magellan. Hudson. The list is long and admirable. They explored the world’s oceans, and the land that pushed up against the oceans and seas.

How safe were those boats, really? For every name we know, did the oceans claim dozens of equally expert seamen/sailors/navigators/explorers? How seaworthy were the vessels, against the ravages of the sea?

I think of Steve Fossett. ( sp? ). Smart man. Didn’t push his luck. Tried a lotta times, before he did the balloon trip all the way around the world. Did the famous explorers have tons of false starts and returns home after 5 weeks, because of weather, damaged ships, or disease befalling the crew?

History is filtered and re-filtered decade by decade. Things are set aside or condensed down to a mere few sentences. So I ask the real history buffs.

How did they do it, back then in the ocean-going exploration ships? Are the well-known and much-beloved names only the surviving explorers, with dozens or hundres of equally skilled but dead-and obscure- colleagues along the way?


One obvious factor that a lot of people forget is that these ships were made of wood - an inherently unsinkable material. So damage that might sink a metal ship would just make a wooden ship wet. As long as the ship maintained any kind of structural integrity it would keep floating and working.

Magellan started w/ 5 ships and 270 men. He died on route, and only one ship w/ 18 men! completed the voyage (some sunk, some bailed out early, and some were abandoned after to many men died/mutinied to man them all). He’s still remembered though, showing you don’t necessarily have to survive your expedition to get your names in the history books. Columbus lost the Santa Maria during his first voyage. Cortez’s was a military expedition rather then exploratory, so I don’t think it is quite what your looking for. I don’t know much about Hudson.

In Daniel Boorstien’s The Explorers, he tells how captains sent south by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal to explore the coast of Africa would always chicken out at a particular promentory of land that no European had seen the other side of. It apparently took many expeditions over several years till a captain finally had the guts to continue south.

During the early Spanish exploration of the Caribbean, many ships, including whole fleets, were lost to hurricanes.

Columbus himself lost several ships besides the Santa Maria. On his fourth and last voyage, his ships became riddled with shipworms. He had to leave one on the coast of Panama, and barely made it to Jamaica before the rest became unsailable. He was shipwrecked there for many months before he was able to get help from Hispaniola.

The excellent book Longitude has a good discussion of the dangers of sailing during the age of exploration. Before a practical method of determining longitude was developed, every ship was essentially sailing blind, even if they had charts. They arrived at their destinations mostly by luck.

An exaggeration. They had no absolute method of determining longitude. They relied on dead* reckoning which was inaccurate but not totally so by any means.

Damage that affects the integrity of a steel or wooden ship will sink either, and is more likely to occur to a wooden ship in the first place. Wood floats, but only just. Those old wooden wrecks people dive on are at the bottom of the sea for a reason. Wood does not float well enough that a wooden ship will still be able to sail when it has holed and foundered. When you’re out in the ocean in the middle of nowhere, the fact that you have some wreckage to cling to is pretty damn small comfort.

And steel doesn’t get woodworm, the bane of wooden ships in the tropics.

Cartooniverse if you want to stay friends with people who own or crew ships, don’t ever ever call them boats.

[sub][sup]*I know about the “ded”/“dead” debate. Don’t hassle me;)[/sub]

Modern ship designers have looked back on the drawings of ships in the era of Columbus. They are amazed at how top-heavy and unstable they were. They were lousy at sailing upwind, too. Modern sailing vessels can sail to about 45 degrees off the wind, but those old square-rigged tubs could only pinch to about 60 degrees. Columbus and his guys were real masters to keep those beastly ships upright.

That would be Cape Bojador, which explorer Gil Eannes passed in 1434.

A few years ago I saw some full size replicas of Columbus’ ships in the New York City Harbor. What impressed me was how very small those ships seemed for such a long, unknown voyage.

Columbus’ largest ship, the Santa Maria was perhaps only 18 meters (60 feet) long, roughly the length of a medium sized modern pleasure boat. It was a wallowing merchant ship poorly suited for exploration. The Nina and Pinta were smaller, the Pinta being only about 15 meters (50 feet) long.

Damage, yes. But a wooden ship is much harder to sink than a metal one. In a battle between wooden ships, hull damage was considered routine; many ships took numerous breaches through their sides and kept fighting. But in a metal ship any hull breach is a major crisis and must be addressed immediately; left to itself it will sink the ship.

Admittedly, a wooden ship is much easier to damage than a metal one. And, as I wrote in my previous post, a ship has to maintain some structural integrity. A ship that’s been broken into pieces is no longer a ship.

The ships of Columbus, Magellan & De Gama were canoes compared to the greatest explorer of all. Zheng He, a Chinese eunuch rumored to be seven feet tall and five feet around the waist, commanded an armada of exploration nearly 100 years before Columbus, and his flag ship was over 400 feet long and 150 feet across. His 1405 fleet consisted of over 317 ships and 27,000 men. In his seven voyages, he journeyed as far as Africa and Arabia, trading and establishing Chinese outposts. For more detail about Zheng He, see the article in the July issue of National Geographic.

Sorry, but I have to disagree with you here. You’re confusing the effects of the buoyancy of wood with the effects of Archimede’s Principle. Wood itself is just not enough to keep the massive weight of a sailing vessel with all its ballast, keel, supplies, metal cannon and anchors, masts and superstructure (all above the waterline) afloat. If a wooden ship took a hit in battle (or hit a reef) it was equally urgent to plug the leak as it would have been in a metal vessel. (Maybe more so, because most metal vessels have powered pumps that automatically empty the bilges.) Consider that one of the advantages of the wooden Junk was that it contained many watertight compartments as opposed to the European vessels that pretty much sunk like rocks if they took on enough water.

(The reason that the wooden vessels were hard to sink in battle was that they were getting shot with relatively tiny projectiles – even a heavy shot is only a few inches in diameter. So the holes were small and the ships were large, giving reasonable amounts of time for carpenters to plug the holes and for the pumps to work.)
In answer to the OP, sailing ships, in general, were horribly dangerous. Particularly the military ships that were often built as cheaply as possible using substandard materials. Even in charted waters, wrecks were commonplace. For example, there’s there’s not a stretch of Cape Cod that hasn’t seen a shipwreck. Between fog, lee shores, the reliance on wind alone for propulsion, absence of reliable chronometers, and lack of any sort of weather prediction, it’s sort of a miracle that anyone got where they were going in one piece, much less maintained any sort of commerce.

I think if you read any of the histories of any of the major expeditions, there’s usually a footnote at the end that reads something like “The expedition started with 20 ships and 30,000 men and returned with one leaky rowboat and six scurvy-stricken sailors who were marched through London as heros.”.

I would also reccomend the book by Gavin Menzies: 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Some of his research has been questioned, but he makes a compelling case that history has overlooked the accomplishments of the 15th century Chinese explorers, crediting European explorers with feats and discovereies that were first accomplished by people like Zheng He.

Cool stuff. My apologies for using the term boats instead of ships.

Live and learn. :slight_smile:

Definatly an exageration. Prefered technique was to sail to known latitude of destination, then at constant latitude until you eventually reached your destination. Only if the destination coast line were essentially E-W would you have a large error. Knowing longitude allowed more of a straight-line path, and also made locations in the doldrums (AKA horse latitudes) more accessable.

The open sea scared the bejesus out of the ancient Greeks. For example, read here:

In her book on death in Greek art, Emily Vermeule describes the Greeks’ fear that the sea would eat them: hide them from view by swallowing them down, devouring them. The metaphor is everywhere in Homer’s Odyssey – the poem that tells how Odysseus faced the dangers of the sea on his way home from Troy. The ocean is a “great gullet”; it swallows him down, then “belches” him up on the shore. At calmer times, the tide “spits up” pebbles on the beach. The sea teems with voracious monsters. Scylla, who “yelps” like a dog, has six frightful mouths, with three rows of teeth in each. Charybdis, the whirlpool, “sucks” black water down three times per day, and three times daily “spews” it up again.

The Aegean sea was filled with sea monsters!

Consider that it took Odysseus 20 years to cover the maybe 1000 NM home, none of which absolutely required that he ever be out of sight of land. (Well, maybe the 20 years includes the Trojan war as well, but the bottom line is that it shouldn’t have taken much more than a month to cross the bathtub that is the Aegean sea.)

There is a wonderfully detailed website about Henry Hudson here. Very interesting if you are enjoy the history of the era.

-cough- Tough words from someone who lives on the Jersey Shore. :wink:

Sailing in a straight line, then turning and sailing in another straight line seems pretty straightforward. What allowed them to sail at angles and in arcs? The sextant?