Voyages of Discovery
During the European Age of Discovery, which lasted from the 15th century to the 19th century, Europeans explored the world by ship to open new trade routes and expand empires. The compass, improved sailing ship technologies, new maps, and advances in astronomy combined to increase sailor’s ability to safely navigate the oceans. This era also saw important developments in ship design, such as the creation of the carrack and caravel designs in Portugal. These were the first ships that could leave the relatively placid and calm Mediterranean, Baltic, and North Seas and sail safely on the open Atlantic. The new ships were the type used by early Portuguese explorers as well as by Columbus.
In the late 15th century, various European nations became committed to looking for new trade routes and colonies overseas. In 1492, Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain funded Christopher Columbus’ expedition to sail west and hopefully reach Asia bypassing Portugal’s trade routes around Africa. Instead, Columbus found a New World: America. Soon afterwards, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral explored the land that is today called Brazil, and within decades, steady trade routes and established colonies existed across the Atlantic connecting Europe and the New World. By the early seventeenth century, European vessels were sufficiently well built and their navigators competent enough to travel to virtually anywhere on the planet by sea. The western and northern coasts of Australia were mapped in the 17th century but exploration of the east coast had to wait over a century for the arrival of Captain James Cook and his exploration of the Pacific Ocean.
Into the 20th century and continuing today, exploration of the oceans has turned to scientific studies of the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of water, the atmosphere, climate, and life in the sea. Oceanographic research vessels from many countries sail the oceans and carry equipment for the collection of water samples, hydrographic sounding of the seabed, and numerous other environmental sensors, all of which can study in a range of depths including the deep seas. In addition to these surface vessels, deep sea submersibles are able to probe the ocean depths providing scientists with new information on the unexplored reaches of the sea.
Christopher Columbus had three ships on his first voyage, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Columbus’s flagship and the largest of the trio was the Santa Maria, which was slow but able to carry large amounts of cargo and withstand bad weather. The Niña and Pinta were smaller with less cargo space but could explore shallow bays and the mouths of rivers. Ships of Columbus’s day would average a little less than four knots with a top speed of about eight knots. At that time 90 to 100 miles in a day would be average and 200 would be phenomenal. Like all vessels from this period, there is no detailed information about their design. Recreations are based on typical ships of the age as depicted in paintings, engravings, and other contemporary source materials.
Formerly known as the La Gallega since its owner was from Galicia, Columbus renamed this vessel Santa Maria. The ship had been built long before the voyage and was rented from its master and owner, Juan de la Cosa who served as captain of the Santa Maria on Columbus’s first three voyages. The Santa Maria was the largest and slowest of the ships. She had three masts (fore, main, and mizzen) each of which carried one large sail. The foresail and mainsail were square; the sail on the mizzen, or rear, mast was a triangular sail known as a lateen. In addition, the ship carried a small square sail on the bowsprit, and a small topsail on the mainmast above the mainsail. She reportedly sailed well across the Atlantic, but ran aground near Haiti and was so badly damaged Columbus ordered his men to use her timbers to construct a new ship.
The Pinta, meaning “painted one,” was a caravel, a two or three-masted ship of about 65 feet in length with a 22 foot width crewed by roughly 25 sailors. The captain on the first voyage was Martín Alonso Pinzón, part owner of both the Niña and the Pinta.
Originally named the Santa Clara, “Niña” was a nickname that may have come from the original owner Juan Nino. The smallest of the fleet, the Niña was a caravel of approximately 50 or 60 tons with a length of about 45 feet and a breadth of about 15 feet. She had a crew of approximately 25 sailors. When she left Spain, she had triangular lateen sails on all masts, but she was refitted in the Canary Islands with square sails on the fore and main masts. Niña was captained by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón the brother of the captain of the Pinta. After the Santa Maria ran aground, Columbus used the Niña as his flagship.
Captain James Cook
In 1768, the Royal Society and Royal Navy planned an expedition to Tahiti to observe the passage of Venus across the face of the sun. Precise measurements were needed from various locations worldwide in order to determine the accurate distance between the earth and sun. Based on James Cook’s skill as a navigator, he was chosen to lead the expedition, which set sail from England in August 1768 on the HMS Endeavour. He proceeded to Tahiti where the transit of Venus was measured. After the information was collected, Cook charted New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, which was known as New Holland at the time. The Royal Navy promoted James Cook to Captain following his return and commissioned him for a new mission. His two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure, left in July 1772 and by circumnavigating the southern waters around Antarctica, Cook indisputably determined that there was no habitable southern continent; however, he did discover several previously unknown island chains in the Pacific Ocean.
In July 1776, Cook set out to determine if there was a Northwest Passage, a mythical waterway which would allow sailing between Europe and Asia across the top of North America. He sailed along the coast of what would become Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska and proceeded through the Bering Strait to find that a navigable passage did not exist. Stopping at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in February 1779 on the return voyage, Cook was killed in a fight with islanders over the theft of a boat. Cook’s explorations dramatically increased European knowledge of the world. As a ship captain and skilled mapmaker, he filled in many gaps on world maps. His contributions to eighteenth century science helped propel further exploration and discovery for many years.
Endeavour, originally a merchant coal carrier named Earl of Pembroke, was launched in June 1764 from the coal and whaling port of Whitby in North Yorkshire. She was ship-rigged and sturdily built with a broad, flat bow, a square stern, and a long box-like body with a deep hold. Her length was 106 feet with a beam of 29 feet 3 inches and she was rated at 369 tons. The flat-bottomed design made her well-suited to sailing in shallow waters and allowed her to be beached for loading and unloading of cargo and for basic repairs without requiring a dry dock.
William Bligh & The Mutiny on the Bounty
After James Cook discovered Tahiti, the Royal Navy purchased the Bounty to travel to the island and pick up breadfruit plants in the hopes that they would grow well and become a cheap source of food for slaves in the West Indies. Under the command of Captain William Bligh, Bounty sailed for Tahiti and reached the island on October 26, 1788 after ten months at sea.
Bligh and his crew collected and prepared 1,015 breadfruit plants, and the Bounty sailed peacefully with its cargo for the first 1,300 miles west of Tahiti until mutiny broke out on April 28, 1789. The eighteen mutineers ordered Bligh and his twenty-two loyal crewmen into Bounty’s launch. Bligh undertook the seemingly impossible 3,618 nautical mile voyage to the island of Timor, which he reached after 47 days with only one death. However, many of the men who survived this ordeal soon died of sickness in the Dutch East Indies port of Batavia as they waited for transport to Britain. Bligh went on to have a successful career in the Royal Navy and retired as a Vice-Admiral.
After a brief return to Tahiti, some of the mutineers sailed Bounty to Pitcairn Island, where they burned her on January 23, 1790 and established a colony to escape criminal charges. Fourteen of those who remained on Tahiti were captured and ten of these survived the return trip to England for trial. Eventually four were acquitted, three were pardoned, and three were hanged for their role in the mutiny.
Bounty began her career in 1784 as the coal carrier Bethia. On May 26, 1787, she was purchased by the Royal Navy for £2,600, renamed Bounty, and refit for an expedition to Tahiti for breadfruit. She was a relatively small three-masted sailing ship at 215 tons with full rigging. She was very small compared to other three-masted colliers used for similar expeditions including Cook’s Endeavour and Resolution, which displaced 368 tons and 462 tons respectively.
In 1831 the naturalist and recent graduate of Cambridge University, Charles Darwin, was invited to join Captain Robert FitzRoy aboard the HMS Beagle for a scientific exploration to South America and Australia. FitzRoy desired a gentleman companion that shared his scientific interests, and the twenty-two year old Darwin’s background and study of botany and geology recommended him well for the position.
While the ship’s crew charted coastlines and provided accurate measurements of latitude and longitude, Darwin explored on land gathering geological and natural specimens to be sent back to England for expert analysis, identification, and preservation. Before he had even returned from the five-year voyage, his findings and writings had made him a prominent geologist and author.
While visiting the Galapagos Islands, Darwin observed variations between finches that were later proven to be distinct species of the bird. These observations formed the basis for his idea that species developed from other species rather than being created individually. While this later emerged as his groundbreaking theory of “natural selection” or “survival of the fittest,” it was initially only a hobby, second to his primary study of geology. It was not until a later study of barnacles helped him solidify his ideas that he published On the Origins of Species, which became an instant success. Though this particular book never mentioned evolution or the origins of humans and Darwin maintained that the ideas of Christianity and evolution were not mutually exclusive, Darwin remains a controversial figure whose reputation for evolutionary thinking often overshadows his scientific contributions in geology, botany, and biology.
Charles Darwin’s vessel, the HMS Beagle, was a 10-gun brig-sloop of the Royal Navy. She was launched on May 11, 1820 from the Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames. There was no immediate need for Beagle so she was kept in reserve for five years and “lay in ordinary,” moored afloat but without masts or rigging. She was then adapted as a survey ship by the addition of a mizzen mast to make steering easier, thus transforming the Beagle into a barque.
At the age of twenty, Cousteau entered the French Naval Academy with the intention of studying naval aviation, but a car accident damaged his arm and ended his dreams of flying. Instead he served in French naval intelligence and assisted the navy with the development of underwater exploration technology. In 1943 he co-developed twin-hose open-circuit SCUBA gear called the Aqualung, which helped him further his underwater filmmaking and exploration. He continued to use his advancements to help the navy and in 1946 he founded the French Underwater Research Group (GERS), which is now CEPHISMER, which continues their original mission of exploration and testing. During this time he also pioneered the study of underwater archaeology and aided in the recovery of lost ships.
After he left the navy in 1949, he founded the French Oceanographic Campaign (FOC), which leased the Calypso, a war-era minesweeper that he had refitted to serve as a mobile laboratory for his filming, diving, and underwater archaeological expeditions. His achievements soon included the prediction of the use of echolocation in porpoises, the development of vessels that could dive to a depth of 500 meters, and the discovery of the Britannic wreck.
By the time he passed away in 1997, his legacy included various awards for his films, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, admittance into the French Academy and the US National Academy of Sciences and over 120 television documentaries and 50 books that inspired countless children and adults alike in oceanography and environmental studies.
One of 561 minesweepers built during World War II, this ship was sold in 1947 to operate as a ferry between Malta and Gozo under the name Calypso. Purchased in 1950 by Lt. Cmdr. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the inventor of SCUBA gear, Calypso was converted into a research vessel. Over 46 years, the ship logged more than one million miles around the world. She carried the most modern equipment, including various submersibles and helicopters. She also sported a submerged observation bubble in the bow. In January 1996, she was severely damaged in an accident at Singapore and will hopefully be replaced with a new, specially-designed vessel, the Calypso II.
Born in Nova Scotia in 1844, Slocum had sailed on schooners and had a love of the sea as early as age 8 when his family moved to the mouth of the Bay of Fundy where his grandfather was the lighthouse keeper. He worked with his strict father in a leatherworking shop, but he longed to go to sea to avoid his father and his ten other siblings at home. Though he left for short periods while still very young, he did not leave for good until he was sixteen when he and a friend boarded a merchant ship and sailed from Halifax to Dublin.
By the time he was eighteen he had received his certificate making him a Second Mate and he soon rose to Chief Mate serving on British ships transporting coal and grain from Britain to San Francisco. In 1865 he settled in San Francisco and spent the next four years working in the salmon and fur trade industries before returning to the sea as a schooner pilot transporting goods between San Francisco and Seattle. In 1869 he received his first ocean command of the barque Washington which sailed from California to Australia. During one of his visits to Sydney he met, courted, and married his wife within one month’s time and she went on to sail with him for the next thirteen years bearing him seven children at sea and in various foreign ports.
In 1895, Slocum set sail in the Spray, which he had rebuilt and relying only on dead reckoning for navigation, he solo circumnavigated the world in three years. His account of the voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World became an instant classic, but when he set out in 1909 to visit South America and write another account of his travels, he disappeared at sea and was never heard from again.
Given an antiquated and decaying sloop named Spray in 1844, Joshua Slocum spent 13 months in Fairhaven, MA rebuilding his 33 foot boat plank by plank. On April 24, 1895 he cast off from Boston harbor for a historic voyage that officially ended 46,000 miles and over three years later on June 27, 1898. Slocum became the first person to achieve a solo circumnavigation of the globe. His written account of this great accomplishment of nautical history has become a maritime literary classic: Sailing Alone Around the World. The book is still in print and is available at many bookstores and libraries.