Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Navigating the Medieval World. Part 1

I thought we would go back to ancient times and look at how people navigated the oceans. This topic is particularly close to me since I was a Quartermaster in the United States Coast Guard.

A quartermaster has different terms depending on which service you are talking about. In the Army and Air Force, it is someone who is responsible for providing quarters, rations, clothing, and other supplies; however, in the Coast Guard and Navy a quartermaster is someone who is responsible for the maintenance, correction, and preparation of nautical charts and navigation publications.  In the Coast Guard (smaller force giving its personnel more responsibility), we would actually do some of the navigation aboard the ships. I was also stationed on several buoy tenders, this meant we were also responsible for navigating the ship to where the proper location of the buoy was to be set.

The origin of the name Quartermaster could come from either application.  If a person provided housing, or quarters, they would be the master of the quarters, or quartermaster.  The same can be applied to the naval version. Navigation, and command of the ship was usually done at the quarterdeck, a raised section of a ship.  Again, the person who was in charge of this area would be the master of the quarterdeck, or quartermaster.

The position of the quartermaster was important to the ship.  Pirates particularly considered them vital. When a person served on a pirate ship, he had to sign (and give oath) to the Pirate Code. Now, this is not the mythical pirate code seen in “Pirates of the Caribbean” series of movies.  The pirate code (also known as pirate articles or articles of agreement), was a set of rules which crew members had to obey on the vessel and an agreement about payment etc.  Each ship, may include similar rules, but they all established their own.

On a pirate ship, the quartermaster led the boarding parties from their vessel to the ships that would be their prey.  Many times, the quartermaster also had in the Pirate Code, veto power over the captain’s decisions.  Because of their responsibilities and importance, they sometimes got the same percentage of the taken loot as the captain of the vessel.

Let’s get back to the history of navigation.

As I always state with other topics, history depends on the time frame and location. In the Pacific, people used birds, currents and locations of stars to navigate thousands of years ago. Songs, which included navigation information, were passed down throughout the ages.  In some instances, charts were made out of interwoven sticks. In China, a magnetic compass, was created around 1100 A.D., this invention dramatically improved navigation in the world.  During the middle ages, the Arab Empire significantly contributed to navigation, and had trade networks extending from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and as far as the China Sea.

Before we examine navigation in Europe, we first should establish what you need to navigate. To know where you are going, you need the following information:  Location of where you are, Time (time of the day), Speed, Heading (which direction you are moving).  These factors (and a few others) allows a navigator to pilot his vessel. The further from shore a vessel goes from shore, the more information a navigator needs to locate his position.

So, let us first look at ancient Mediterranean navigation. Ancient Greeks, and many others, would simply venture out into the sea, using winds that would carry them in one direction or another.  Remember, when I said you needed to know Speed of your ship, this is vital in this process. If you plot a course and know the speed you can figure out where you are heading, and the time it will take to get there.  This process is called Dead Reckoning.  With this process, you can also determine the effect of winds and current on your vessel.

To know the speed of a vessel, the chip log was invented. This was a weighted board that had a line tied to it.  The line had knots tied spaced evenly throughout. The board was let loose into the water, while a sandglass (we currently call it an hourglass) marked the time. The sailor would let the line slip through his hands and he would count the number of Knots that passed through them. This would determine the vessels speed.  This is also way the speed of a boat or ship is measured in KNOTS.  Currently, this measurement of a knot is one nautical mile (1.1508 Mile or 1,852 meters) per hour.

Sailors using a Lead Line on a vessel
Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio - Photographed in Histoire de la Marine française illustrée, Larousse, 1934. Originally, illustration from La Marine, Pacini, 1844.This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the earliest tools of navigation is the Lead Line, or Sounding Weight.  This is a heavy weight attached to a rope.  It had pieces of leather, or other items, which were spaced out on the rope.  The object was dropped overboard, and the line was let to slip through his hands.  After hitting the bottom, and observing where the line met the water, a person (looking at the spaced items on the rope), could determine the depth of the water.  With this a ship, could prevent from running aground.

Tallow or other sticky materials were sometimes placed at the bottom of the weight.  After being dropped, and retrieved you could see what material made up the bottom of the sea.  This could help the navigator determine their location if certain areas had a different material made up the sea bottom.

Of course, it is common knowledge that Samuel Clemmons used the Penname “Mark Twain” because of the lead line.  After using the lead line the leadsman's (the person who was trained and handled the lead line) would yell out Mark Twain, which meant the mark of height was 2 fathoms, which was safe for a steamboat to travel.
Another simple way of navigating in some parts of the world, is simply seeing how warm the water is. If you are heading in a southern direction, of course the water would get warmer.  Sailors soon learned that currents would also bring warmer waters from the south, so knowing this they could test the water for warmer and they knew when they headed into these currents.

Another way to determine your location, and your heading is finding a geographic or celestial points. In terms of points on land, the higher it was the better. Standing at sea level, a person can view an object a little over 3 miles away (at optimum conditions and it is large enough).  Any further, the object begins to go beyond the curvature of the earth and is hidden from sight.

Ships were first built with a crows nest on top of the mast. Sailors on watch could see miles further than they could standing on the deck of the ship.

The sailors began to make note of taller objects such as mountains and other landmarks, so they could see them further. At sea ports, structures were built on top of mountains to also allow the sailors to see the objects from a further distance.  Fires were lite upon the mountains so the sailors could see them at night.  These fires would later be placed in towers which were the first lighthouses. These objects were not only constructed for sailors to locate the port, but also mark where hazards such as rocks are in the water.

The Colossus of Rhodes (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) was built not only to commemorate the victory of the city of Rhodes' over the ruler of Cyprus, it was also a navigational aid.  This structure was reported to stand over 100 feet high at the mouth of the harbor.

Further in history, the structures and mountains height were measured and the cross staff (also referred to as the ballastella or Jacob’s Staff) was invented.  This device is simply a stick with a cross bar that had length markings. Looking down at the stick and then seeing the markings which measured the angle to your target.  Knowing the height of an object, and its angle to it, you could figure out how far you were from that object.  We will discuss the cross staff (and similar tools) more in the next post.

This is where we will leave off, the next post will deal with Celestial Navigation.
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W.A. Rusho is a professional wrestler, historian, and author. You can reach him at his website, or via his email.


  1. Very interesting learning about the navigations skills and duties of a Quartermaster, William. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been navigating in Medieval times without any of the technology we now take for granted.

  2. It's such a joy, William, to learn things like this--that I have no knowledge of! In reading the 100 Best True Stories of WWII, there were numerous stories about planes and night flying and trying to find their way all before radar. Just fascinating. It must have been a challenge to chart the navigation in your career.

  3. What a timely post William, thank you for this. I've just started reading In The Heart of the Sea so this is definite context for that! And I didn't know that Mark Twain was a penname that came from a leadline...

  4. I have learnt something new about you William. What a big responsibility to be a Quartermaster. It cannot have been easy.

  5. It's really interesting that navigating was possible such a long time ago without all the help that exist today.