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The History of Navigation

The History of Navigation

Dag Pike
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Review by W21A

An informative, entertaining book on what many would take to be a dry subject, Dag Pike takes us through the history of nautical navigation with his own expertise and is liberally sprinkled with his own anecdotes to give examples and depth to the chapters. Having gone to sea at 16, he has experience in shipwrecks, lighthouse tenders, RNLI stations and Atlantic crossing record attempts.

The reading style is easy and is about the history of the subject in each chapter rather than how to do the subject in each chapter. Therefore, some prior knowledge about navigation would be required to enjoy the book; however, deep knowledge is not required and at no point does the author try to teach navigation. It is well illustrated with photographs and touches on aerial navigation.

Unfortunately, the proof reading does not seem to be at a high standard and there are a few spelling errors; mostly they make sense grammatically and so would not be picked up by an automatic spelling and grammar check, nor by a human proof reader with no knowledge of the subject. From my memory of others reviews of Pen and Sword books, this seems to be a constant theme.

The introduction and chapter 1 ‘In the Beginning’ set the tone of the book and points out how, as with many other things, the Mediterranean was the cradle of early navigation with its lack of tides and currents, light and predictable summertime winds and short distances. Also mentioned is the challenges of early navigation in flimsy craft in the northern European latitudes with all the tides, currents and unpredictable weather, the far east and the oceanic voyages of the Polynesians.

Chapter 2 ‘Over the Horizon’ deals with the first ‘oceanic voyages’ – expanding on the Polynesians and their mastery of open ocean navigation and explains some of the techniques used by them to navigate in a pre-literate society. Early Chinese exploration is mentioned and the point made that they were the first to have the use of an early compass. Being a closed nation even then the author makes the point that it hard to authenticate Chinese records on exploratory voyages, however with China’s attempts to dominate the South China Sea I think that more evidence of Chinese navigation is likely to be ‘discovered’ by the present government. Early Mediterranean long-distance navigation is covered including a possible circumnavigation of Africa by the Phoenicians @700BC, with some parallels for future manned space exploration. Early Northern European oceanic navigation is examined through the voyages of St Brendan, who may have reached North America, and the Vikings, who did reach North America. The author is dubious about the exploratory aspect of these voyages and feels that many of the discoveries were lucky accidents of ‘geographically unsure’ navigators. The chapter ends with Columbus who seemed to know what he was doing – or maybe not.

Chapter 3 ‘Soundings’ deals with the depth of water under your keel. Starting with the sounding pole, through lead lines to sounding machines and the navigational techniques used with them. The development of the echo sounder and the fathom/metre revolution.

Chapter 4 ‘Heading in the Right Direction’ firstly deals with the use of pre-compass bearings using landmarks, stars, steady winds etc, then deals with the history and refinement of the magnetic marine compass, through to the gyro-compass.

Chapter 5 ‘Speed’ points out that speed was initially not an important part of navigation, when voyages taking days were considered short and weeks and months were the norm. Fast sailing ships like clippers and steam powered vessels made calculating distance covered important for navigation and timetables.

Chapter 6 ‘Fixing the Position’ is a short history of latitude/longitude and starts off with the surprising fact that a geographic co-ordinate system goes back to the Greeks of Cyrene (Libya) in the third century BC, and in this chapter there is some technical explanation. It is pointed out that while the fixing of latitude was fairly easy, it is longitude which was always the challenge. It appears that during the great centuries of exploration by sailing ships that navigators knew where they were coming from, had an idea of where they might be, but only a vague and hopeful notion of where they were going to. During this time only 50 per cent of ships recorded departing on oceanic voyages were seen again. It was only in the early 18th century that John Harrison’s clock made accurate navigation possible along with the development of the sextant. Unfortunately it is in this chapter that a fairly major text error appears. On page 68 it says ‘The Pole Star is visible over most of the northern hemisphere, although near the Equator it tends to be too high for a reliable sight and further north particularly in the winter it is too close to the horizon, but in the main it provides a reliable guide to latitude and has been used for this purpose almost since man started to navigate on the high seas.' In fact, the opposite is true – the pole star is too low on the horizon near the equator and the further south you go (In the northern hemisphere.) the closer the Pole Star lies closer to the horizon. In view of the experience of the author I classify this as a brain-fahrt (Of which I have many.) and a victim of a poor proof-reading regime. (My thanks @seaweed.)

Chapter 7 ‘Charts and Pilot Books’ tells of the initial keeping of logs, through the recordings of depths for harbours to the creation of the first genuine charts of which the Dutch were the first to realise the importance of them for maritime trade. Here we first meet Mercator, who gave us the flat maps we know from school, and move on to electronic charts and the introduction of Global Positioning System and the survey standard of WGS 84. Are there any other Arrsers who have had to adapt a hand-held GPS WGS 84 readout to a local third world map?

Chapter 8 ‘Buoys and Lighthouses’ goes from fires on headlands and the famous ‘Pharos’ lighthouse at Alexandria (NB, the Northern Lighthouse Board’s lighthouse tender has always been called Pharos.) through Roman and onto modern, 18th century buoyage, light houses and lightships. As he notes in the last sentence of this chapter – the loom of a lighthouse beam over the horizon is one of the best sights to be seen at sea.

Chapter 9 ‘Making Landfalls’ tells of the joys of making landfall after a long journey but also of the dangers of it. Out on the ocean you are in safe deep water, if you are near land are you near shoals and reefs? Will the wind carry you aground? Especially before modern navigation aids - do you want to make a landfall at night?

Chapter 10 ‘Electronic Navigation’ gives a short history of the use of electronics in navigation. From the earliest radio beacons and direction finders, through VOR, Gee, Loran and the Decca navigator. The use of radar as a navigation aid and GPS once again makes an appearance.

Chapter 11 ‘Passage Planning and Weather’ is about planning your voyage and the impact of weather. From the earliest days of how to cross a river and how far the current will take you down stream to todays mandatory start to finish passage planning. From looking at the physical signs around for short term weather planning – a skill many of us seem to have lost – to the computer and satellite revolution for increasingly accurate weather forecasts.

Chapter 12 ‘Collision Avoidance’ deals with the lack of collisions in the early days at sea, and points out that collisions became more prevalent after the introduction of steam. This led to light regulations, ‘rules of the road’ and traffic separation schemes. Radar was seen as a great collision preventer until phenomenon of ‘radar assisted collision’ was understood. The author argues that despite all the electronics available, the view out of the bridge window is still the best collision avoidance device. Unfortunately there is, I feel, a text error on page 165 about a ‘closed point of approach…’ which I think should be ‘closest point of approach…’

Chapter 13 ‘New Stars in the Sky’ covers the satellite revolution. The first navigational satellite system was called Transit and was one I did not know about. Then there is GPS of which we are all very much aware and the Russian GLONASS system and the upcoming Galileo system from Europe. Other space faring countries are developing positioning satellite constellations. One constant through the book is how the various technologies of sounding, direction keeping, speed, position finding, etc, are all coming to maturity and then in a matter of a few years, GPS gives on demand position plotting.

Chapter 14 ‘The Human Element’ discusses mans interface with the navigation technology and Chapter 15 ‘The Future’ discusses if man should have a place on highly automated future ships with the exception of harbour parties.

An enjoyable, entertaining and educational book; Pike gets his subject across well and with ease, breaking a complex subject down into easily digestible chunks, which you understand need to work together to give an accurate position at sea. I so much want to give it five Mr Mushroom Heads, but the errors, poor proofing and my own thought of ‘are there any large errors I have missed’ prevent this and so I reduce it to four Mushrooms.

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