- - Monday, February 27, 2012


By Robert D. Hicks
Foreword by Cmdr. Scott Carpenter
Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 224 pages

In America, most find their earliest relatives came to these shores by sea. Even wiseacres who claim their first American ancestor traveled by foot over the Bering Land Bridge need to think again: The progenitors of some Americans we call “Native” may have crossed the Atlantic, according to a rising theory. The Solutrean hypothesis, newly advanced by Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis J. Stanford, holds that during the last great Ice Age, some proto-Europeans sailed here in boats (probably like kayaks) and found a Paleolithic version of the promised land.

Now consider Robert D. Hicks‘ exegesis on the derring-do of some better-known Founding Fathers, those who went down to the sea in sailing ships like the Susan Constant, Sea Venture and Mayflower, et seq. Theirs were adventures and achievements as miraculous in practical terms as the founding of the republic in political terms. Getting here in caravels, these sailors had no GPS, no diesel engines, no Coast Guard to call in case of trouble, not even reliable maps. But still they ventured forth, and they got here, tempests and hurricanes notwithstanding.

In “Voyage to Jamestown: Practical Navigation in the Age of Discovery,” Mr. Hicks tells how they did it. Or at least he reconstructs how seat-of-the-pants navigation was accomplished in the 17th century, for this curious book is more of a historical how-to than a conventional history.

It employs the engaging conceit of a fictional ancient mariner, Capt. Tristram Hame, in his good galleon, Guyft, which looks suspiciously like the historical replica of a vessel berthed at the National Park Service’s reconstructed dock in Jamestown, Va., even today. “I aim to place readers within a mental seascape of the early 17th-century navigator,” Mr. Hicks writes, explaining how he has pursued many courses of research in archives and libraries.

By day the director of a museum and library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, he certainly did his homework. Through copious study, he uncovered impressive information about the advices and devices that some mariners offered and others used when “wayfinding” - his preferred word - in the Age of Discovery.

As pictured on the cover and throughout the book, Mr. Hicks reconstructed a cabinet of curious and wonderful instruments that helped men cross oceans - or at least to estimate their whereabouts as they did so. In prose more pedantic than poetic, his narrative proceeds like a Stevensonian tar lumbering down a dock toward the Portsmouth pubs after months on a man-of-war. But his instruments are gorgeous fun and indeed things to wonder at.

Each illustration - whether an antique map or a photo of the author manipulating a reconstructed implement - proves a lesson we forget at our peril: that people in olden times were as ingenious as ourselves. Using what they found at hand, they invented new things and made them work. Thus, we stand on the swaying shoulders of giants who somehow kept their feet as they crossed oceans in virtual cockleshells.

Mr. Hicks explains diverse and cunning devices. The lead line, as every Mark Twain reader learned long ago, was a rope with a weight that a crewman tossed overboard; when it stopped sinking and hit bottom, marks on the line indicated the depth of the water. The weights used by Hicks‘ mariners had a cup in its end filled with tallow to pick up whatever was on the bottom - sand or shells or rocks - clues that sometimes helped indicate location.

The sine qua non for dead reckoning was the traverse board, a simple device that ships’ officers used to record their speed and direction at half-hour intervals. Speed was determined by the “chip log,” a short board attached to a line with a knot every 47 feet. The board was tossed overboard and the number of knots noted at the end of a half-minute as timed by a little sandglass. Thus, they could estimate speed through the water and direction as indicated by the magnetic compass near the helm, but not leeway (sideways movement) or the effects of currents.

Other implements include the back staff, long staff and cross staff, the astrolabe, kamal and quadrant - all devices of various degrees of sophistication for measuring the elevation of the sun to determine one’s latitude or distance from the equator.

The dip circle featured a compass needle that swung in a vertical plane rather than a horizontal one. The nocturnal, a brass instrument about the size of a saucer, had two concentric disks with graduated scales and an adjustable arm. The mariner set one scale to the day’s date, then peered through the center hole at the pole star, aligned the adjustable arm with the Little Dipper, and read his present latitude off the graduated scale. Of course, a reliable method of determining one’s longitude came two centuries after Jamestown. But knowing one coordinate was better than knowing none.

All in all, here is a salty volume for armchair sailors who love widgets.

Philip Kopper is the publisher of Posterity Press.

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