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Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Early Sailing Ships

When we discuss the travels during the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th century, it is interesting to look at the ships and navigational skills of the day. Wooden ships, of this time, usually had three masts with five sails. The fore and main sails were square while the aft was a lateen (a triangular sail suspended from a sloping yard attached to the mast). Sails could be trimmed for directional balance. The square rig was used for running downwind in deep water, while the lateen was used for coastal sailing. These sailing ships, compared to the ocean-going vessels of today, were quite small. Columbus’s Santa Maria was 95 feet while the Nina was only 70 feet. The Trinidad, used by Magellan, was only 75 feet, the same size as Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. Walk outside on the Lower Promenade Deck and look at the length of three of the lifeboats, end to end. You are now walking beneath an area that is longer than any of these early sailing ships. Most navigation depended on the skill of the captains, their knowledge of tides and currents, ancient maps, stories of previous travelers and the stars. There were no navigational aids to warn them of dangerous reefs or obstructed passages, no lighthouses or radio communication.

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