When sea-borne commerce started to expand beyond the Mediterranean during the late Middle Ages, the most important person aboard a ship was the pilot. The captain may have run the ship, but he depended on the pilot for his sailing directions, not unlike the harbor pilots of today.
Experience and knowledge were the key attributes of pilots, and they jealously kept this information to themselves as a form of job security. They would make personal notes from their pilotage experience and guard them with their lives. It was not unusual when a ship was attacked and overcome by pirates or privateers for the boarding party to seek out the pilot and seize his sailing notes for their further use. The pilot’s personal notebook in which he kept a record of routes, anchorages, navigation points, etc., was often handed down from father to son as it contained valuable local information nowhere else available.
Medieval sailing directions had their origin in the Mediterranean where the Greeks, as early as 60 A.D., formalized sailing directions under two headings: pilotage, or the general directions for coastal sailing, and port books containing details of individual ports, including entering and departing, anchorages, customs, and other official aspects of doing business. Unfortunately, none of these have survived the intervening centuries. The earliest recorded sailing directions extant is a 13th century Italian manuscript covering the area from Portugal through the Mediterranean and down the northwest African coast as far as Marrakech. They were said to be similar to the sailing directions of the much earlier 3rd century, with the addition of compass directions and water depths.
The potential for sailing directions did not materialize until ship design progressed to the point at which longer voyages north along the Atlantic coast to England, France, and Holland became practical. Then shipmasters realized how useful an organized collection of notes on coastal observations and sailing conditions could be to assure profitable passages. Governments themselves became only too willing to sponsor such knowledge, which their ship masters could then use to expand a country’s political and economic influence. It didn’t take long for the literate pilots to realize that they no longer had to endure the hard life at sea to make use of their knowledge, and so they began the business of writing sailing directions that has continued to this date.
It was in the 15th century that the preparation of sailing directions took off. In the beginning these were individual collections of personal observations often supplemented with any notes that the writer could beg, borrow, or steal from a fellow pilot or captain. Dutch shipmasters would cooperatively exchange notes following long voyages regarding details of navigation, hazardous waters, and other useful piloting information and would make up notebooks for their own use. Each would be quite different since pilots and captains had varying experiences and placed different emphasis on what notes they needed to record.
Hand-copied sailing directions As the volume of useful notes grew, it became profitable for professional scribes in all countries to make copies and sell them to ship captains. This wasn’t the best system because most scribes were without knowledge of the sea, and they uncritically copied the notes as given to them, making errors of context and content that assumed gospel status with each copying. Errors and discrepancies mounted as sailing directions multiplied, and “user beware” was probably the correct attitude for the purchaser. This transcribing practice came to an end when major advances in printing techniques became available to 16th century publishers.
The value of and the demand for sailing directions increased rapidly along with the growing commerce of the sea. In 1528 the first formalized volume of sailing directions in the English language, The Rutter of the See, appeared. (“Rutter” was the English translation of the French word routier used as the name of French sailing directions.) The Rutter of the See was actually a translation by Robert Copeland of the French Le Routier de la Mer published sometime between 1502 and 1510. International plagiarism seemed not to be a deterrent. The English Rutter of the See existed as the only English sailing directions for almost 50 years. In 1541 the first original English work, A Rutter of the Northe, authored by Rycharde Proude, was incorporated into it. It added sailing directions for the circumnavigation of England, Wales, and Ireland plus a passage to the Strait of Gibraltar.
By bits and pieces sailing directions were developed by the major seafaring nations of Europe. France can be credited with providing the backbone of the early publications with its Le Routier de la Mer and the more complete Le Grant Routtier in the early 1500s. Although the authorship of Le Routier de la Mer is unknown, the later Le Grant Routtier was written by Pierre Garcie (c.1430?1503), and some think the earlier routtier was also of his hand. Pierre Garcie was a noted French pilot of his time who combined his navigation exploits with a dedicated desire to improve the lot of all pilots over the known world. He included in his routtier not only the literal sailing directions but the proper protocol for ship masters to follow in conducting their affairs at sea and in harbor.
In Le Grant Routtier Garcie introduced illustrations into the sailing directions with woodcuts of outlines of significant navigation points of interests such as headlands, mountains, and islands. The woodcuts, however crude, brought together what the seaman read in the sailing directions and what he saw by observation, a technique that continues in use today. It should be noted that the woodcut was just being developed as part of the movable-type printing process, and it was a major advance in making the printed word economically feasible for mass communications.
The next big advance in the presentation of navigation information is credited to the Dutch, who invented the concept of the “sea-atlas,” matching sailing directions with charts of the same area. The logistics of printing restricted the size of the sea-atlas to approximately 11 inches by 15 inches. As larger printing presses became available in later years, charts grew in size, and eventually they were separated from sailing directions, which remained as a book.
The acknowledged leader in the preparation of early Dutch sailing directions and charts was seaman/cartographer Lucas Janzoon Waghenaer (c. 1534?1605). His name was to be corrupted to Waggoner in English, and it became a general term for a sea-atlas. Although it was the forerunner of the Admiralty Pilots of today, the term waggoner is little used in the English speaking world. (The current Pacific Northwest Waggoner Cruising Guide by Robert Hale is the only sailing direction known to the author carrying the name waggoner.)
Important Dutch work Waghenaer published his sea-atlas Spieghel der Zeevaert in 1584. It was made in two sections of sailing directions and engraved charts covering the area from the Baltic to Cadiz. The big advance that Waghenaer made was the introduction of copper engravings in place of woodcuts for the charts. In order to give as much detail as possible on the charts, they were presented as two-page spreads measuring approximately 22 inches by 15 inches. By 1598, in a subsequent publication, he eliminated the charts, which by then could be printed in even larger sizes, and returned to a handheld book size approximately five inches by six inches. This was much appreciated by the mariner who could now hold his sailing directions in hand as he observed the coastal features. From this point on sailing directions and charts were physically separated from each other except for coastal profile sketches.
His charts incorporated such ideas as soundings converted to half-tide for harbor approaches and anchorages, panoramic views of coastlines, enlarged coastal views of harbors and river mouths, and cartouchesthose colorful little embellishments of compass roses, sea monsters, and sailing ships. He introduced a series of standardized symbols to convey pertinent navigational information such as buoys, beacons, anchorages, and shoreline landmarks.
Waghenaer’s Spieghel der Zeevaert found its way across the English Channel where the English were still using The Rutter of the See. England’s Lord High Admiral Howard of Effingham was so impressed with Waghenaer’s work that he directed Anthony Ashley to make a translation, and it was published in the year 1588 as The Mariners’ Mirrour. The translated work was generally referred to by the British as a waggoner and became the standard reference for coastal piloting around the British Isles for a century. Other countries, including Germany (1589) and France (1590), followed suit. The popularity of Waghenaer’s Spieghel der Zeevaert should have spelled financial success for its creator; however, Waghenaer died a poor man.
The Dutch work transcended any other country’s sailing directions. They knew more about the English coast than did the English themselves, and it is interesting to note that the English used Dutch charts during their two wars with the Dutch. After nearly 100 years of dependence on Dutch charts, Samuel Pepys, British Secretary of the Navy, issued in 1681 an Admiralty order for the Navy to survey the coasts and harbors of Britain and produce their own sailing directions. This was the beginning of the British Admiralty Sailing Directions, better known today as “pilots.”
The English pilots were in essence the development of John Seller, who proposed earlier to publish The English Pilot series, which would cover the entire world. He was granted a 30-year monopoly for this purpose by kings Charles II and James II and published his first Pilot in 1671. They continued in publication until 1803, and new editions of the Pilots were brought out as changes were made. Whatever Seller’s goals were, he still relied heavily on Dutch sea-atlases, copying many of their charts in his volumes. Accuracy suffered badly, and this caused Samuel Pepys to place greater pressure on the Admiralty to do its own surveying.
It wasn’t until 1828 that the British Hydrographic Department produced its first sailing directions. More than 70 volumes of mostly unduplicated sailing directions covering the whole world were eventually produced. These were corrected by issuing new editions until 1884 when the procedure changed to issuing supplements every one to three years. To this large number of coastal navigation volumes must be added that most important volume for blue-water voyagers, Ocean Passages for the World, first published in 1895.U.S.
Sailing Directions During his assignment as the officer in charge of the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office (1842?1861), Matthew Fontaine Maury was responsible for the early gathering of data that eventually found its way into U.S. charts and sailing directions. He was also instrumental in promoting the 1853 international conference to interest other nations in exchanging nautical information, which is the basis for today’s hydrographic publications. By 1866 the Hydrographic Office had published several volumes of the new U.S. Sailing Directions. More volumes were eventually added, and the Sailing Directions now cover the entire world. Supplementing these volumes are nine United States Coast Pilots presenting detailed information on the coastline of the U.S. including natural and cultural features, harbors, weather, local navigation rules, etc.
Offshore sailing by small boats surged forward in 1950, but there were few cruising guides available. Nautical yarns in books and magazines furnished the bulk of information for the cruiser to plan and follow in making coastal or offshore voyages. As the popularity of small-boat cruising grew, the need for guides became apparent, government Sailing Directions and Coast Pilots being directed primarily at naval or commercial shipping. To fulfill this need, cruisers began writing their own versions of guides for different parts of the world where they had themselves cruised. This has produced a great proliferation of books and helped create a new segment of the publishing industrybooks for the offshore voyager. This industry is driven by the economics of publishing and is not supported by government funds, so it has grown haphazardly over the years. Only in recent years have sailor-authors covered enough ground to support ocean-wide or world-wide sources of data. The former is epitomized by my book Landfalls of Paradise, Cruising Guide to the Pacific, first published in 1980, and Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes, first published in 1987.
There’s reason to expect that sailing directions will continue into the next century, but in what form is the question. The advent of the computer with its impressive capability to ingest boundless data and regurgitate it in a hundred different ways suggests that sailing directions will find their way onto CD-ROMs in cold, digitized format with none of the colorful cartouches that started them off five centuries ago.
From rutters to cruising guides, there has been a concerted international effort to make travel by sea safer and more pleasant. Oh, what is the absolute first known hand written instructions correlating the navigation experience of mariners? It is believed to be The Periplus of Skylax of Caryanda, “published” in 500 B.C., which gives directions for coastal navigation along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Don’t look for it at your nautical bookstoreno known copies exist.