- Virginia Johnson
Have you ever wanted to sail away across the water? For people today, sailing is something that's done for fun, but not so long ago sailing ships were the only practical way to travel across the vast oceans. For sailors to rely on only wind power called for courage, intelligence, stamina, and strength.
How Did They Know Where to Go?
When you're at sea, completely surrounded by ocean waters, it can be easy to get lost. Today, big ships depend on sophisticated electronics to tell them where to go. But in the old days, there were only a few simple ways to tell direction. Sometimes, yes, they had maps. But think about the maps they had-when they had them! For the first voyagers, there were no maps. These explorers had to make them up as they went along for the next wave of travelers. Sometimes the maps were accurate, but often they were sized wrong, and mistakes were made.
Star charts were a good way for explorers to check locations. For thousands of years, people have seen patterns in the stars which have helped them find their way at night. Click here to make a Star Finder with help from NASA. You'll see that there are different star charts for different times of the year. As the Earth moves around the sun through the year, the places we see the stars is different. If you lived in another part of the world, you would see very different patterns.
A compass was another way to check direction. The very oldest compasses were made with lodestones, and they were naturally magnetized pieces of iron ore which would always point to magnetic north, which is NOT the same as true north, but it seemed to be close enough for most purposes. You can read more about lodestones here.
You can make your own compass by using a magnet, a paperclip, and a few other things from around the house. Click here for directions!
No Wind, No Sail
Ever found yourself asking, "WHEN will we GET there?" If you were traveling by sailing ship, the answer could be a really long time. If there was no wind to push the ship's sails, the crew and the passengers were out of luck! Then there was the problem of the wind's direction. Depending on which way it blew, the wind could make sailing easy going or hard.
Sailors would change the sails around constantly (called "tacking") to use what wind they had to move more or less forward, often in a zig-zag pattern. Sailing ships that had no wind for a long time were said to be "becalmed." This happened to Christopher Columbus, and it scared his crew so much they wanted to mutiny.
Want to see how often the wind changes direction? You can make this weathervane to check it out. Use your compass to mark the base's points-North, South, East, and West.
Take a Ride on a Tall Ship
You may be lucky enough to live in or travel to a state that has a tall ship available for public sailing. In our area, a two-hour drive north or southeast can take you to a tall ship ride to remember always. The American Rover at Norfolk sets red sails and is based on a 19th-century cargo schooner.
The Pride of Baltimore II is a replica of a Baltimore Clipper, the kind of ship that helped the United States to win the War of 1812. While you're at the harbor, be sure to pay a visit to Fort McHenry. Its defense inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner.
The library has lots of books about adventures at sea. Click here for our booklist, Sailing the Ocean Blue.
Find More Sailing Fun Online
Grog's Boating Knots
Every sailor needs to know how to tie knots. This site has step-by-step instructions.
Smith's Master Index of Maritime Museum Websites
Can't get enough of life at sea? There are many, many museums that can help you learn more-not just about sailing ships, but about all kinds of watercraft.