Mariners and Their Ships: The Technology of Navigation

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Mariners and Their Ships: The Technology of Navigation


Magnetic Compass. Accurate navigation on the open ocean requires precise knowledge of a ships direction of travel. Experienced sailors can make reasonably good estimations of travel direction based upon the position of the sun in the daytime sky and the North Star at night. This sort of informed guesswork, however, was often not sufficiently accurate to lead fifteenth-century ships on lengthy journeys across open water to a small point in the middle of the ocean such as the Azores. Moreover in cloudy conditions when the precise positions of the sun and North Star in the sky are indeterminable, even experienced mariners such as Christopher Columbus could find themselves helplessly lost if they depended exclusively on this sort of navigation. Missing ones target in the open ocean could be fatal; ships that became lost at sea often ran out of supplies of food or fresh water before the crews could reorient themselves and find their way

back to land. Because of such dangers fifteenth-century European sailors traveling across ocean waters increasingly depended upon the navigational aid provided by the magnetic compass. The compass was not originally a European invention; the Chinese were already using it as a navigational device by 1000 a.d. The earliest European reference to the magnetic compass dates to the twelfth century. Some historians claim that Muslim traders brought compass technology to the Mediterranean from Asia, while others assert that the Europeans invented their own version independently. Regardless of how they obtained it, some Europeans suspected that the apparently mystical power of the compass needle derived ultimately from black magic or even the devil himself. Pilots at times had to keep their compass needles and the lode-stones by which the needles were remagnetized hidden from view in order not to raise suspicion. Nonetheless by the late 1400s the magnetic compass had become an essential tool among European navigators.

Astrolabes and Quadrants. Accurate navigation among fifteenth-century European mariners also depended upon their ability to determine the latitudinal position (the distance north or south of the equator) of their ships. In the northern hemisphere navigators used the position of the North Star in the night sky as their primary point of reference for determining latitude. The further north one sailed, the higher in the sky (in other words the more distant from the horizon) the North Star would appear. Skillful mariners could make fairly accurate estimations of their latitude by using only naked-eye observations. Precise navigation, however, required precise calculation of the distance between the horizon and the North Star. To ensure the accuracy of their calculations, navigators used a variety of tools, including astrolabes and quadrants. Astrolabes were typically circular in shape with two viewing holes on the circumference. A moving pointer attached to the center of the circle would remain parallel to the horizon as the navigator pointed the instrument at the North Star. Once the viewing holes were aligned with the star, the sailor would read the angle between the viewing holes and the pointer and from this data calculate the latitude of the ship. Quadrants worked in a similar manner except that they were shaped only as quarter circles, and as a result they were much lighter in weight than the bulky astrolabes. Although astrolabes and quadrants enabled mariners to make observations that were more accurate than those made only by the naked eye, they were still far from perfectly dependable. On the deck of a rolling ship tossed by ocean swells, for instance, it was often difficult to maintain the steady hand necessary to make accurate calculations using an astrolabe or quadrant.

Dead Reckoning. Although fifteenth-century European mariners gradually improved their ability to calculate latitude by using tools such as the astrolabe and quadrant, they remained almost entirely perplexed by the problem of determining longitudinal position while at sea. The problem of discerning how far east or west a ship had sailed continued to vex European navigators throughout the age of exploration and expansion. Only in the eighteenth century, in fact, would an English clockmaker named John Harrison provide an effective solution to the problem of determining longitude in the open ocean. In the meantime Renaissance-era mariners such as Columbus had to depend upon a variety of primitive techniques that collectively constituted a process called dead reckoning. Dead reckoning required that a

navigator keep painstakingly careful track not only of a ships direction of travel but also the speed of that travel and the length of time spent in traveling that direction. The magnetic compass made it possible to keep fairly accurate record of direction of travel. With regard to measuring speed and time, however, fifteenth-century mariners faced debilitating technological limitations. To measure speed, for instance, the best that Columbus and his contemporaries could do was simply to throw into the water at the bow of the ship a rope with knots tied at regular intervals and then observe how quickly the moving ships hull passed the knots. Measurement of time at sea was similarly primitive. The constant movement and rolling of a ship combined with the corrosive effects of salty ocean air made fifteenth-century European clocks virtually useless on the open sea. As a result most European ships in the age of exploration relied upon the simple, primitive sand hourglass, a device of limited accuracy at best since it required that a crew member attentively turn the glass over each and every hour of the day and night at the precise moment when the sand ran out. Faced with such limitations, determination of longitude was highly inexact and often depended as much upon the instincts of the navigator as it did upon concrete data. As one recent historian has noted, dead reckoning was an appropriate name for this process since it frequently left entire crews for dead, lost at sea.


William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992);

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Day (New York: Walker, 1995).

Impressment of Seamen

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IMPRESSMENT OF SEAMEN was one of the chief causes of bad relations between Great Britain and the United States during the early years of the Republic. Recruits for the Royal Navy were forcibly mustered in the eighteenth century by the press gang. While neutral vessels appear to have been so victimized prior to 1790, the problem became acute between that date and 1815. Under cover of the belligerent right of search, British boarding parties removed from the decks of foreign neutrals any seamen "deemed" British. The practice was steadfastly regarded in England as indispensable to sea power in the war with France. Although American seamen were the occasional victims of the press gang in England, and persons alleged to be British subjects were sometimes removed from American ships in British ports, the real issue concerned the impressment of seamen on the high seas. The American merchant marine, prospering and expanding under wartime conditions, offered unexcelled opportunities to British seamen. It is estimated that between 1790 and 1815 about twenty thousand—including deserters from the Royal Navy—signed up on American ships. Great Britain's traditional doctrine of inalienable allegiance conflicted with revolutionary America's doctrine of the right to change allegiance.

The British left the matter of determining nationality to the discretion of the press gang and boarding officers. Use of the English language appears to have been the main test applied. Of the ten thousand persons estimated to have been impressed from American ships, only one-tenth proved to be British subjects. The British returned native-born American seamen to the United States, without indemnity, if their citizenship could be established. But the British authorities took little responsibility in determining citizenship, and each separate case had to be handled by the American government. In the meantime, the impressed person had to remain in service and go wherever he was commanded.

As early as 1796 the United States issued certificates of citizenship to its mariners in an effort to protect them, but these "protections" were soon abused. The certificates were easily lost or were sold to British subjects. An American sailor could buy a certificate from a notary public for one dollar and sell it to a Briton for ten. The British consequently refused to honor the certificates. American protest against impressment dates from 1787. In 1792 President Thomas Jefferson tried to proceed on the simple rule that "the vessel being American shall be evidence that the seamen on board of her are such." Great Britain refused any concessions whatsoever to the principle. Three times the United States tried to negotiate a treaty in which each party would deny itself the right to impress persons from the other's ships, and it offered various concessions. Although linked with other issues of neutral trade, impressment came to assume first place in American diplomacy. The climax occurred in 1807 when four men were removed from the American frigate Chesapeake. In 1812 Congress alleged impressment to be the principal cause of the declaration of war against Great Britain, but in view of the ambitions of the American war hawks, this allegation can be discounted.


Black, Jeremy, and Philip Woodfine, eds. The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the Eighteenth Century. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1988.

Buel, Richard, Jr. In Irons: Britain's Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.

Zimmerman, James Fulton. Impressment of American Seamen. Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, no. 262. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1966. The original edition was published in 1925.


Richard W.Van Alstyne

See alsoChesapeake-Leopard Incident ; War of 1812 .


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Person who navigates ships or assists in the conduct, maintenance, or service of ships.

Sailors have historically received special treatment under the law because of the nature of their work. Sailing a vessel through treacherous waters, often for long distances, is an isolated and dangerous undertaking. Although most countries have developed comprehensive policing methods on land, the international community has not been able to muster the resources necessary to police the entire expanse of every body of water. Thus, except when moving along coasts or on rivers, ships are essentially cut off from the rest of the world as they sail from port to port.

The unique problems sailors face have often aroused judicial concern. In 1823, for example, while serving as a circuit court justice, Supreme Court justice joseph story wrote in Harden v. Gordon, 11 F. Cas. 480 (Cir. Ct. D. Maine 1823) that sailors are

liable to sudden sickness from change of climate, exposure to perils, and exhausting labour. They are generally poor and friendless, and acquire habits of gross indulgence, carelessness, and improvidence. If some provision be not made for them in sickness at the expense of the ship, they must often in foreign ports suffer the accumulated evils of disease, and poverty, and sometimes perish from the want of suitable nourishment.

Although sailors still face unusual challenges and dangers, their situation now is far less desperate than that described by Story in 1823. Merchant marines (professional sailors), at least in the United States, are well-paid professionals; they are represented by unions and receive the same employment benefits as other organized professionals.

Sailors sign employment contracts for specific voyages. The contract may be made with the ship itself in the ship's capacity as a corporate entity, or it may be made directly with the master of the ship. In any contract, a sailor is entitled to sail in a staunch and watertight ship that is properly equipped and handled by a competent crew. The employer must supply wholesome food during the voyage, and any sailor who becomes sick is entitled to maintenance and cure. Maintenance and cure is the duty of an employer to provide medical services to a sailor until the sailor recovers or the voyage ends. If a sailor requires immediate medical attention, the master of the ship may be required to change its course to find the closest hospital. A sailor's right to maintenance and cure is not limited to illnesses or injuries suffered while at sea; employers are similarly required to provide maintenance and cure for illnesses or injuries that occur during shore leave.

Courts have developed the right to maintenance and cure in deference to the sailor's difficult and unique employment situation. Fear of mutiny is one reason for providing maintenance and cure. As Story observed in Harden, if sailors' earnings were taken away for illnesses or injuries suffered while at sea, "the great motives for good behaviour might be ordinarily taken away."

Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (46 App. U.S.C.A. § 688 [1997]) to provide sailors with a remedy in federal court for employment-related injuries. The act, also known as the jones act, specifically grants to a "seaman" the right to recover from an employer for the negligence of the employer or the unseaworthiness of the vessel. The act authorizes a trial by jury, and it also gives relatives of sailors a right to recover damages for a sailor's death.

Because Congress failed to define the term seaman in the Jones Act, much of the litigation involving the act has been over who qualifies for the remedies it provides. Originally only persons engaged in the navigation of a ship qualified for coverage. In 1995, in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S. Ct. 2172, 132 L. Ed. 2d 314, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that a shore-based engineer who takes occasional voyages may be deemed a sailor under the act. According to the Court, to qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, the worker's duties must contribute to the accomplishment of a vessel's mission, and the worker must have a connection to a vessel or group of vessels in navigation. The connection must be substantial in both duration and nature. Thus a shore-based person who works on the ventilation system in a ship but does not sail on a ship does not qualify as a sailor, but a shore-based vessel engineer who takes occasional voyages may be deemed a seaman under the Jones Act.

further readings

Alfieri, Mark. 1997. "Guevara v. Maritime: Caught in the Wake of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp." Houston Journal of International Law 19 (winter).

Allbritton, Jack L., and David W. Robertson. 1995. "Seaman Status After Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis." University of San Francisco Maritime Law Journal 8 (fall).

Madrid, Eileen R. 1992. "Seaman Status: The Supreme Court Overrules Pizzitolo." Louisiana Bar Journal 39 (April).


Admiralty and Maritime Law; Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1918.


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Education and Training None

Salary Median—$14 per hour

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Sailors work on freighters, tankers, and passenger ships and are responsible for repairing, stowing, and preparing most deck equipment, such as cargo-handling gear. During docking or departing, sailors handle ships' mooring lines. At sea, they stand watch and steer the ship following instructions from the officer on watch. Sailors must be qualified to take charge of lifeboat crews and be familiar with fire safety and fire-fighting regulations. Many also have trades, such as welding or carpentry, that they use to help maintain the ships. Experienced sailors are usually called able seamen on oceangoing vessels or deck-hands on boats that navigate inland waters.

Sailors with less experience, also known as ordinary seamen, perform routine maintenance work. They scrub deck areas and clean crew quarters, coil and splice lines and cables, and operate winches. Ordinary seamen may also take over able seamen's steering and lookout duties.

Education and Training Requirements

Employers have no specific educational requirements. However, certification as able seamen requires the ability to handle all gear and equipment, knowledge of all parts of ships, and the ability to tie common knots. Ordinary seamen learn and practice these skills for one year before they can apply for advancement to able seamen.

Although most sailors learn through on-the-job training, previous sea experience, such as service in the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. Navy, can be helpful. Many schools offer training for employment in the merchant marine. Federal and state marine academies are highly selective and are designed to train future officers. More appropriate for ordinary seamen are the schools run by labor unions; however, these schools accept only a limited number of young people without sea experience. The training they provide is not necessary to begin careers as able or ordinary seamen.

Getting the Job

In addition to health certificates, sailors must have government certificates known as merchant mariner's documents or seamen's papers. The certificates are obtained by furnishing the Coast Guard with proof of U.S. citizenship, three passport photographs, and either recommendations from recognized maritime training schools or written job commitments from shipping companies or unions. Most sailors get their first jobs by registering at union hiring halls, which are located in major ports.

Seamen's papers do not guarantee jobs, however. After registering at hiring halls, sailors must be present when job openings become available. The jobs go to the most highly qualified sailors with the greatest seniority.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

After at least one year as ordinary seamen, sailors may apply for limited endorsement as able seamen. When they pass the appropriate Coast Guard examinations, sailors who are nineteen years of age or older can receive full endorsement. With endorsement and after years of experience, able seamen can advance to positions as boatswains, who are in charge of deck crews. To become boatswains, able seamen must also show the ability to supervise other seamen.

Employment for sailors is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Although the number of U.S. ships is expected to increase slightly, newer ships are highly automated and require fewer sailors. Job openings may occur when experienced seamen retire or leave the field. Competition is likely to be stiff, with many experienced sailors vying for few job openings.

Working Conditions

While at sea, most sailors stand watch for four hours and then have eight hours off, seven days per week. Some sailors are day workers at sea, which means that they work eight hours per day, Monday through Friday. While in port, all sailors have forty-hour workweeks.

Despite safety regulations, sailors' work is hazardous. They are exposed to all kinds of weather and risk falls, fire, collisions, and sinkings.

Accommodations on ships are often cramped, and older ships offer little privacy. Mess halls provide opportunities for recreation. Sailors are usually away from home for long periods.

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary, depending on the type of vessel and experience. In 2004 the median wage for all sailors working on typical freighters was $14 per hour. Captains, pilots, and mates earned a median wage of $24.20 per hour. Experienced captains earned more than $35 per hour. Overtime and other premium wages usually equal fifty percent of base weekly wages. Sailors' duties are often seasonal; they often go for long periods without work and pay.

Where to Go for More Information

American Maritime Officers Union
2 W. Dixie Hwy.
Dania Beach, FL 33004
(800) 362-0513

Seafarers International Union of North America
5201 Auth Way
Camp Springs, MD 20746-4275
(301) 899-0675

Benefits include room and board, comprehensive medical care, and hospitalization insurance. Sailors usually receive five to fifteen vacation days for every thirty days of employment. Pensions are available through unions.


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sail·or / ˈsālər/ • n. a person whose job it is to work as a member of the crew of a commercial or naval ship or boat, esp. one who is below the rank of officer. ∎  a person who goes sailing as a sport or recreation.DERIVATIVES: sail·or·ly adj.