Nautical Chart Facts

In the history of world discovery, nautical navigation plays a significant role. Historically, sailors with nautical charts created by experienced navigators were at a great advantage.

The role of early navigators

Early seafarers included the captain, the working crew, the galley slaves and most importantly, the navigator. It was the navigator who was in charge of getting the vessel safely to its destination. For explorations like Captain Cook's voyages, the navigator was also charged with keeping an accurate log of where they had been-complete with physical descriptions of the lay of the land, the sea conditions and observations such as the presence of sea birds-and, with their very primitive instruments, trying to establish where on earth they might be.

Nautical charts

Those all-important navigators created charts of their voyages, some relatively accurate by modern standards but at times so wildly inaccurate as to question the sanity of those who drew them. One such chart had the area between modern-day California and Hawaii loaded with various islands, some of which bore names that are not suitable for this article.

The importance of these nautical charts was such that they were guarded like state secrets, and the theft of some of those charts led to severe punishment.

While Marco Polo took the land route to Asia, a voyage that lasted 24 years, along the way supposedly meeting the famed Kublai Khan, he was the inspiration for Christopher Columbus to attempt a voyage to the Indies the other way around. In the process of doing that, Columbus discovered new lands whose inhabitants were inaccurately named "Indians," and the new continent was named after another famed explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.

While Amerigo Vespucci did not discover the Americas, he did finance and participate in several nautical expeditions between 1499 and 1502, disproving Columbus' claim that the newly found lands were in fact not the Indies, as Columbus had claimed, but a whole new undiscovered region known as the New World.

In the process of his voyages Vespucci and his navigators created several remarkably accurate charts of the newly discovered territories, which served later explorers in finding their way along the east coast of the Americas.

Today's use of nautical chart

In spite of the fact that modern ships today operate with the most sophisticated navigational equipment based on satellite technology that lets the navigator know within a few feet the exact location of his vessel, it is still very important to have accurate navigational charts. They show the exact location of submerged obstacles, such as the underwater rocks that destroyed the Italian luxury liner Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio, causing the loss of dozens of lives while "saluting the island."

Not long before that, the Liberian flagged container ship Rena crashed into the Astrolabe Reef at full speed, about seven kilometers north of Motiti Island, close to Tauranga, New Zealand. The ship eventually broke in two and a large section of the ship remained, waiting to be salvaged. That disaster caused massive environmental damage due to heavy fuel leaking onto nearby islands and beaches.

The question of why the ship ran into this reef, which is clearly marked and well known to all mariners in the area, can have only one answer: Nautical charts are only as good as the navigators who interpret them.

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