Day 13: To coast or not to coast?

In Christopher Columbus’s day it was called “coasting”.

Captains would sail their ships parallel to the coast and for very good reasons!

Many sailors were superstitious. They were not sure whether the “flat-earthers” were right. They saw no good reason to take a chance of falling off the edge of the world. They liked to stay close to land.

For the Captains of ships there was a more obvious threat. Once you moved a long away from the coast you couldn’t be sure of getting back to land.

Landmarks were often critical in determining a ship’s position. Out at sea, latitude could be determined. However, there was no technology available for working out how far east or west the ship had travelled.

Calculating a ship’s speed was also haphazard.

One method was the “dead reckon”. A heavy piece of wood was thrown overboard. The time it took for the boat to sail completely past it was measured on a sand glass. From that the ship’s speed and distance travelled could be calculated. Hmm!

The other method of working out the ship’s speed was the “mariner’s eye”. Someone who had spent a lot of time on ships would guess how fast the ship was travelling!

Favourable winds were critical to getting back home. Coastal winds were well known, predictable. Out in the unknown there may or may not be favourable winds, but who would take that chance?

The doldrums was a well-known factor. Out in the doldrums there was no wind… for days, so weeks and even for months. No captain could afford to be caught out there.

[Hence our use of the word “doldrums” meaning to be sad, melancholy, down in the dumps.)

Since it was difficult, if not impossible, for a Captain to know where he was, how fast he was going, how far he had travelled, whether there would be any wind at all out there, captains preferred to protect their crews and their cargoes by coasting.

Everyone, that is, except Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wasn’t a happy coaster.

He thought fame and fortune were to be made, not by going parallel to the coast, but by going perpendicular. He decided to sail straight out to sea. He wanted to find a short cut to China.

Columbus was no fool, though. This was no hair-brained scheme. Risky, yes! Silly, no! Columbus was after all, a very experienced mariner.

At age fourteen he had gone to sea. He had done the coastal runs for eleven years. He started as cabin boy, working his way up to Captain. He literally knew his boats from stem to stern.

At age 25, after being ship wrecked several times, he became a landlubber. He joined his brother designing charts for sailors. This business gave him invaluable experience.

It bought him into daily contact with Captains returning from voyages. His knowledge grew exponentially as they talked over their experiences about currents, prevailing winds, the best type of boats, crew diet and morale, and every other aspect of sailing.

Columbus was a student of geography and exploration. When he sailed, he never sailed alone. He always took his favourite books with him: Marco Polo’s “Description of the World”, Ptolemy’s “Geography”. Pierre d’Ailly’s “Imago Mundi” and Pliny’s “Natural History”.

He corresponded with Paolo Toscanelli, a Florentine physician and amateur geographer who had written about the likely size of Asian land masses.

When Columbus decided to go perpendicular, it was not a rash, hasty, gung-ho decision. For years he had accumulated the knowledge and experience he needed. But when he was ready, he never hesitated.

Go perpendicular.

Coasting is OK. There is nothing wrong with it.

It’s relatively easy, safe and comfortable. It is about staying within the realms of the known, though, and that’s its drawback.

The opportunities for getting ahead are limited when you coast.

Columbus was not happy to coast. He wanted to get ahead. He knew the best way to do this was to go perpendicular. To get ahead he was prepared to push into the unknown.

Read, think, plan, talk. Look for opportunities to get ahead. These opportunities will invariably mean that you must eventually go perpendicular. Push into the unknown.

© 2019 well imagine that pty/ltd



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