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Ask most people to imagine a ship’s navigator at work, and they will usually picture someone poring over a chart. But prior to the major breakthroughs in navigation of the 18th century, accurate charts did not exist for much of the age of sail. Earlier maps show countries and continents that are odd and misshapen to modern eyes. Fifteenth century world maps, for example, massively overestimated the size of Asia, placing its eastern seaboard where the undiscovered Americas lay. It was studying such maps that prompted Columbus to conclude Asia could best be reached by sailing west from Europe instead of east. He found land where he expected, called the Native Americans he encountered Indians, and despite three subsequent voyages to the New World, went to his grave certain that he had found the Orient. Small wonder that sailors needed something more reliable than the fantastical creations of early mapmakers to navigate by. What they used instead were rutters.

A rutter is a handbook of sailing directions, usually illustrated with views of ports and coastlines as seen from the sea. The name comes from the French word routier meaning route of way, and came into use following the publication of the highly successful Le Grand Routier et Pilotage, a guide to north west European waters published in 1483, written by the French pilot Pierre Garcie. But rutters long predate the printing press. From earliest times every navigator would have such a book, updating it as his knowledge and experience grew. It was a treasured possession, to be guarded carefully and passed down the generations from master to apprentice. In a world of largely uncharted waters, an accurate rutter could be the difference between successfully arriving at a destination and disaster.

Rutters worked a bit like satellite navigation in a car today. Satnav reduces an often complex journey into a series of simple instructions for the driver to follow – go along this road for eight miles, then turn left. It doesn’t need to tell you where you are, just what steps you need to follow to reach your destination. In a similar way rutters contained courses, to take a ship between two points. For example the directions in one rutter to get from Ushant to Calais is to sail “north-north-west for 33 leagues, then north-north-east for a further 36.” Any important landfalls along the way are usually illustrated with sketches, along with detail of tides and winds that are likely to be encountered and hazards to be aware of. For example a medieval rutter describing the route from Start Head to the Lizard, off the south coast of Cornwall, states “…the fareway between the start and the lisart the cours is east and beware of the Hedre stonys [Ecclestone Rocks]…”

Rutters also have other useful information to help the navigator arriving in port. The rutter of the navigator Michael of Rhodes contains a course ending in the Italian port of Bari. It then helpfully explains that Bari can be identified from the sea thanks to its four bell towers. He goes on to recommend to moor by quarters, and that the best jetty to use is on the east side of the peninsular, where you will be protected from all winds save the griego levante arriving from the east-northeast, for which you should keep a good watch.

Rutters for the Channel, where visibility can often be very poor, are rich in information to be derived from taking soundings. All ships in the age of sail carried a lead line to measure the depth beneath them. The lead weight attached to the line usually had a cavity that could be filled with tallow. When the lead reached the seafloor material would stick to the tallow, and could be brought back up to the ship to provide valuable clues to location, and this was faithfully recorded. For example, if you are off Portland the lead would bring up “fair white sand with red shells therein.” A little further east, off the Isle of Wight you will find a “white chalk bottom in 30 fathoms.” Some of these descriptions of the seabed are extraordinarily precise. One rutter identifies a particularly important point on the coast of Flanders thanks to its “fine sand with white shells of grubs painted like the head of a needle.”

During the age of discoveries, the rutters of early explorers had an enormous value, because they held the key to how to reach the rest of the world from Europe. Spain considered rutters that described how to round Cape Horn and enter the Pacific as state secrets to be closely guarded. In 1595 a Dutch sailor Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who had sailed to Asia aboard Portuguese ships, published a printed copy of his rutter. This caused a sensation because in it was revealed how to sail around Africa, a secret the Portuguese had kept for over a hundred years. Its publication smashed their monopoly on oriental trade and sparked an explosion of expeditions to the east, and the start of the Dutch, French and British empires in Asia.

The rutter was never completely displaced by the arrival of accurate charts, because it contained so much more information than could be put on a map. Instead it has evolved into the Sailing Directions that navigators use to supplement a chart, full of information about ports, weather to be expected, and navigational hazards to be mindful of.

My blog will be taking a break for a month, coming back in May due to work commitments – mainly finalising the 10th book in the Alexander Clay series which will be called "Clay and the Immortal Memory" and should be published next month. PKA

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