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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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16th Century

The ships used by early explorers such as Cabot and the Corte Reals were much different than the Viking knarrs of 500 years earlier. By the 16th century, sailing vessels were sophisticated pieces of technology, carrying vast expanses of canvas manipulated by many metres of ropes and spars. They had three masts and along with square sails they carried at least one lateen-rigged (triangular) sail that hung across the wind, making it easier to tack and steer.

Map illustration: Ships from Wright's "world map" of 1598

Vessels were carvel-built; that is, the planks of their hulls formed a smooth skin rather the overlapping style favoured by the Vikings. They were broad vessels, built to withstand the heavy beating of the stormy North Atlantic, but they were not particularly large, since smaller vessels handled better in unknown, coastal waters. John Cabot's Matthew was only 50 tonnes (meaning it could carry 50 tonnes of cargo), with a crew of less than 20; Martin Frobisher's Gabriel was even smaller. Jacques Cartier penetrated the St Lawrence River in the Grande Hermine, somewhere between 100 and 120 tonnes in size with a crew of 60, but John Davis ventured into ice-choked Baffin Bay in a vessel of only 18 tonnes.

Image: Replica of John Cabot's ship

Life aboard these small vessels was uncomfortable to say the least. Crew's quarters were cramped, dirty and cold. Fires were lit only in calm weather and washing facilities were nonexistent. Food rations were very monotonous. Frobisher's men, for example, received daily a half-kilogram of dry biscuit, four litres of beer (preferable to water, which went stale), a kilogram of salt meat, some dried peas, a quarter of a salted fish, and some butter, cheese, rice, oatmeal, raisins and nuts. The absence of vitamins made scurvy a constant threat. One mariner of the time summed up the seafaring life: "a hard Cabbin, cold and salt Meate, broken sleepes, mouldy bread, dead beere, wet Clothes, want of fire."

Besides a compass, used to establish which direction was north, 16th-century navigators possessed a small number of instruments to help them find their way across the empty ocean. Using an astrolabe, a quadrant, or a cross-staff, they could measure the angle above the horizon of the North Star or the sun at noon and thereby calculate the ship's latitude (longitude being left pretty much to guesswork). Of course, skies were not always clear enough to permit the necessary observations. Next, speed was measured by trailing a line in the wake  --  knots tied in the line at equal intervals could be used to calculate how fast the ship was going. There were no coastal charts, and early explorers had to keep a constant lookout for shoals and rocks. They used a weighted line dropped into the water to keep track of their depth.

Artifact: Pitcher recovered from the "san juan"

The ships that followed in the explorers of the early part of the century tended to be larger and heavier. They were working ships, designed to carry cargo or colonists. The remains of one of these vessels were recovered from the water of Red Bay on the south coast of Labrador in the Strait of Belle Isle. It was the San Juan, a 300-tonne galleon used by whalers from the Basque region of northern Spain. Wrecked in a storm in 1565 and preserved for more than 400 years in the mud at the bottom of the bay, the San Juan is one of the oldest shipwrecks located in Canada. Its discovery has revealed a great deal of information about the vessels used by the earliest European visitors.

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