Seven things you never knew about oceans

Seven things you never knew about oceans

1) It is believed that Christopher Columbus’ crews were afraid of dropping off the edge of the world as they crossed the unknown breadth of the Atlantic, but in fact they had a much more realistic fear. A favourable wind was pushing them forward at a great rate, but as practical seamen they could only wonder: ‘How are we going to get back again?’ They were lucky to find a different wind further north. 

2) Most people know that Brunel’s Great Western was only just beaten to become the first ship to cross the ocean under steam, but they know far less about the ship’s chief engineer, who kept the engines running, and was tragically killed by the same engines after the arrival in New York.

3) In the beginning, the first ocean sailors were the Polynesians several thousand years ago, when they sailed from island to island, often taking their animals and families in a great migratory movement. With no written records and little archaeology, we can only rely on oral tradition and common sense to find their motives and methods. They were unusual in going straight to the oceans – most other civilisations learned to sail on rivers, then estuaries then coastal waters before crossing the sea and then the ocean.

4) Beginning with the Egyptians, the Mediterranean was the cradle of seamanship, though we should not underestimate the achievements of the Arabs and the Chinese. The voyage of Synesius across part of the Roman Empire tells us much about life on board ship around 400 AD, as well as the fraught relations between passengers and crew which was common before they were segregated in modern steamships. 

5) People travelled the seas for many different reasons – for trade in most cases; as explorers in pursuit of wealth, fame or scientific knowledge, to prosecute wars, to emigrate from one country to another, or to find resources in the ocean itself. Some of them took part in two trades which are abhorred today – the African slave trade and whaling. John Newton was a slave ship captain before campaigning for the trade’s abolition and writing ‘Amazing Grace.’ William Scoresby also became a clergyman after success in whaling, but he never regretted his pursuit of the great mammals, for society did not turn against whaling until the late twentieth century.

6) The condition of emigrants over the years is another subject of horror. The victims of the Irish famine in the 1840s suffered appalling overcrowding and often death by typhoid and other diseases during the voyage across the Atlantic. Forty years later, 400 people were crammed into the Otago, a ship the size of the Cutty Sark, for a four-month voyage to Australia. They had a comparatively small number of deaths – though it is difficult to read about the burial of one young boy at sea without a tear in the eye. It does not compare with the hardships of the Irish, but this is a tale of overcrowding, conflict and frustration. It is worth remembering it when we complain about lack of leg-room on a flight, or when it takes six hours instead of four.

7) Of course the ocean is not really ‘conquered’ in the full sense of the term – it is just that we know how to cross it in reasonable comfort and safety. Sometimes it seems to conquer us, as with sea level rise and in the Japanese Tsunami two years ago. We tend to forget about the sea today, though more people are afloat than ever before, in ferries, warships, yachts and cruise ships.

The Conquest of the Ocean by Brian Lavery is published on 1 May by DK.