Throughout history, sea travel in the name of exploration, trade and research has paved the way for modern globalism. We have always marveled at the waves, finding ways to go further and further: the oldest known boat in the world, the Canoe Pesse, dates to around 8000 BCE; there is evidence Egyptians began sailing around 4000 BCE; and the Phoenicians are credited with shipbuilding expertise that enabled them to travel around africa in 600 BCE. Here are 11 incredible sea voyages and travelers that have helped advance our understanding of the world.
Born in 970, Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the second son of Erik the Red, a native of Iceland who colonized Greenland around 980. According to the Viking sagas written centuries after the events, Erikson heard of an unknown land west of Greenland and went to investigate it, eventually landing with a small crew on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. Although the settlement did not last long, archaeological evidence and the sagas suggest that Erikson’s Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot in North America.
Beginning life as Ma Sanbao in 1371, Zheng He grew up in a prosperous Muslim family in China. When he was about 10 years old, he was captured during Emperor Hong Wu’s attack on his city and forced to serve as a court eunuch. He eventually rose through the ranks, becoming a valued diplomat and commander of the Ming Dynasty navy. He embarked on his first voyage in 1405, commanding the Emperor’s huge fleet of “treasure ships”. Some of the hundreds of ships were 400 feet long, and the entire armada consisted of 28,000 sailors. During his seven expeditions to the lands surrounding the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, Zheng He helped spread Chinese culture and political influence. Chinese emigration has increased, as has tributes to Chinese leaders. Upon the death of Zheng He in 1433 and the establishment of a new emperor, the ships and journals of the expeditions were destroyed. This ended the “golden age” of Chinese maritime exploration, make way for Europeans.
The voyage of Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan is credited with being the first to circumnavigate the globe. In 1519, about 260 men and five ships set out from Spain, looking for a western route to the Spice Islands (in present-day Indonesia). Magellan called the Pacific Ocean (Peaceful means “peaceful”) and accidentally discovered the Strait of Magellan at the bottom of South America (this is still used to this day for navigation between the Atlantic and the Pacific). While Magellan deserves his due for orchestrating the trip, a the poison arrow killed him in 1521 upon arrival in the Philippines. According to some historians, Enriquean enslaved Malay of Magellan’s crew, first circumnavigated the globe, albeit in more than one voyage, before the remaining 18 of Magellan’s crew returned to Spain in 1522.
Irish sailor Gráinne Ní Mháille, aka Grace O’Malley, aka the Pirate Queen of Ireland, is considered one of the last Irish clan leaders to fight against English domination in Ireland. Born in 1530, Grace began her career on the high seas at the age of 11, when Ireland was ruled by around 40 Gaelic clans (the Motto of the Clan O’Malley was “powerful on land and sea”). Upon her father’s death, it was Grace and not her older brother who became chieftain, managing two galleys, 20 ships and over 200 men to plunder coastal strongholds and defend against English encroachment. When Grace negotiated the release of prisoners and seized land with Queen Elizabeth I, she demanded an audience as an equal. A respected matriarch in her day, she was omitted from history for centuries. Today, she is celebrated for her leadership at sea.
the Adventure at sea was nicknamed “the shipwreck that saved Jamestownand inspired William Shakespeare as he wrote Storm. The ship, which was part of a convoy sent from England in 1609, was supposed to supply the Virginia Desperate Colony. But when he sailed straight into a hurricane and slammed into a reef around then-uninhabited Bermuda, the Adventure at seaThe adventure seems over. However, everything 150 souls on board survived by swimming to shore and building two new ships to take them the rest of the way. The castaways arrived in Jamestown about 10 months later. Their story of survival not only restored England’s desire to make its American colony a success; it also led to the second English colony established in the Americas, not in New England, but in Bermuda.
the Mayflower, a second-hand merchant ship carrying 102 passengers, left Plymouth, England, for North America in 1620. Forty of the passengers were Protestant separatists (later known as the Pilgrims) who sought to establish a colony in America where they could freely practice their religion. . They had permission to settle anywhere on the coast between the Chesapeake Bay and New York Harbor. But two miserable months after its launch, the Mayflower landed in New England, about one degree north of where it was supposed to be. The colonists named the new colony Plymouth, wrote a document to establish guidelines for self-government and launched a historic experiment in democracy and religious freedom.
James Cook swore to sail”as far as I think it is possible for man to goand ended up charting more territory than any other sailor of his time. He joined Britain’s Royal Navy in his twenties and in 1767 produced a map of Newfoundland that was so accurate it was still used in the 20th century. Cook led his first exploratory expedition in 1768, destined for the South Pacific to observe the transit of Venus and map New Zealand, Tasmania and parts of Australia. He came very close to spotting Antarctica on a second circumnavigation of the globe to explore and map several South Pacific he is. In 1776, on his third and final epic voyage, Cook came within 50 miles from the western entrance to the Northwest Passage in the Bering Strait. He was the first European commander to travel to Hawaii, where friction grew between his crew and the local population; Cook was killed by Native Hawaiians in 1779, and the expedition ended without him the following year. Among his countless observations and discoveries, Cook found that fresh fruit seemed to prevent scurvy, without knowing exactly how the remedy worked.
Another journey in the service of literary inspiration is the tale of the Essex. An 87-foot whaler, the Essex was built from incredibly strong white oak and equipped for a 2.5 year voyage. He left Nantucket in 1819, rounded Cape Horn and headed for the South Pacific. On November 20, 1820, an 85-foot sperm whale rammed the ship twice and sank it, serving a small measure of justice on behalf of its species (numbering 300,000 today from a estimated at 1.1 million before whaling). While the 20 crew members initially survived, they drifted in boats across the open ocean for three months and eventually resorted to cannibalism. Only eight returned home. Herman Melville based the climactic scene in Moby-Dick on the Essex the tragedy.
Charles Darwin said his upbringing “really started on board the Beagle.” Fresh out of college at age 22, Darwin interrupted his intended career as a clergyman and joined the Beagle as his naturalist. Setting sail in 1831, the ship’s mission was to go around the world, to survey the South American coasts and to carry out chronometric studies. The time spent in the Galápagos truly informed Darwin’s theories of evolution, providing the opportunity to observe the development of species in an isolated environment. Darwin also considered coral, recording geological observations on islands and coasts. And the Beaglecommanded by Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy, achieved its goal of accurately mapping the coast of South America, including the dangerous shoals of the Strait of Magellan.
Anglo-Irish sailor Ernest Shackleton first sailed to Antarctica in 1901 on a mission to reach the South Pole, which ended in a severe case of scurvy. He would come within 97 nautical miles of the pole on his second expedition. But this was his third adventure aboard the Endurance for which he is most famous. In 1914, he led a crew of 28 men with the intention of being the first to cross Antarctica overland, but the ship remained trapped in the pack ice for 10 months and sank on November 21, 1915. The crew set up camp on the pack ice, drifted on dangerous seas and ran aground on a polar island uninhabited. Shackleton and five men then sailed 800 miles through the roughest seas on the planet to rescue. All hands successfully completed their revised mission: survival. Shackleton’s story serves as leadership lesson against all odds and overcoming outrageous obstacles.
Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnologist, has set up several transoceanic scientific expeditions. His expeditions on the Kon-Tiki, a balsa wood raft launched in 1947, and Ra, a copy of a crewed Egyptian reed boat in 1969, proved the possibility of ancient contact between distant civilizations. From Peru, Kon-Tiki reached the South Pacific three and a half months later, confirming the theory that pre-Columbian sailors may have sailed across the Pacific. Ra sailed from Morocco within 600 miles of Central America and hinted at the possibility that Egyptian sailors may have influenced pre-contact cultures. And in 1977-1978, sailing on a reed boat named the TigerHeyerdahl suggested that the ancient Sumerians might well have reached southwestern Asia. His stimulating theories are still debated.