30 Jul 19
Posted by: M. K. Barritt

My remit was succinct: ‘I’m not sure what to make of this book. Perhaps you can offer an insight.’ So here goes. This is certainly not ‘a history’ in conventional form. There are neither acknowledgements nor references, nor bibliography, nor even a short list of recommended reading. There is no apparatus whatsoever, even a list indicating the source of the copious illustrations which pepper the text. Indeed, should a reader mislay the dust-cover they will have no information about the author or the claims which he and the publisher make for the book – culminating in this instance in the statement that it ‘has no rival’. For there is neither preface nor introduction. The reader is plunged straight into the narrative, arranged broadly chronologically (‘In the Beginning’ through to ‘The Future’) but also thematically (Fixing the Position, Charts and Pilot Books). I was reminded of the 1920s Wonder Book of Ships which I inherited from my father. This remark is not made in disparagement, for the entries in that book were authoritative and this book is written by a very experienced mariner, who has held, inter alia, one of the most demanding seamanship roles as master of a Trinity House Light Tender. He also took part in successful attempts to break the record for crossing the Atlantic.

Indeed, the book is larded with observations from a sea career which began in 1950 – vivid lessons from landfalls and shipwreck, and navigation in ice. The author has empathy with seamen of earlier ages, having often made use of timeless techniques such as fixes on the towers of great coastal churches around our shores to position navigational buoys. My favourite of the testimony which he shares is that of the mate in charge of the lifeboat of a torpedoed merchant ship who constructed a rudimentary sextant from a biscuit tin which enabled him to reach shore. The author achieves good geographical and cultural coverage and clear description of methodologies and technology, not asking too much knowledge. He covers small craft aspects particularly well and this leads to due credit being given to Navionics and C-Map as pioneers of digital charts. His description of the development of depth measurement ends with a hint of ‘crowd sourcing’ which is now being encouraged by the hydrographic community. Compass development, electronic navigation, and especially SATNAV, are covered extremely well.

There are a few slips in more specialist areas. It was not Waghenaer who introduced the classic cross symbol for a rock, and it is not true that the portolan charts of previous centuries showed no information outside the coastline. Working with the renowned scholar Tony Campbell, this reviewer has shown that familiar rock symbols are used on what is generally accepted to be the oldest surviving portolan chart (c 1280) to indicate known hazards offshore. Later portolan charts show the greatest dangers in the Mediterranean Sea, on the Skerki Bank, with a sophistication not matched till the last quarter of the twentieth century. This then is probably not a book for a NRreader, though it repays dipping in, to read succinct summaries, for example of how we got to where we are with electronic navigation charts (ENCs), and to benefit from some sage reflections and good challenges. Though it lacks pointers for the curious to sources where more information can be found, it could certainly be recommended as an introduction for an interested ‘lay’ friend, or to be given to a young person to whet their enthusiasm.