The Tudors - Age of Discovery

How did Tudor sailors find their way?

The ship's navigator was called the pilot. There were very few inventions or tools for navigation in Tudor times, which made sailing rather difficult. It meant the crew often had to improvise and this involved a lot of calculated guess work, or 'dead reckoning' as it was called. Pilots were reliant on landmarks and signs such as driftwood and seabirds to establish how close to land they were.


Sailors also used knowledge gained by explorers who had been before them and compasses give an idea about direction. They also used the sun, moon and stars as an aid to understanding what direction they were travelling in and tidal patterns were often predicted by looking at the moon.  An instrument called a 'nocturnal' (pictured right) was used to find a vesselís location, and the time at night by observing the alignments of the stars.


Knowledge about the depth of the water was obtained by a lead and line and also the colour of the sea. The speed the ship travelled at was measured using a 'log', which was a piece of wood attached to rope. This rope had knots tied into it and as the ship travelled, the rope was reeled out and the wood was left floating. The knots left behind were counted in order to see how many knots were travelled within a certain period of time, and this was measured using a sand glass.


Distance at this time was described as 'leagues', measured by putting pegs in a board. Sundials were used to measure time, alongside sand glasses.


Maps were an essential item for navigation, just as they are today, however back then they were not very reliable as countries were still being discovered and these maps were often badly drawn.

Typical navigation tools on a Tudor ship included:

  • Astrolabe - which was used for navigation, astronomy, astrology and measured latitude
  • Cross Staff - which also measured latitude
  • Traverse Board ( see image above) - which worked out longitude and measured direction and speed
  • Sounding Lead - which measured sea depth
To discover more about Tudor Hull using original documents, look at our related resource Henry's Hull

Document icon Learning article provided by: Hull Maritime Museum |  Heritage Learning |  Merchant Adventurers' Hall | 
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