The Ocean is so wide and my ship is so small!

What events made Eurpoeans want to explore?  History is about a network. A network of events!

For example, Marco Polo wrote about his marvelous experiences in Cathay, but who could read? Then along came a new invention, the printing press. Now people had access to books and they began learning to read. What did they read? The exciting travels of Marco Polo! Voile! We have the beginning for a recipe for exploration! See if you can ad an ingredient to the exploration recipe from this time line. What happened in Constantinople in 1453 that made sea exploration more important.? As you read about the explorers think about connections and ask questions. Why do you think that spices were worth all the trouble? What did the mariners fear the most when sailing into the unknown sea?

All of this might be boring until you try to put yourself into the picture. Would you have been an explorer? Before you say yes you might want to find out what life was like back then. Would you have known how to read?

Since the Vikings visited north America around 1000 were they just smarter than the Portuguese and Spanairds?

Why Couldn't Sailors Cross the South Atlantic Before 1400?

Why were the Portuguese the first major explorers?

What exactly did the charts and maps look like then? How much of the world did they really have charted on a map?

What were the new instruments that were used in navigation? If you like scientific instruments this is the things for you!




A seaman's life was hard, and he had to be tough to survive, so ship's officers kept strict discipline on board.





Lief Erickson managed to cross the North Atlantic and get to Canada (Vinland) in the 1000s! Were the Vikings just smarter than the Portuguese? No! Erickson had a coastal shelf to follow. He was never more than a day or so away from sighting land, AND he didn't have the currents and winds working against him. Leif Ericson could follow an ocean ledge to North America. Find a globe and follow his route. You will see he wasn't that far from the North American Continent either. Can you find a map that shows the currents?








What happened if you didn't do what you were told?

Punishments at sea were designed as warnings to others. Of course some captains were more cruel than others but even Admiral Nelson, who cared for his men, found it necessary to condemn sailors to harsh floggings. However, these punishments must be compared with those on shore at the same time. For centuries, a criminal could be hanged for stealing something worth five pence.
Cat-o'-nine-tails, 1866–1879. Repro ID: D3920 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
What were typical punishments?
  Seamen could be 'tarred and feathered', tied to a rope, swung overboard and ducked or 'keel-hauled' (dragged round the underneath of the ship). Flogging was the most common, though, with the whole crew often being made to watch. A rope's end was used, or the infamous 'cat o' nine tails'. A seaman found guilty of mutiny or murder would be hanged from the yard arm.







What did the mariners fear? The mariners' believed that waters at the equator were at the boiling point, that human skin turned black, and that sea monsters would engulf ships.







What did they eat

Hard Tack

Sailors spent many days at see -- so they had to take food with them that would last. There was no fresh food. They preserved food by drying, salting, smoking and pickling. They took food which kept naturally, like nuts. Food was often infested with worms, and rats left their droppings in it. Other creatures like weevils got into food too.

Since sailors did not eat fresh food they often had vitamin deficiency. These led to diseases like scurvy making their teeth fall out and giving them lots of sores. 

Here is a list of what was on board at the beginning of a voyage.

  • water,
  • vinegar,
  • wine,
  • olive oil,
  • molasses,
  • cheese,
  • honey,
  • raisins,
  • rice,
  • garlic,
  • almonds,
  • sea biscuits (hardtack),
  • dry legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, beans,
  • salted and barreled sardines, anchovies, dry salt cod, and pickled or salted meats (beef and pork), salted flour.
©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London  














Why do you think that spices were worth all the trouble?

Spices were highly valued because they made the otherwise bland and spoiled food taste better. Why did food spoil so easily? Spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or cloves were like treasures to Europeans. All these products were produced in India, Ceylon, and the Moluccas (known as the Spice Islands).



These maps show what a sailor in the time of exploration would have had to find the Spice Islands. These islands were really part of what is now Indonesia.












All ocean sailors before 1400 relied upon highly predictable seasonal winds and currents that came to be called "trade winds." They were called trade winds because when they blew, the traders sailed with some ease to their trading destinations. Trade winds and currents were the reason for regular long-distance travel in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In 1400 no one had ever crossed the South Atlantic oceans! This part of the ocean had vicious storms.

Portuguese explorers faced three big problems.


The direction of the ocean currents, and the winds was wrong, and the speed of ocean currents made them dangerous. These things pushed the ships backwards, and into the middle of the South Atlantic! Sometimes ships were pushed into the Sargasso Sea.


Can you find the Sargasso Sea? It is located at 20o to 35o North Latitude and 30o to 70o West Longitude. (if you are not sure how to use lattitude and Longitude - check out your text book on page 136-137.) Remember that sailors in the time of Columbus had no way to accurately tell where they were in the ocean! Before 1400 sailors didn't want to go out into the vast deep water if they had no way to chart a route home. Can you blame them?

Here are some things to think about when you try to understand how much courage it took for these explorers to leave the safety of Europe and head out into the unknown!

Sargasso Sea



Write an editorial for Explorer Monthly - the magazine of explorers outlining what you need and imploring Prince Henry to provide your needs!
















The Nau was the most common ship used in trade at the time. Sailors, including Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama used variations of the Caravel in their explorations. The Nau was used for trade. It could stand high seas, but couldn't get close to the coast. It was bulky and were hard to steer. The caravel was the other ship used most often for exploration. It was manueverable and could get in close to shore and pick up many treasures which were then placed on the Nau for return to their patrons!

They could not go very fast. They went about 8 knots an hour and traveled about 100 miles in one day! Can you make a math problem that will tell you how fast that is in miles per hour? Can you estimate how long it would have taken them to travel to America?

There would be about 25 men on board one of these ships, and they had to sleep on deck because the hold was filled with supplies and water. This was not comfortable since water was always washing over the deck. Horses had to be put in slings. If the animals were left on board without being suspended the rolling of the ship would break their legs. Cooking was done on the deck in a sandbox, and the danger of fire was always present. The crew got one hot meal a day. Their diet consisted of ship's biscuit (rather like a cracker), pickled or salted meat, dried peas, cheese, wine, and fresh-caught fish.

Explain why you think they took merchant vessels when they went exploring?

Do you think the sailors had a healthy diet? If not, why not?

Sailing words you should know.








The story of Navigation -Crossing the South Atlantic required a new approach to navigation.

How did they navigate or find their way? They learned how to sail by dead reckoning. This meant they used the stars to get their direction, and tried to estimate how fast their vessel was traveling. This way they could tell approximately where they were on the charts. In order for exploration to occur science had to find better ways to navigate. Major inventions were borrowed from the Arabs and then modified to be used to chart the course of a vessel. Prince Henry put his country's money into the study of navigation, astronomy, and cartography.

The Portuguese began to use of the compass in conjunction with "celestial navigation" to chart their courses.

What changes in navigation had to be made before great long voyages across the oceans could be undertaken?

What discoveries took place to make the Age of Exploration happen? What is an Astrolabe? Christopher Columbus used an astrolabe in his historic voyage to the Americas. Ferdinand Magellan and his crew relied, in part, on an astrolabe during the first circumnavigation of Earth from 1519 to 1521. Many Arab travelers used astrolabes to navigate the desert.

How did mariners use the compass rose?


On these trips, the Portuguese got spice, gold and slaves to trade, which brought massive wealth into their country. Their sailing ship technology radically improved, as they adapted Arab sails for long voyage.

Did they use maps?

Who were the most important explorers or people who helped them explore and why were they important?

Try this thinkquest site to see what students have created for you to help you explore EXPLORATION!

Try this site created by 5th & 6th graders!

Prince Henry died in 1460. King John II took the throne. He was not happy with money he got from trading. He wanted to establish a Christian Empire in West Africa. From then on whenever a Portuguese voyager found a new land they put a granite pillar there. Each pillar had the royal arms of King John II as well as a Christian cross. These pillars were supposed to claim the land in the name of Christendom and Portugal. By 1487, Portuguese explorers had placed granite pillars as far south as Cape Cross.

What was so special about these explorers?

Dias, De gama Columbus Balboa, Pizarro,

Megellan and DeSoto.

Portuguese Pillar




Why were the Portuguese the first to explore?

The Portuguese faced the open sea. They were the furthest outpost on the Atlantic ocean.

They were a small country and needed wealth!


Major inventions were created by the Portuguese in this first period of exploration (Early 15th century). Prince Henry provided money to fund the study of navigation, astronomy, and cartography. They learned much from their Muslim neighbors about Astronomy and ship building. They applied this knowledge along with celestial navigation (plotting a course by the stars) to make charts of places they had not yet been. It made it possible for them to believe they could get back home even from the middle of the ocean!











In the 16th-18th centuries the economic theory known as Mercantilism was widely popular. This meant that colonies existed to bring wealth to the mother country through trade. Extensive trade empires sprang up in this period. Spain dominated in the early period, until their naval supremacy was bested by the English after 1588.

Under mercantilism, the colonies exported (sold) stuff to the colonials. Then they took any wealth the colony produced. What a deal!!

Mercantilism worked great for the people in the mother country, but it wasn't so good for the people in the colonies. In the early days, colonies could only produce raw materials, and depended greatly on their mother countries for finished goods, investment, and military protection from attack. But eventually these places became more like the mother country. When the colonies began to mature they resented the fact that the mother country was taking more than she was giving.

The native people in these countries were not even regarded in this process, except when they were sold as slaves. No one at the time thought that these people had any right to the lands on which they lived because they didn't regard them as though they were people!



beam- the width of a ship at its widest part

bilge- water that collects in the bottom of a ship

bow- the forward part of a ship

bowsprit- a long pole for sails sticking out of the bow of the ship

cargo- the goods that are carried on a ship, a plane, or a vehicle

chart - similar to a map only of the ocean. Since the ocean moves you can't make an exact map like you can of land. Instead of landmarks mariners used?

chip log and reel- device for measuring the speed of a vessel through the water. It consisted of a triangular piece of wood, weighted on one side and attached to a line with marked (knots) lengths. When thrown from the stern of a vessel the line was allowed to run out for a specified time. The number of knots that had come off the reel determined the vessel's speed. This traditional way of measuring is no longer used, but a ship's speed is still referred to in knots.

compass- An instrument whose magnetized metal needle aligns itself with the magnetic fields of the earth. This causes one end of the needle to point north. Mariners used this information to navigate the ship. The Chinese are said to have invented the first compass over 2000 years ago.

crow's nest- a platform high on a ship's mast used as a lookout

diagram- a drawing, sketch, plan, or chart that helps to make something easier to understand

draft- the amount of water needed for a ship to float when loaded

flagship- the ship carrying the commander of a group of ships and carrying his flag showing his rank

forecastle- the forward part of the upper deck of a ship; the living area for the crew in the front part of a ship

foremast- the mast nearest the bow of a ship

foresail- the lowest and largest sail on the foremast of a square-rigged ship

lateen- a triangular sail on a short mast

Keel- the main piece of timber that supports the whole structure of the boat.

mainmast- the center mast

mainsail- the main sail on the mainmast

mast- a long pole that rises from the bottom of a ship a supports the sails and rigging

merchant- n: a buyer and seller of goods, one who carries on trade

mizzenmast- the mast behind the mainmast in a ship

rigging- the ropes and chains used in working sails and supporting masts

spritsail- the sail on the bowsprit

stern-the rear end of a boat

tacking- to change the direction of a sailing ship by shifting the sails, or to sail into the wind

trimming- changing position in the water

topsail- the sail above the lower sail on a square-rigged ship

yard- a long pole tapered toward the ends that supports and spreads the top of a sail





Mariner's Museum

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