Atlantic Crossings

The emblem for the "Cittie of Ralegh" shows a red cross on a white field, representing England, tith a deer in the upper right corner, representing Sir Walter Ralegh.

For many generations European maritime expansion progressed slowly. Irish monks, such as the semi-legendary sixth-century figure St. Brendan, evidently explored and lived on several North Atlantic islands. The Norsemen colonized the Faeroes beginning in the eighth century, Iceland in the ninth, Greenland in the tenth, and North America in the eleventh. In the 1200s Genoese, Portuguese, Majorcan, and French traders reached the Canaries, which had been visited 300 years earlier by Arabs and were known to the ancient Romans. In the fourteenth century Genoese mariners discovered the Madeiras and established regular routes between Italy and the Baltic.

A ship at sail

Vicki Wallace

The first consideration in sea travel was a suitable and reliable craft. For their earliest sallies into blue water, European mariners used coastal trading and raiding vessels, which were small and clumsy, but generally sturdy enough to withstand the battering they took on the open seas. By the tenth century the lateen sail, which enabled a ship to sail closer to the wind, reached Europe from the Middle East. The sternpost rudder, probably developed in the Netherlands in the 1100s, made ships more maneuverable and forced shipbuilders to differentiate bow from stern. Around 1000 the magnetic compass came aboard European ships; within 200 years it was commonplace. By 1280 Mediterranean mariners were using crude navigational charts. As design and construction improved, ships retained their durability but grew in size — first in order to accommodate guns and powder, later in order to carry goods for trade and the provisions needed for long voyages. Modification of rigging and sail plans afforded greater maneuverability and control even by a small crew weak with disease, malnutrition, or exhaustion. Thus advances in building and sailing ships were both a cause and an effect of expanding horizons.

In the fifteenth century supply and demand, opportunity and incentive, technology and technique, knowledge and curiosity came together explosively. Beginning around 1400, Spain conquered the Canaries and exterminated the native Guanches. In 1418 Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal began sending expeditions farther and farther down the west coast of Africa from Ceuta, his base in Morocco. In the 1420s he colonized the Madeira group. By 1432 Portuguese were populating the Azores. Within thirty years they had reached Guinea and begun settling on the Cape Verde Islands, discovered by the Venetian Cadamosto. In the 1480s Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope under the Portuguese flag, and Bristol mariners began to visit Newfoundland. Columbus, a Genoese in Spanish employ, made his epochal transoceanic voyages beginning in 1492. Working for England, another Genoese, John Cabot, crossed on a northern route in 1497 and again in 1498, the year that the Portuguese Da Gama sailed around Africa to India.

By the early 1600s oceanic travel was burgeoning. Spain was eagerly stripping the New World of its immense wealth; Portugal enjoyed lively commerce with India, the Spice Islands, and its New World colony, Brazil; France was developing its mining and other interests in west Africa; and nearly all the countries of western Europe were exploiting the Newfoundland fisheries.

At length Spain became the pre-eminent economic power in Europe. Large flotillas regularly crossed the Atlantic bearing gold, silver, jewels, cochineal, cacao, tobacco, and other valuable commodities back to Spain. Superior navigational knowledge and skill developed by long experience — and a commitment by the crown to underwrite some of the expenses of transatlantic expeditions — made Spain ruler of the seas for a time.

The rich traffic between the New World and Spain, and the vast areas in North America that Spain had ignored, were irresistible temptations for other European countries. But when England decided at last to contend for a piece of the New World and its trade, she had few mariners with deep-water experience and little knowledge of the Atlantic or the Western Hemisphere. Worse, the English government was unwilling and often unable to subsidize exploration and colonization.

English mariners were highly skilled in coastwise navigation, however. Aware of their shortcomings, but convinced of their ability to learn and excel, the English hired Portuguese and Spanish pilots and instructors.

Not content just to copy techniques and memorize accepted knowledge, the English set about making advances. Textbooks on piloting and navigation, navigational instrument, nautical charts, and oceangoing ships multiplied rapidly. Sails, rigging, armaments, and seamanship improved.


The English crown transferred fiscal responsibility by granting royal charters to wealthy trading companies such as the Muscovy Company of 1555. These companies, in turn, pushed for legislation that ultimately led to the licensing of ship's masters and the founding of Trinity House at Deptford — the Tudor equivalent of a merchant marine academy.

With an increase in the knowledge of navigation and the availability of trained pilots and masters, an interest in overseas trade and expansion began to flourish. By the time of the first voyage to Roanoke in 1584, Drake had already circumnavigated the globe, Frobisher had explored the barren Arctic, and Queen Elizabeth's Sea Dogs roamed the shipping lanes with impunity. In this climate, Walter Ralegh petitioned the crown for the right to explore and claim lands in the New World not yet inhabited by any other Europeans. Upon receipt of the grant, Ralegh and his fellows sponsored seven voyages in 1584, 1585, 1586, and 1587 aimed more or less at eastern North Carolina; others backed voyages in 1587, 1588, and 1590.

The pilot on four of Ralegh's first five voyages was Simon Fernandez, a Portuguese pirate then in the service of Sir Francis Walsingham — a member of the Privy Council of England. Fernandez was one of the most highly regarded western navigators available, for he had crossed the Atlantic on several occasions to reconnoiter the North American coastline for Sir Humphry Gilbert and may have had earlier experiences on the high seas in the service of another country.

Fernandez' routes for the outward and return Atlantic crossings were largely determined by the characteristics of the typical sixteenth-century ship. Most of the ships used for transatlantic voyages were square-rigged. While able to sail to the windward, that is, as nearly as possible in the direction from which the wind was blowing, it was seldom desireable to make long passages to windward. The maneuver was very labor-intensive and subjected the rigging to great wear and tear. It was also slow. Consequently, Fernandez and other masters of square-rigged ships crossing the Atlantic usually kept close to the traditional routes established by Columbus and Verrazzano, and sailed with the prevailing winds and currents at their backs.

Following the clockwise flow of winds and currents, the expeditions sailed south from England, past Spain and Portugal, and stopped over at the Canaries, Madeiras, or Cape Verdes for food and water before attempting the long Atlantic crossing. In the absence of major obstacles, such as foul weather or pirates, this leg of the voyage usually took ten to fourteen days.

Then, with the northeasterly trade winds and the Equatorial Current at their backs, the voyagers made for the West Indies, sailing as a later generation of English square-rig sailors would say "south 'til the butter melts, then west." An uneventful crossing usually required four or five weeks.

After replenishing supplies once again, the fleet picked up the Florida Current (precursor of the Gulf Stream) and followed it northeast from around the Strait of Florida to the latitude of Roanoke-a trip of another ten days to two weeks.

For the return trip to England, ships usually took the Gulf Stream and its extension, the North Atlantic Drift, back to Europe, perhaps with a stop in the Azores for provisions and prize ships. Being more direct, the homeward voyage usually took much less time.

By the last half of the sixteenth century, English ships were crisscrossing the Atlantic with considerable frequency. Increased navigational skill and improved ship design had resulted in the emergence of English sea power and the end of Spanish monopoly of the sea lanes to the new world. The English, largely through their own initiative, had raised the art of navigation to a science. A new age of discovery, exploration and expansion-one that would change the world and man's understanding of the world-was about to begin. .

Text by Olivia Isil; edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough
Illustrations by Vicki Wallace

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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