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    Re: American navigation.
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2009 Oct 30, 17:07 -0700

    George H, you wrote:
    "We have previously discussed the reputation, in the 19th century, for 
    rough-and-ready navigation of American vessels"
    Yes, and while this story may have happened exactly as described it also may 
    be an anecdotal "sea story". And like all sea stories, this one is a parable, 
    intended to make a point and draw a gasp of disbelief from the listener... 
    "No way! He used the map in the back of the Bible??! What a crazy thing to 
    do!" Your source is telling this story, not because it's normal or common, 
    but because it's such a great story of exceptional behavior.
    Back in the mid-70s, I remember a documentary talking about navigational 
    incompetence, and at one point they interviewed a Coast Guard officer who 
    told a story about chatting on the radio with a woman who was lost. She had 
    sailed from Miami and was looking for Bimini (check a map --except for the 
    worrisome Gulf Stream, this is a fairly short voyage with no navigational 
    complexity). When asked about charts, the story-telling officer claimed that 
    she said she had the World Almanac (not the Nautical Almanac, but the common 
    "World Almanac" that you can buy at any book store) open to the map of the 
    Atlantic Ocean and she couldn't find Bimini. Doesn't that sound familiar? I 
    was quite impressed by the story back then (at the impressionable age of 
    thirteen), and I have re-told it many times. But in fact, it's a 
    long-standing "sea story" that exists in various forms. Back in 1900, an 
    average "simple man" might carry his Bible to sea with him. In 1976, an 
    average "simple woman" (it was the 70s...) might carry the all-too-popular 
    World Almanac to sea. 
    This particular "simple man" navigation story to me resembles the oft-repeated 
    computer tech support story about the customer who is looking for the "any 
    key" on his keyboard ("the computer says, 'press any key to continue,' but I 
    can't find the 'any' key"). From noted urban legends expert Barbara 
     "True, 'stupid guy' tales abound in every profession and hobby, but the 
    experience of feeling outwitted by the machine is almost universal in the 
    online world, thus the identification with this particular set of tales is 
    widespread. Such lore also provides a measure of comfort in that it's 
    reassuring to think there are folks out there who've done even dumber things 
    than we've so far managed to do. One needs reassurance that one is not 
    entirely clueless, and these tales supply that. They also help rebuild the 
    somewhat damaged self esteem of computer users who have just realized they've 
    done something particularly brainless."
    (see http://www.snopes.com/humor/business/wordperfect.asp)
    And I think that applies exactly to navigation, too.
    Of course, needless to say, there are, there were, there will be, and there 
    always have been, mariners from EVERY country who navigate/navigated/will 
    navigate using primitive or traditional means. When they have good p.r., 
    commentators marvel at their aptitude and suggest that they must be "in tune 
    with the rhythms of the oceans". When they have bad p.r., pundits marvel at 
    their ineptitude and suggest that they are "lucky fools who have survived in 
    spite of themselves". None of these tales tell us much about the state of 
    "American navigation" now or in the past.
    PS: By the way, the last time this came up we had some discussion about the 
    number of logbooks extant (in particular whaling logbooks). I saw some 
    numbers on this back in August, filed them away in the back of my head, and 
    I've been meaning to post them. Now seems like a good time. There were 
    approximately 15,000 pelagic whaling voyages made under the flag of the USA. 
    Approximately 5,000 logbooks are preserved in research libraries. Among the 
    major collections, in order of total volumes: the Providence Public Library 
    in Providence, RI, the Kendall Institute at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 
    New Bedford, MA, and the Collections Research Center at Mystic Seaport in 
    Mystic, CT. Those three together have the majority of the surviving logbooks 
    from American pelagic whaling voyages, and they are all open to examination 
    and study by any researcher.
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