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    Re: Lunars in literature
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2009 Jan 30, 18:22 -0800

    George H, you wrote:
    "And such seat-of-the-pants navigation seems to have applied particularly to 
    American whalers. Although I can't now recall chaper and verse, I've read 
    several accounts of merchant vessels being "spoken" by New England whalers, 
    asking for a position, who hardly knew what ocean they were in."
    
    I've read through over thirty logbooks of American whalers specifically, and I 
    don't think that this was true in any general sense. They recorded their 
    position every day, by account if weather did not permit observations, and 
    they sometimes used methods that might have been considered sophisticated, 
    including lunars. But these were practical people, and they used every 
    available method to determine position including "speaking other ships" as 
    often as opportunity allowed. For commercial vessels, this "speaking" is an 
    interesting game. You want as much information as you can get from the other 
    guy without giving up anything too useful yourself. 
    
    And you added:
    "Of course, whalers were a rather special case. They would make incredible 
    voyages from New England ports, right through the Pacific and into the Bering 
    Straits, away for four years or so, only sighting land on the passage round 
    the Horn, and sometimes not even then."
    
    That's an exaggeration. In fact, they went ashore quite frequently. In the 
    Atlantic, there is a sort of "slalom course" of islands, many large and some 
    very small which will get you down the entire length of the Atlantic with 
    little worry over fresh water and frequent verification of your vessel's 
    position. In the Pacific, it depends a great deal on the decade, but by the 
    1840s, most of the Pacific was an American lake. There were hundreds of New 
    England whalers at sea in some years. They made frequent port calls in Chile, 
    Peru, the Galapagos, Mexico, California, Japan, a number of small Pacific 
    islands, and Hawaii especially (it's fair to say that Hawaii is a US state 
    today because of the dominance of the American whaling industry in the 
    Pacific in the 19th century).
    
    And you concluded:
    "In mid-ocean, they didn't really care exactly where they were, not making a 
    passage from A to B, but simply wandering in search of "fish". If these were 
    Sperm whales, these could be anywhere on the world's oceans."
    
    Whales are found in some areas more than others. These "whaling grounds" were 
    the destinations of whaling voyages. There were many of these, with varying 
    popularity and fishing value. The Pacific just west of the Galapagos was 
    popular. The Gulf of Alaska and in later years, the Sea of Okhotsk were also 
    full of whales. It's true that the vessel's exact position in the whaling 
    ground was unimportant, and I would say that there's good evidence that the 
    position was recorded in the logbook with lower frequency and less accuracy 
    while on the whaling grounds, but they still took every opportunity to 
    determine at least the latitude.
    
    For those who haven't been on NavList long, I should mention again that there 
    is a considerable collection of digitized logbooks from 19th century American 
    vessels, including many whaling vessels, available on the web site of Mystic 
    Seaport. For reasons known only to them, they've changed all the URLs for 
    their online collections. The main index of digitized documents is now here:
    http://library.mysticseaport.org/initiative/MsList.cfm
    (scroll down to logbooks and journals). It's great stuff, and there are often 
    navigation problems worked in the margins or in back pages. If you want to 
    understand 19th century navigational methods, you have to look at primary 
    sources.
    
    -FER
    
    
    
    
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