Rutters of the Sea
By Margaret Graham Neeson, 91 years young, Marine Parts Express
Every so often a book arrives at the house which, for various reasons, isn’t put on our bookshelf to be read, but is opened immediately. Such a one is The Rutters of the Sea: The Sailing Directions of Pierre Garcie: A Study of the First English and French Printed Sailing Directions, with Facsimile Reproductions, by D.W. Waters and published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1967. Let us assure you, dear readers, that this time the reading table groaned!
For this, undoubtedly, is a weighty tome. Not only in format (in size and weight it approximates one of the encyclopedia volumes, Britannica or Columbia) but also in conception. A scholarly work, it is heavily footnoted, with cross-reference tables and identification lists. There are appendices, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index. There is a Foreword, a Preface and an Introduction. The first of these is by Henry C. Taylor, collector of the old sailing directions and donor or to-be-donor of them to Yale (hence the university’s interest in publishing this volume). There are just seven short of five hundred pages, and while the original price was a lusty twenty-five dollars, I had to pay a bit more.
The author of the preliminary study of the rutters and the annotator of them is Lieutenant Commander David W. Waters, a former historian on the Admiralty staff of the Royal Navy, and was, for many years, the curator of navigation and astronomy at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. He is also the author of a book on Elizabethan and early Stuart navigation, as well as editor and essayist on other navigational figures.
He explains what his book is about:
“Rutter was the English name in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for a book of sailing directions equivalent to the Admiralty ‘Pilots’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was derived from the French routier, meaning literally ‘route book.’ The equivalent expression in Portuguese was roteiro; in Spanish, derrota; in Italian, portolano (meaning port book); in Dutch, leeskaart (literally, reading chart); in German, seebuch (sea book).” Sea books of this sort were obviously kept by sailors as aids to memory or as a way of passing on information to other sailors.
Most of these sea books were lost at sea or destroyed on land, although a few peripli (from the Greek periplous) have come down to us from the early years of the Christian era. The oldest surviving manuscript medieval sailing directions are Italian, from the mid-thirteenth century, and deal with the Mediterranean and Black seas and down the Atlantic Coast of northwest Africa. The oldest surviving written directions for the waters of Northern Europe are in Low German and date from the fifteenth century, with parts of this seebuch going back to the fourteenth.
The invention of printing gave the sea books just the lift they needed. The earliest known printed work is an Italian portolano, ascribed to Alvise da Ca’da Mosto, and published in Venice in 1490. It also concerned itself mainly with navigation of the Mediterranean, so when twelve to fifteen years later (and there is always the possibility, as Waters says, that this is a second, not first edition, so that this work pre-dates the Italian one), the first French routier “Le Routier de la Mer,” appeared, it was immediately popular. This gave sailing direction for the coasts of England and Wales, France, Portugal and Spain, and was printed at Rouen.
Commander Waters feels that this routier was probably prepared by one Pierre Garcie, dit Ferrande (1430-1503?), a Frenchman of Spanish extraction, who was born in the little port of St. Gilles sur Vie, in La Vendée, and who grew up to become both pilot and author. Certainly, Garcie is given full credit for “Le Gran Routtier,” which was published in Poictiers in 1520. This covered pretty much the same sailing areas as the earlier routier, but several telling descriptive passages of coastlines were included, along with some fifty-nine rough woodcuts giving the outlines of headlands, mountains and islands.
About this same time, “Le Routier de la Mer” was brought to London by a sailor and was translated and printed by publisher Robert Copland under the title, “The Rutter of the See (sic)” This handy translation went into several directions for circumnavigating the British Isles.
As well as giving their history, Waters outlines the information contained in the directions—data on tides, directions, anchorages, soundings, moon phases, even a church calendar. He mentions, in passing, the size of a typical ship of Garcie’s time (sixty to seventy tons in burden, three-masted, with a crew if six); the names of the winds that matched the Mediterranean eight-rayed compass points (tramonta, north; ponente, west; greco, northeast; levante, east; and so on) and the fact that a man could see along the coast, was equal to seven leagues or twenty-one English miles. He also discusses the “judgments” of the French ports of Libourne and Ille d’Oléron, given in the directions because they were regarded as model maritime codes and regulations.
All pretty fascinating stuff. The only let-down comes when one reaches the facsimile reproductions of the sailing directions. They are, to put it plainly, damn hard to read, in English as well as in French. Spelling is individualistic, the type face is unfamiliar and curli-cued, there are many abbreviations and practically no punctuation. How the average, unscholarly but interested sailor-reader longs for a nice, clear modern translation in modern type! Ah, well, it’s a long winter. Maybe we’ll read those ruddy rutters yet.
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April 27, 2010 / JD Neeson / 1
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Margaret Graham Neeeson
Margaret Graham Neeson
Marine Parts Express