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The 10 Most Amazing Sea Voyages of Discovery

Updated on July 7, 2017

From the beginning, man was destined to fill the earth and (subdue it). By nature we’ve been given an imagination- to dream, a mind- to innovate and will- to test our limits. There are few limits to what can be accomplished when man sets his mind on it. This is an ever present truth, which was evident in the amazing sea voyages –during the age of sail.

#10 The Voyage of Pytheas of Massalia

In about 325 BC Pytheas departed from the early Greek colony of Massalia in Gaul (Marseille France) on the Mediterranean coast, sailed through the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) to explore and map the British Isles and the Scandinavian Arctic.

Voyaging to Cornwell (now on the coast of southwest England) he found the source of valued Tin- that the Phoenicians of Carthage had monopolized from centuries. From there, he nearly circumvented what is today England and Scotland and accurately measured the circumference of the entire coastline.

From Northern Scotland, Pytheas sailed to a land six days to the North; to a land he called Thule, (probably the coast of Norway). He gave a description of the midnight sun, whales, the arctic peoples and seas filled with ice.

Pytheas was a pioneer in navigation, astronomy, mathematics and geography. He was able to navigate away from sight of land using a Gnomon (similar to a sextant) to accurately calculate latitude, able to record accurate distances and precise locations in the time of Alexander the Great. (1)


#9 The Voyages of Zheng He

Ninety two years before Vasco de Gama’s historic voyage to India, Zheng He would depart in 1405 from the east China port of Suzhou in his first of seven voyages through Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean to places as far flung as the channel of Mozambique and the Red sea.

The armada that Zheng He commanded was said to consist of about 200 ships and 25000 men. If accurate, it would be one of the greatest armadas ever assembled. China was able to project its naval power all the way to the east African coast and did so on numerous occasions.

Ming China had world’s premier navy in terms of size and technical prowess. Zheng He personally oversaw the construction of the fleet he would lead. The fleet would include supply ships, water tankers and patrol boats. (2) Advances in technology included9 Zheng He

, 3-4 masted ships (adopted centuries later in Europe), watertight bulk heads (to prevent sinking if damaged), elaborate star charts and magnetic compasses. (3)

The purpose was to develop, extend and protect China’s trade network into the Indian Ocean and also to impress and intimidate foreign nations to pay tribute. Zheng He raided the strongholds of pirates near Molucca and even attacked and took captive the King of Ceylon because he had harassed Chinese merchants and neighboring nations friendly to China.



#8 The Voyages of Captain James Cook

Beginning in 1768 Cook would begin his first of three amazing voyages till his untimely death in Hawaii in 1779. He was the greatest explorer of his age. During his first voyage, Cook rounded the treacherous Cape Horn in mere days whereas it normally took a month or more. (4) He precisely charted the entire coast of New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.

On the second voyage, Cook became the first to cross the Antarctica Circle and dispensed of the myth of “Terra Australis” the great southern continent. He had successfully used a chronometer to calculate his longitudinal position with great precision.(5) He charted the South Pacific with such accuracy, that his charts were still in use till the mid- twentieth century. So great were his scientific achievements that he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

By his third and final voyage Captain James Cook became the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands along with discovering and charting many other Pacific Islands. Cook pioneered the treatment of scurvy, insisting on a diet with more fruits and vegetables. His voyages were virtually scurvy- free.

Even in the modern era, Cook’s legacy seemed to still influence writers. The original Star Trek TV series bear a striking resemblance to the story of Captain James Cook. Starting with the similar name Captain James T Kirk, the ship being the Enterprise (Cook’s was the Endeavor), the phrase,” To boldly go where no man has gone before” was taken right from Cook’s journal. (6)



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#7 Leif Erikson’s Voyage

Leif Erikson and his crew of 35 men departed from near the southern tip of Greenland in the summer of 1000AD. Following the prevailing currents, they had to dodge icebergs, contend with thick fog, strong currents and some of the most extreme tides in the world, as they made their way up the western Coast of Greenland.

These waters were totally unknown; Erikson’s only knowledge of his route was gained from a merchant who saw the area while being blown off course from Greenland. The crew would spend about a week crossing 600 miles (out of sight of land) of the treacherous waters of the Davis Strait. During the crossing, they slept in an open boat dodging icebergs near the Arctic Circle before arriving on the barren coast of Baffin Island in Canada.

Sailing south, Erikson would pass by the heavily wooded coast of Labrador to arrive the Northern tip of Newfoundland. There they found an area warmed by the sea with abundant food, grapes and grassland. Erikson and his crew built a settlement, wintered their and returned to Greenland in the spring.

The trip to Newfoundland would have taken three weeks to a month to complete. It required a tough, disciplined and skilled crew and involved great risk because of the numerous hazards. (7)


#6 The Polynesian Voyage to Hawaii

According to current research, the initial discovery of Hawaii probably occurred between 1000 and 1200 AD (8). Most experts assume Hawaii was discovered and settled by the peoples of the Marquesan or Society islands (French Polynesia).

The nearest populated landfall at the time of Hawaii’s discovery, was the Marquesas Islands- which are about 2200 miles from the Southern tip of Hawaii’s big Island.

The Polynesians seafarers had settled vast expanses of the Pacific at a time where very few other seafaring cultures dared to sail without being able to be in sight of land. They actually were able to find tiny remote islands thousands of miles away, without compasses or maps.

They sailed with Polynesian double hulled canoes that were relatively small vessels made of primitive materials. They sailed on the open seas for weeks on end, exposed to the elements, with minimal room for food and fresh water.

They were able to navigate based on stick charts, the stars, interpreting landfalls through observing the direction of ocean swells and the migration routes of birds.


#5 The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake

In 1577, Sir Francis Drake was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth to embark on a secret mission to harass Spanish overseas possessions and to explore and claim new lands for the English crown.

Drake proceeded to round the tip of South America and plundered the amazing wealth of the Spanish, off the Pacific Coast of the America’s. In the process, Drake co-opted a local Spanish navigator and came into possession of Secret Spanish maps of the Pacific.

Loaded down with enough Spanish Gold and silver to rival the wealth of the entire British Crown, Drake was forced to navigate the Pacific to avoid Spanish capture. This he did with unbelievable skill and daring.

Upon his return to England, Drake was awarded to unheard of honor of being a commoner knighted by the queen; his expedition became the second to circumnavigate the earth, the first to do under a single commander, and he played a major role in aiding the English to displace the Spanish as the premier world power. (9)


#4 Vasco de Gama’s first voyage to India

Vasco de Gama’s fleet set sail from Lisbon on 8 July 1497. His fleet sailed out of sight of land for 3 months following the prevailing south west winds, to sail within six hundred miles of the Brazilian coast before catching the prevailing easterly winds -to the tip of Africa.

After reaching the southern extent of the Islamic controlled East African coast, De Gama successfully employed a local Indian navigator at Malindi (now in Kenya) to guide them- to the Malabar Coast of southern India.

After losing favor with the local Indian ruler, de Gama was forced to flee but managed to acquire enough goods to equal to sixty times the cost of the expedition.

The fleet returned to Portugal two years later with tremendous riches after traveling twenty four thousand miles. In a very short time after Vasco de Gama’s initial voyage, the tiny country of Portugal was able to break the grip of the Islamic trade domination in the Indian Ocean monopolize the spice trade themselves. (10)


#3 Lord Anson’s Voyage around the World

While at war with Spain, Anson’s fleet weighed anchor from St. Helen's England in September of 1740 with six warships, two supply ships and 1510 men.

The fleet rounded Cape Horn in freezing weather and hurricane force winds. Out of 1510 men, only an appalling 335 survived to reach the safety of Juan Fernandez Island some 600 miles off the coast of Chile. The Island was also where Alexander Selkirk (Robinson Crusoe) was marooned several years prior to Lord Anson’s visit. (11)

After raiding and plundering the port of Paita in present day Peru, Anson unsuccessfully attempted to intercept a Spanish Treasure galleon off the coast of Acapulco Mexico. Unable to return via Cape Horn, Anson decided to cross the Pacific with his two remaining ships by using secret Spanish maps he’d found on a Spanish ship.

After burning one of his ships Anson’s sole remaining ship (the Centurion) arrived in the Northern Mariana Island of Tinian three months later. In an unbelievable stroke of luck combined with brilliant naval gallantry, Anson was able to intercept a treasure Galleon leaving Manila with a crew that was outnumbered three to one by the Spanish. (12)

Returning home to England three years and nine months after his departure, Anson was hailed a great hero and his vast wealth of Spanish treasure was paraded through the streets of London. He was promoted to rear Admiral and later assumed the rank of Lord of the Admiralty.



#2 Magellan’s Circumnavigation of the World

Magellan’s fleet departed from Seville, Spain on September 20, 1519 to begin a three year voyage of incredible hardship with only 19 members out of 270 of the crew returning to tell the tale. A ghastly 93 percent attrition rate!

Obstacles Magellan had to overcome; eluding the Portuguese fleet, dealing with insurrection, violent storms, shipwrecks, freezing cold, starvation, and scurvy, along with underestimating the earth’s circumference by one third.

He was the first navigator to actually reach the Spice Islands by sailing west (Columbus tried), to name and cross the Pacific (incredibly without any charts); to find a passage through the tip of South America and his enterprise the first to circumnavigate the globe. (13)


#1 Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage to the New World

Columbus, through years of observation and research had the radical idea that the Far East could be reached more easily by sailing west. (14) On his visit to Bristol, England, Columbus heard tales about the old Viking colonies in Greenland and the lands farther west. He knew about the bodies of two exotic looking people (Inuit’s) that had washed up on a shore in the Azores, along with their kayak. This gave him confidence about the lands to be discovered in the west.

He also had observed that the prevailing Westerly winds would assist him in crossing the Atlantic off the Canary Islands (15) whereas he would be able to return by sailing northeast- to catch the prevailing Easterly winds.

What made Columbus’s first voyage so impressive is that he completed a round trip to the Americas into uncharted waters, without translators or local navigators to assist him. He had to sail five weeks out of sight of land to the New World- not knowing if he could ever return.

Even though Columbus never found a route to the Far East, he found an entirely new continent and his brave gamble had paved the way for European trade with and colonization of the New World.




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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 2 weeks ago

      I found this article fascinating. These are fantastic voyages of discovery. You mention Magellan underestimated the earth's circumference by 1/3. Columbus also underestimated the circumference of the earth. Were there 2 schools of though about the earth's size, one accurate and one way off?

    • profile image
      Author 2 weeks ago from upstate, NY

      Thanks, i'm honored that you think this article fascinating. It must have been surreal for Columbus and his crew to be the first Europeans to see the Caribbean Islands. Perhaps they had never seen tropical Islands like these before.

      To Underestimate the world's circumference by one third, is to underestimate by the approximate length of the entire Pacific ocean. I guess they had to learn the hard way!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 2 weeks ago

      It would be interesting to learn how the error was made.

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