Before beginning the research for this work, I had planned on producing a paper and presentation which detailed the history of open sea navigation and the difficulties and dangers which would have faced sailors and seamen during the Age of Discovery. My premise was that we, living in the twentifirst century, had lost touch with the reality of just how hazardous a voyage such as that undertaken by Columbus was. I had hoped to be able to capture for the listener and reader a sense of wonder at the bold willingness to risk life and limb that was demonstrated by the explorers of this era as they left the safety of the waters and oceans that they knew, to challenge the unknown. I had wanted to capture that feeling of stomach-dropping fear that I believed these brave men must have experienced as the headlands they were leaving slipped out of sight below the horizon, possibly never to be seen again. Had I been successful in writing such a paper, I would have succeeded not in exploring history, but rather in producing fiction.
Although Columbus certainly deserves recognition as being the one to truly open the way to the New World for Renaissance Europe, and all that was to follow, he was not the high-stakes risk taker that some historians would have us believe. However, neither was he the bumbling quixotic figure presented by those who, for their own reasons, attempt to present him as some sort of insane idiot, or, at best, an extremely lucky savant. What is true about Christopher Columbus is that, for the times in which he lived, he was a well read and learned geographer. Columbus was a student of navigation and sailing, and as such, his understanding of the world in which he lived was based on works previously completed by others. Given this, it begins to become apparent that although the contributions he made as an active participant in the Age of Discovery should not be minimized, he was not a leader in the development of navigation as a science, nor did he contribute any new knowledge to this field. Columbus’ voyage to the West was a risk only in the sense that all sea voyages undertaken at this time placed those sailing at the mercy of the winds, the waves, and the weather, with the added possibility that either pirates or Muslims would be encountered. Navigation, and the navigator's understanding of the world, had by this time developed to the point where Columbus was not stepping blindly into the abyss, but rather was choosing a course of action based on what was believed to be sure knowledge.
The histories of navigation and sailing are intertwined in such a way that for the purpose of this study they cannot be separated. Also a part of this story are what I believe to be some intriguing possibilities regarding the peopling of the Americas and the rise of Native American civilizations.
No one knows for certain either where, or when, man first began using floatation as a method of dealing with the rivers,...