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In Columbus' day, setting sail wasn't always smooth
by Larry Wilson
Oct 13, 2008 | 426 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Columbus Day has just passed for this year, but not many people appreciate the dangers and personal sacrifices Columbus and his crews had to endure in their voyages of discovery. For one, where they set off to, there were no maps or charts to follow. No European had ever been to the western hemisphere of our planet earth before Columbus. For that matter, there were very few maps and charts of the eastern hemisphere of this planet of ours either.

Having no knowledge of where they were going or what they would encounter on their voyage, Columbus and company had to plan for the provisions they should take on this true voyage of exploration. Long voyages were considered to be in the neighborhood of 90 days or so. This was the benchmark that Columbus planned for in supplying his ships. If the voyage lasted more than 90 days and they were unable to refresh their ships’ stores in that period of time, they were out of luck.

Provisions typically were the following: meat packed in salt brine; biscuits with no preservatives; beer, as it would keep better than plain water because it had alcohol in it and butter in casks. As time went on and the voyage grew longer, the meat would become a slimy mess, the biscuits would be full of weevils and the beer would leak from the casks. Sailors would have as much as a 3,000-calorie meal in the beginning of long voyages and would be virtually starving near the end. Scurvy, a disease brought on by a lack of vitamin C, was an occupational hazard for all crews. There are reports of sailors using their own knives to cut back their blackened gums from overgrowing their teeth due to the effects of scurvy.

All ships of the era suffered from infestations of rats. Rats would get on board ship when docked in port. Rats would eat into the ship’s stores and create a health hazard with their droppings. An additional mess was the casual sanitation practiced by the crew themselves. Their bathroom etiquette was not to be admired. Overall, sanitation on board ship was an interesting contrast with the ever refreshing sea breeze wafting over the ship above decks and the putrid aromas below decks coupled with the smoke from the cooking fire pit located amid ship.

Even after Columbus’ voyages, sailors were given instructions on how to get to the New World like this: Sail south ‘til the butter melts and then head due west. Imagine setting out on a voyage of discovery with instructions like that. Sailors in Columbus’ era were a savvy lot to be sure. When they looked for shore, there were signs in the ocean that they learned were truly signs a shoreline was near. The color of the ocean would change as they got closer to shore. Certain birds lived near coastlines. They looked for flotsam in the water as signs they were near shore. Flotsam would be brought out to sea by rivers emptying into the ocean. In some cases, sounds were a clue to an impending shoreline as they could hear waves crashing on coral reefs.

Columbus’ voyage of discovery was not merely an uneventful cruise ending with Columbus landing on a tranquil white beach all decked out in his ship’s captain’s finest, planting a beautiful flag in the soil claiming this land for the king and queen. His voyage and “discovery” was truly “one small step for mankind,” or at least some people would like to think that at least. Remember, the natives were here first, or does that matter any more?

Larry Wilson is a 50-year resident of Sparks and a retired elementary school teacher. You can contact him at
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