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10 Remarkable Sea Voyagers

Mark Mancini
Aerial view of Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii's Big Island, where sea voyager James Cook met his end
Aerial view of Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii's Big Island, where sea voyager James Cook met his end / phdpsx/iStock via Getty Images
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Today, most governments and geographers acknowledge five named oceans. You’ve got the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian, the Arctic, and the Southern. Like five fingers on the same hand, they’re all part of the unified World Ocean, covering 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. And since ancient times, people have made a name for themselves by exploring it. These are the chronicles of 10 memorable sea voyagers, from globetrotting travel writers to a modern-day wayfinder.

1. Pytheas // 4th Century BCE

A Greek adventurer born in what’s now Marseille, France, Pytheas is a much-debated figure. He claimed to have sailed around the British Isles in the year 325 BCE or so. He may have also visited Iceland and traveled above the Arctic Circle, which, if true, might have made him the first European adventurer to write about witnessing the sun shine at midnight during the polar summer.

Pytheas recorded his experiences in a book called On the Ocean that, as far as we know, doesn’t exist anymore. No copies have survived; all we have to go on are the writings of ancient authors who referenced the original text. Some of them had their doubts about Pytheas’s claims, and the actual route he took is a mystery. 

2. Leif Erikson // 10th Century

There’s a good chance the Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the first European who ever set foot in North America. His exploits are retold in two of the Icelandic Sagas, a set of historical volumes written a couple centuries later and thought to be based on oral tradition. Erikson was the son of Greenland’s original settler, Erik the Red, and he either landed in eastern Canada by mistake or went there on purpose after hearing the testimony of a sailor who’d seen it in passing.

Erikson didn’t stay in North America for long, but he likely left his mark. Archaeologists in Newfoundland, Canada, found the remains of a Nordic settlement, dated between 930 and 1030 CE, that match descriptions in the sagas. 

3. Ibn Battuta // 14th Century

A 19th-century illustration of Ibn Batutta's travels
A 19th-century illustration of Ibn Battuta's travels / Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Beginning in 1325, Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta began his epic wanderings across Dar al-Islam (the Muslim world). Over several expeditions by land and sea, he traveled in modern-day Mali in west Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula, present-day Russia, India, Southeast Asia, and China. He once sailed down the coast of East Africa on a type of ship called a dhow and traversed the Indian Ocean from Arabia to present-day Myanmar to Indonesia. He also had a nauseating jaunt across the Red Sea. 

In 1354, the sultan of Morocco ordered Ibn Battuta to dictate a book about his experiences. Popularly called the Rihla (which means “voyage” in Arabic), it retells his lifetime of adventure through 44 modern-day countries.

4. Zheng He // 15th Century

Leading a fleet of 300 ships, packed with a combined 28,000 people, would be an amazing feat in any era. The Muslim mariner Zheng He did it more than 50 years before Christopher Columbus made it across the Atlantic. Zheng He (born Ma He circa 1371) was captured at age 10 by Ming Dynasty soldiers and rose through the ranks as a member of the emperor Yongle’s court. After securing the ruler’s trust, Zheng He was asked to preside over seven great diplomatic voyages to assert China’s maritime power.

The first of those trips, each lasting about three years, began in 1405 and the last wrapped up in 1433. During his expeditions, Zheng He established key trade routes across the Indian Ocean, from east Africa to India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and collected many tributes for China. All the while, he commanded tens of thousands of people. Exotic animals like elephants and giraffes were sometimes brought along for the ride.   

5. Ferdinand Magellan // 16th Century

Ferdinand Magellan's voyage around the world
A 19th-century postcard shows a fanciful scene in Magellan's circumnavigational voyage. / Culture Club/Getty Images

Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan orchestrated the first successful circumnavigation of the globe. Yet he personally didn’t live to see it through.

The voyage launched from Spain in 1519, tasked with scouting a western route (across the Atlantic) to the Spice Islands in modern-day eastern Indonesia. Under Magellan’s leadership, the crew sailed below the southernmost tip of the Americas, through a turbulent, ice-choked waterway now called the Strait of Magellan.

Upon exiting the strait, the group entered another ocean where the waters seemed nice and calm. So Magellan named it the Pacific, a synonym for “peaceful.” Partway through the journey, Magellan lost his life during a skirmish in what’s now the Philippines. But the surviving crew successfully completed its long, hard voyage around the world.

6. Jeanne Baret // 18th Century

Jeanne Baret succeeded where Magellan failed, becoming the first known woman to sail all the way around the world. Her circumnavigation of the planet started in 1766, when she boarded the French naval ship Étoile disguised as a man. Her plan was to accompany naturalist Philibert Commerson (who was also her boyfriend) and serve as a botanist on Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s voyage to Asia.

A royal ordinance at the time barred women from French naval vessels, but Commerson sidestepped the rule by passing her off as a young male assistant. The two scientists used this once-in-a-lifetime chance to gather exotic plant samples. At some point, Baret’s secret was revealed; she and Commerson later left the expedition early to begin a new life on the island of Mauritius. After his death in 1773, Baret married and returned to France within the next two years. By doing so, Baretcompleted her journey across the full length of the earth. 

7. James Cook // 18th Century

A farmhand’s son turned British naval captain, James Cook is best remembered for leading three lengthy voyages of discovery through the Pacific Ocean. The last one claimed his life. Following his service in the Seven Years’ War, Cook charted New Zealand, logged the first recorded crossing of the Antarctic Circle, visited the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and braved Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. (Cook is often credited as the first European to visit Australia, but that’s not true.)

It was during the third of these signature voyages that Cook met his demise. A series of tense meetings with Hawaiians on the western coast of the Big Island turned deadly. We’ll probably never know the full context of that incident, but we do know a group of Hawaiians killed Cook on February 14, 1779 near Kealakekua Bay.

8. Ida Pfeiffer // 19th Century

Photograph of Ida Pfeiffer
Ida Pfeiffer, world-traveling widow / Jean-Marc Nattier, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Widowed in 1838, this Austrian mother of two was 41 years old when she embarked on the first of many international adventures. By the time she died in 1858, her traveler’s resume included a voyage around Africa’s Cape Horn and a transpacific visit to Tahiti, where Pfeiffer was introduced to its queen.

Pfeiffer watched the geysers of Iceland, joined an Indian tiger hunt, tried to cross the Andes before a Peruvian revolution changed her plans, and discovered an insect new to science. Oh, and lest we forget, she circumnavigated the globe—twice. Somehow, she also found the time to write multiple books about her travels.

9. Michael Healy // 19th Century

Michael “Hell Roaring Mike” Healy, the son of an Irish plantation owner and an enslaved Black or biracial woman, is recognized as the first person of African descent to command a U.S. federal ship.

Born in Georgia in 1839, Healy grew up in Massachusetts and served as a merchant mariner. He was admitted to the U.S. Treasury’s Revenue Cutter Service, which enforced customs laws at sea, by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The commission brought him from the east coast around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Between 1868 and 1896, Healy patrolled the coastal waters of Alaska, often in cold, foggy, windy conditions; he also commanded the annual Bering Sea Patrol, covering 15,000 to 20,000 miles at sea each time. The trusty Coast Guard cutter Healy, a state-of-the-art polar icebreaker, is named after the famous mariner.

10. Nainoa Thompson // 21st Century

About 1500 years ago, Hawaii’s original settlers navigated the Pacific by using the stars, winds, waves, and other natural phenomena. The long-distance wayfinding methods that took them from the South Pacific to the Hawaiian islands fell into disuse over time, which makes the career of the Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson all the more remarkable.

Thompson used these ancient navigation techniques—and nothing else—to lead a double-hulled voyaging canoe named Hōkūle’a all the way from Hawaii to Tahiti and back in 1980, under the mentorship of traditional navigator Mau Piailug. The expedition was part of an effort to rescue this cultural heritage and pass on the traditions to the next generation.

Before the decade’s end, he directed the Hōkūle’a on an even more ambitious, two-way journey between his Hawaii and New Zealand, a round-trip distance of over 16,000 nautical miles. Thompson continues to lead Hōkūle’a’s worldwide voyages.

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