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Having fled under haste, from a near assassination in Crete, a storm catches up with my naval crew.

The sky is overcast, meaning no stars and an accident results in the loss of their compass. Is my naval crew truly lost at sea?

Edit: Naval crew has to travel across the Mediterranean sea, from Crete to Carthage.

Period is 100 to 140 B.C.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Dec 3, 2019 at 1:33

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You're not lost, you're just not entirely sure where you are. That's OK though, because if you are in the "ancient mediterranean", sailing to Carthage (destroyed in 146BC by the Romans), then you wouldn't really have known where you were in the first place. You're over a thousand years too early for a compass or a kamal, >1500 years too early for an mariner's astrolabe or sunstone, >1800 years too early for a reflecting instrument (the precusors to the sextant) or even a log to measure your speed and >2000 years too early for a marine chronometer. I've no idea what it was that you think you threw overboard. Are you some kind of time traveller? I'd have hoped you'd be better equipped and more sensible in that case, but never mind. Honestly, the best sort of instrument you'll have to hand will probably be a sounding line which won't be of too much help.

Mariners of that period could only navigate by sun, moon, stars and coastal landmarks and only the latter can really tell you where you are. Sure, these don't all work very well in a storm, but as you failed to flee to shelter you'll just have to weather it out.

At least in the mediterranean you can't go too far without hitting land, though you may of course hit the land a bit harder than you'd really like, and it might be very very hospitable and the locals might be unfriendly but that's just life. Eventually you'll find some suitable astronomical bodies to at least get yourself oriented, and you'll eventually hit some land, and you can follow the coast in an appropriate direction until you find a landmark or at least some kind of port.

Be a little more cautious next time.

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    $\begingroup$ 'because if you are in the "ancient mediterranean", sailing to Carthage, then you wouldn't really have known where you were in the first place.' I was using that as a reference. 'You're over a thousand years too early for a compass or a kamal, >1500 years too early for an mariner's astrolabe or sunstone, >1800 years too early for a reflecting instrument (the precusors to the sextant) or even a log to measure your speed and >2000 years too early for a marine chronometer'. Good to know. 'I've no idea what it was that you think you threw overboard.' Shouldn't be too hard. Lighter boat=no sinking $\endgroup$
    – user70311
    Nov 30, 2019 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't really matter what was thrown off, as long as the vessel is somewhat lighter. $\endgroup$
    – user70311
    Nov 30, 2019 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @ChagatNahn oh sure, I was just making a passing reference to the bit of the question suggesting that a timepiece or compass was thrown overboard, which clearly wouldn't have been the case ;-) $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2019 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I do have some slow-wits aboard the vessel. $\endgroup$
    – user70311
    Nov 30, 2019 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas it is also one of the places where the sounding line will give you useful navigational information, too. "Captain! We're up that creek again!" $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2019 at 18:12
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By modern standards, yes you are lost at sea, but that's only because modern people expect to know exactly where they are at all times.

Historically there are only certain times when you would know where you are, and in between those moments you're on best estimate from last known location plus speed and course. They were however quite good at that, they had to be to get anywhere.

You're sailing from Crete to Carthage, that means you want to go west. Since you don't have a compass you're just sailing until dawn, at dawn you will know where west is. That's all you have, but that's all you need. It won't be the most efficient course as you're sailing blind at night, but you'll get there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is it not possible to sail off course? $\endgroup$
    – user70311
    Nov 30, 2019 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ yes but you have food and pack extra so at worse, they wait until dawn and go from there. $\endgroup$
    – WindWelder
    Nov 30, 2019 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ If you get of course you either end up in sicily or down the tunisian coast. The captain (or some experienced crewmember) will recognize where they are or there will be villages where you can ask the local fishermen. Might take a few extra days but such is life on the high sea. $\endgroup$
    – Borgh
    Nov 30, 2019 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ Your journey taking a few days or even weeks longer than anticipated is less "a sudden crisis" and more "your life as a Classical Mediterranean sailor". You'll have packed for such an occasion, hopefully. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Nov 30, 2019 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence, you just write a book about that time it took you 10 years to sail from Turkey to Greece $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Nov 30, 2019 at 15:28
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No, because they can use their log to get an approximate position by dead reckoning from their last known position. Then they can wait until noon to confirm their latitude, and also their longitude if they have an accurate timepiece.

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  • $\begingroup$ Accurate timepiece? Please elaborate. $\endgroup$
    – user70311
    Nov 30, 2019 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ChagatNahn If you know when it’s noon at the zero meridian, and when it’s noon at your current position, then you can determine your longitude. A sextant lets you determine when it’s noon where you are, and an accurate timepiece let’s you determine when it’s noon at the zero meridian. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Nov 30, 2019 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeScott In the relevant time period it was hard to measure time accurately on land. Accurate time measurement at sea was an important unsolved problem into the mid 18th century. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2019 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan I answered before the edit to add the time period to the question. Which shouldn’t have happened, because the rules here are that you can’t edit a question if it invalidates an existing answer. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Dec 1, 2019 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeScott I realize this question is a moving target. $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2019 at 6:43
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As pointed out previously, the crew would not have used a compass anyway, and would be used to navigating in cloudy conditions. Also, remember how slowly they are travelling. It's only going to be a few hours , and hence a few miles before the sun comes up. They'll probably still be able to see the Cretan shore, and they will know where East is and hence their bearing and probable location.

BTW, do you know what naval charts looked like then anyway...? Not like modern ones!

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  • $\begingroup$ An astrolabe dates back to ancient Greece, when it was used by astronomers and mariners to help tell time and location. A chip log was used and an early speedometer. A line (rope) containing knots at regular intervals and a weight was dropped overboard and dragged through the water as the ship was underway. A sailor would count the number of knots that went out over a specific period of time and the ship's speed could then be calculated. Weren't sea charts back then only developed after the invention of the compass? Remember, I'm a complete novice :) $\endgroup$
    – user70311
    Nov 30, 2019 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ It's all about following the coast -- gutenberg.org/files/44175/44175-h/44175-h.htm $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2019 at 19:00
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No, watch Disney's Moana. Wind, scent, water temperature, currents, memory, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think you would need to know, or at least have someone who knew, how to identify and read these kinds of differences before you get lost. Once you're lost (not having the knowledge prepared), you can find some differences but wouldn't know when they mean. Even in that movie, if I recall, the knowledge was not only cultural but a matter of specific training within the culture. $\endgroup$
    – Megha
    Dec 13, 2019 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely, but the question is about timepieces and stars. Currents, wind, etc. will still exist. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2019 at 11:03

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