I was down at high rock lake N.C. and I was making a little map of the shore lines in my kayak, or at least going to. I ran into a problem, I could not judge the distance from the last mark I made to the next(needed to make a map).

So my question is how did people make maps of shores before modern times?.

Also did they make them on boats.

Also How can I tell how fast I'm going on a kayak?.

  • 2
    How can I tell how fast I'm going on a kayak? seems like a different question but I still gave +1 because this is a really interesting question. Jul 11, 2015 at 15:48
  • 1
    How fast am I going on a kayak should really be a different question.
    – Aravona
    Jul 12, 2015 at 6:14

2 Answers 2


The topics of navigation and cartography are two sides of the same coin, and there are entire books written about each. It is interesting to study the history of cartography because it very graphically shows the corresponding improvements in navigation over time.

In order to make an accurate map, you need to know first where you are making your observations from. Making the observations from a previously known position will result in much greater accuracy. This position may have been established by an earlier survey (eg, working from a known point on an existing map) or by being able to independently figure out your position with good certainty on the position of the globe.

Prior to the mid-1700's, the primary means of navigation was dead reckoning (DR). This requires that you iteratively advance your position on the map from your last known position using direction and time/distance. Of course, over time, errors will compound resulting in reduced accuracy. You must have a way of measuring your direction of travel and a (somewhat) accurate value for your speed.

Later in the 1700's, it was possible to navigate more accurately using celestial navigation. This allowed a skilled navigator to determine his position rather accurately (typically within a few miles) at any point on the globe. The position was typically found once each day and advanced using DR as necessary.

Today, we have GPS.

Measuring distance north and south is considerably more easy than measuring distance east and west. Lines of latitude are evenly spaced, where lines of longitude are not. In the northern hemisphere, latitude can be measured by finding the elevation of Polaris above the horizon.

Conversely, lines of longitude converge at the poles resulting in variable distance. Measuring longitude is very tricky, though there is a great book called "Longitude" (Dava Sobel) which covers the topic (and its solution) exceptionally well.

You will note in many older maps, distances north and south are quite accurate where distances east and west are often distorted.

To your immediate concern - mapping a shoreline - I would recommend using a GPS receiver (modern equivalent of celestial navigation) to record your position at the moment you are making your observations. In making your observations, use a cruiser compass, which allows you to shoot relatively accurate bearings from your position. Record the bearings to several reference points over a couple of observations, and you will be able to triangulate them accurately on paper. From these triangulated points, you will have to interpolate the coastline between the points.

I did a lot of navigation in the Navy, and this technique is the converse of what is known as "piloting". With piloting, you are determining your location using bearings from reference points on accurate maps. Here, we are using the bearing to objects to determine position of points along the coastline. Still, it works much the same way.

Maps - especially of shorelines - were almost certainly made from observations taken from boats. Naval navigation is much more accurate than navigation on land (especially without good maps!).

You give a nod to the problem of dead reckoning in your question regarding the determination of speed. I don't kayak, but I do hike, and I have found that over time, things average out. I can't say what my hiking speed is at any instant, but I can say that I average about 2.8 miles per hour over the course of several hours.

If you are interested in this topic, I'd recommend you pick up a copy of Dutton's Navigation and Piloting. This is a text book used to teach navigators, and is perhaps the authority on the topic. The older versions (older than mid-1980s) are especially interesting since they still include some information on celestial navigation. My copy is from 1969.

I'd also recommend Barefoot Navigator (Jack Lagan) which covers the navigation skills of the "ancient" cultures.

"Finding Your Way Without Map and Compass" (Harold Gatty) is another fine book. The author was a navigator (both naval and aviator), so he has some interesting takes on navigation.

Finally, "Longitude" (Dava Sobel) is a fantastic read about solving the problem of longitude.

  • The difficulty in measuring east to west isn't due to the lines of longitude converging at the poles, that is easily accounted for and latitude is easy to measure. The problem was because determining longitude was hard because the earth is spinning. It wasn't until the 1730s there were accurate enough clocks to measure longitude reliably. Jul 12, 2015 at 0:35
  • You're absolutely correct. It is a simple cosine operation to determine the longitude scale at a given line of latitude. Both latitude and cosine are easy to calculate. This gives only "scale", though. Longitude is tricky for other reasons, so my answer could have been more clear -- sorry.
    – Jeff W
    Jul 12, 2015 at 12:08

One of the primary techniques is the use of Dead Reckoning although the secrets of long distance Polynesian maritime navigation still remain a mystery despite huge evidence of their wayfinding ability.

The easiest way for maritime navigators to map locations was to build on the predecessors knowledge through the use of the Periplus. It served the same purpose as the later Roman itinerarium of road stops; however, the Greek navigators added various notes, which if they were professional geographers (as many were) became part of their own additions to Greek geography. In that sense the periplus was a type of log.

Henry Davis has a large presentation about the History of Cartography and Slide 19 details that

Idrisi fused elements from East and West with Arab knowledge to produce a world-picture. He was critical of traditional sources (even though he squeezed his map into a climate-zone framework) and he gathered much of the data for his map not only from contemporary lore and explorers' reports, but also from charts or from books of sailing instructions the Greeks called Periploi (these charts dated back to a mariner named Scylax, who kept a periplus, or record, of his voyage around the Mediterranean in about 350 B.C.). Idrisi's map of 1154 took the form of a silver tablet, probably measuring 3.5 X 1.5 meters (12 X 5 feet); later, in 1160, this tablet fell into the hands of a mob and was smashed to pieces. In 1154, a few weeks before Roger's death, manuscripts of the book in Latin and Arabic were completed, together with the rectangular map, which was drawn on 70 sheets, along with a small circular world map. Roger named this book Nuzhat al-Mushtak, however the author named it Kitab Rudjar, i.e.,The Book of Roger, and the map, Tabula Rogeriana.

Although I cannot answer your question fully I would direct your attention to theFra Mauro from 1450 by the mapmaker of the same name who authored it primarily from first hand accounts he took from travellers and merchants returning to Venice.

Curiously several maps have led to unexplained or certainly interesting thought exercises by their nature. For instance; the Peri-Reis Map arguably shows large swathes of a non-ice covered Antartica, amazing considering the map was compiled in 1513...

Several authors have argued the Peri-Reis map as evidence of human technological advancement by cultures prior to those we currently have documented (Egyptian, Greek, Aztec etc) and/or enlightenment from external visitors to earth since, as you raise in your question, how could maps of such detail and breadth possibly exist given the state of human knowledge and exploration...


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