Sunday, December 05, 2004

Crow's Nest

So, the crow’s nest is so named because Viking navigator’s used to release crows in periods of low visibility and plot their course – the crows supposedly always went towards land. Since the cage the crows were kept in was high on the mast the lookout position that developed later was named after it.

Except, how do the crows find land if visibility is poor? Also, wouldn’t the crow disappear quite quickly in low visibility conditions giving you only a very poor estimate of direction? Why keep the crows on the mast where feeding and keeping them warm is difficult, they could just as easily be released from the deck? Is there something wrong with me that I ask these basic questions but others do not?

Contrary to my initial expectations, crows are native to Iceland, Greenland, and other Scandinavian type countries – the raven (For the rare and radiant maiden whom angels named Lenore) probably being the most familiar type.

Yet if the Vikings were dependent upon crows for low visibility navigation how were they able to maintain links with widely separated permanent settlements in the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland? The North Sea area is known for its fogs (especially in winter) so these guys must have carried a lot of birds with them. Also why do none of the Viking sagas record the usage of crows in this manner? They are incredibly descriptive when it comes to other means of measuring time, distance, and position. Other sources are available that demonstrate the huge knowledge base they had.

  • Short inserts in various manuscripts of the imported scholarly texts talking about independent observations on calendars, solar motion and navigation.
  • Manuscripts intended to educate the reader on various matters of practical value, For example - the Norwegian King’s Mirror contains sections on astronomy, time reckoning, and tides.
  • In Denmark and Norway ships and sailing gear have been excavated. Replicas based on the excavated material have been constructed and tested – data on seaworthiness and speed have matched that found in the older texts..

The reality is that the Vikings didn’t need birds any more than their contemporaries did (a lot less actually). They relied on several centuries’ worth of theoretical knowledge and practical experience in sailing to maintain a nation in a time when their contemporaries were hard pressed to sail out of sight of land.

So why is it called a crow’s nest? Its most likely because the lookout position is a high roost, perhaps even where birds landed on occasion and, as the saying goes, if a person only knows of three types of birds, one of them will be a crow.

Origins of Naval Terminology Question Authority


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