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The United States Coast Pilot

The United States Coast Pilot – A Short History


Captain Albert E. Theberge, NOAA Corps (ret.)

NOAA Central Library

The United States Coast Pilots, as we know them today, have descended from the oldest of navigational documents, the peripli of the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. These documents described in geographic order the ports and coastal landmarks that a seafarer could expect to encounter along a given shore. Although it is claimed that the Phoenicians had written sailing directions as early as 1000 B.C., the oldest known periplus is the Periplus of Hanno the Navigator who described the coast of Africa from Morocco to the Gulf of Guinea in the Sixth Century B.C. The Greeks and Romans developed their own peripli of the Mediterranean Sea. The limits of the classical world were expanded in the second Century A.D. with the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea which described the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea as far as the Ganges River .

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, much geographic and nautical knowledge was lost until the late Thirteenth and early Fourteenth Century when sailing directions again reappeared under the names routiers (French), rutters (English and Dutch), roteiros by the Portuguese, and portolani (Italian). An early portolano for the Mediterranean Sea, Lo Compasso da Navigare, was published in Genoa in 1296. Perhaps inspired by the written sailing directions, portolan charts appeared at virtually the same time as an adjunct to the written sailing directions. Portolans were remarkable insomuch as they are among the first maps to present a rational view of a portion of the surface of the earth. They were a milestone in the road from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. Relative to earlier maps, they were accurate in both depicting the dimensions and outlines of the coastline given the available navigational tools of the era. The earliest portolans were primarily concerned with the Mediterranean ; but, as the Age of Exploration progressed, geographic knowledge increased exponentially and soon portolan style charts covered the ever-expanding limits of the known world.

In 1584, a new type of pilot book with accompanying charts appeared. An obscure Dutchman, Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer, invented the modern nautical chart complete with depths, views of the coast as seen from offshore, aids to navigation, and significant features as seen from the sea. This pilot book with accompanying charts, Spieghel der Zeevaerdt (The Mirror of the Sea) , was revolutionary. Prior to its publication the written coast pilots were the primary aids to navigators and the portolan charts were considered supplementary information. After the publication of Waghenaer’s atlas of charts, the chart and the written material of a pilot guide became of equal importance. Often they were combined with sailing directions and other information of use to mariners printed on the chart. Waghenaer was remembered for many years afterwards by inventing the term waggoner as a synonym for pilot guide.

Over the next 250 years, numerous atlases of charts with accompanying pilot books were published. Notable among them were Robert Dudley’s “Sei Libri Dell' Arcano del Mare” (Six Books of the Secret of the Sea) published in 1646. For North America, the English Pilot covering Hudson’s Bay to the West Indies first published in 1671; the North American Pilot featuring charts of Newfoundland and Labrador by Captain James Cook and charts by John Gascoigne for the eastern seaboard of the future United States published in 1777; the Atlantic Neptune of Joseph Des Barres, first published in the 1770’s and early 1780’s; and Norman’s American Pilot first published in 1791 were among the various pilot guides available to the mariner. Most of these pilot guides were large publications issued in atlas format with sailing directions and other information for the mariner interspersed between charts or appearing on the charts. All of the Eighteenth Century pilot guides of the American coast listed above had one thing in common – they were published in England .

This situation changed in 1796 when Edmund M. Blunt, a bookseller and publisher who sold his wares at the “Sign of the Bible” in Newburyport, Massachusetts, published the first edition of “ The American Coast Pilot.” The author of this work was nominally Captain Lawrence Furlong, a prominent Massachusetts ship captain; but, in fact, Blunt was the primary author and used Furlong’s name to gain credibility for his work. Blunt also had no qualms of conscience about plagiarizing parts of various English works but on the whole it was an improvement over the earlier English pilot guides. Also, Blunt produced a small format work that had no charts but instead reverted to the older method of relying completely on verbal descriptions of sailing directions, tide tables, tables of latitudes and longitudes of principal harbors and navigational landmarks, and, particularly in later editions, information such as maritime law, tariff regulations, and custom house procedures. Chartlets of various harbors and sections of the coast were also included in later editions. Almost immediately, the American Coast Pilot became one of the most popular pilot guides for use by both American and foreign seamen.

A second edition followed in 1798 that doubled in size (119 pages to 239 pages) from the first edition. Blunt also began expanding his maritime business and in 1799 published The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch. Edmund March Blunt had launched himself as the premier publisher of nautical books in the United States and his publishing business would soon include the production and selling of nautical charts and the selling, manufacture, and repair of nautical instruments. By 1800 his business stood under the “Sign of the Bible and Quadrant”. In 1811, following a fire that destroyed much of his establishment, Edmund March Blunt moved his business and family to New York City and began business anew under the “Sign of the Quadrant.”

Ultimately, the Blunt family would produce 21 editions of The American Coast Pilot. Before doing so, a unique alliance sprung up between the Blunt publishing and nautical supply dynasty and the United States Coast Survey. Although the Coast Survey had its birth in the law of 1807 authorizing its formation, it was not until the early 1830’s that it actually began conducting nautical surveys. In July, 1833, Edmund Blunt the Younger accepted a position under Ferdinand Hassler on the Coast Survey. Until his death in 1866, Edmund remained affiliated with both the Coast Survey and his family business. Following the death of Ferdinand Hassler in 1843, Alexander Dallas Bache became Superintendent of the Coast Survey and the partnership between the Coast Survey and the Blunt’s blossomed. The “Sign of the Quadrant” virtually became the New York headquarters of the Coast Survey. Sailing directions obtained as part of the on-going hydrographic survey operations of the Coast Survey were incorporated into new editions of the American Coast Pilot; new editions of Coast Survey charts were sold at the Blunt establishment; and most importantly for the Coast Survey, George Blunt became a staunch political ally and represented and defended Coast Survey interests for the next quarter of a century.

During this time, the Coast Survey did not abdicate its responsibilities relative to publishing sailing directions, providing notices of dangers to navigation, and providing general pilot information to mariners sailing in United States waters. The primary means of disseminating this information was through publication in local newspapers. This method had obvious drawbacks as a means of communicating with the seafarers sailing into our harbors and along our shores. However, at least one famous instance occurred while Ferdinand Hassler was superintendent. The Gedney Channel was discovered as a result of Coast Survey work in the mid-1830’s which greatly facilitated both sailing into and out of New York Harbor . This discovery was advertised in the New York newspapers and was a major factor in securing New York ’s pre-eminent status as the leading seaport of the United States . Besides the newspapers, information related to sailing directions, dangers to navigation, aids to navigation, and other topics within the purview of a Coast Pilot were published in the appendices of the Annual Reports of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey for many years during the mid- to late-Nineteenth Century.

To George Davidson went the honor of producing the first Coast Pilot published under the auspices of the Coast Survey. In 1858 he refined an article that he had written for the San Francisco newspapers and published it as Appendix 44 of the Superintendent’s Report for 1858. Appendix 44 was entitled “Directory of the Pacific Coast of the United States .” (See NOAA Central Library for a full discussion of the Directory of the Pacific Coast .) This document was revised and published in 1862 as Appendix 39 of the Annual Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey and also issued as a stand-alone publication. Subsequent to the publication of the revised version of the Directory of the Pacific Coast, the Civil War broke out and the Coast Survey made a major contribution to the efficiency of the Union blockading squadrons by issuing a series of Notes on the Coast extending from Delaware Bay to Mississippi Sound on the Gulf Coast. These notes were essentially coast pilots for the blockading squadrons.

Following the war, George W. Blunt sold the rights to the American Coast Pilot to the Coast Survey for $20,000 in 1867. In truth, the purchase of the rights did little for the Coast Survey as there was little in the purchased documents that were not already public property. However, the United States and the Coast Survey were indebted to the Blunt family for seventy years of producing the American Coast Pilot as well as being a major force in helping make the shores of our Nation safe for the mariners of the world. Edmund Blunt the Younger had died the year before in the service of the Coast Survey and was at that time first among the field assistants of the Survey. The “Sign of the Quadrant” was fading and would cease to exist after 1871. The Coast Survey and the Blunt family had forged a strong alliance, one that was profitable to both; but more importantly, their alliance and friendship was beneficial to the maritime interests of our Nation. Within the next twenty years the Coast Survey would cover our navigable marine waters with Coast Pilots from Passamaquoddy Bay , Maine , to Brownsville , Texas , on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts; develop pilot guides for Alaskan waters; and revise the pilot guides from San Diego to the Canadian border.

The Coast Pilot of Alaska , (First Part), From Southern Boundary to Cook’s Inlet by George Davidson was published in 1869. This work reflected his cruise on the Revenue Cutter LINCOLN which resulted in a report that influenced Congress during debates concerning the purchase of Alaska . Davidson continued his interest in Coast Pilot work culminating in his 1889 edition of Pacific Coast . Coast Pilot for California, Oregon, and Washington . This work is one of the great geographic works of the Nineteenth Century and encompasses the history of discovery and comments on the geography of the western coast of the United States as well as the usual material associated with a coast pilot. For the Atlantic Coast , the forerunner of the United States Coast Pilot series was published in 1874 as Coast-pilot for the Atlantic sea-board : Gulf of Maine and its coast from Eastport to Boston 1874 which was authored by John Service Bradford. The strategy of the Coast Survey in publishing the Coast Pilots was to break the coast into manageable sections and provide highly detailed information for each of the sections. This strategy has been followed to the present day.

The series title starting with United States Coast Pilot made its first appearance in 1888. The first section published under this new series was United States coast pilot. Atlantic Coast, Part IV, Long Island Sound, with approaches and adjacent waters. Oddly, the series title United States Coast Pilot was only used with Atlantic and Gulf Coast Sections and it was not until approximately 30 years later that all Coast and Geodetic Survey Coast Pilots came under the same series title.

The mariner of today relies on the United States Coast Pilot for all sections of the United States coastline. The basic information has remained the same through the years – hazards to navigation, sailing directions, descriptions of prominent landmarks, and other information provided to help assure the safety of ships transiting the marine waters and navigable lakes of the United States . Coast pilots, from the days of the Phoenicians to the modern mariner sailing 1,000-foot containerships and even larger tankers, have been and remain a crucial tool for the mariner making landfall, transiting a nation’s coastline, or entering its harbors. As long as mariners sail the seas of the world, coast pilots will help guide their way.

Please send questions and comments to: coast.pilot@noaa.gov

Feb 19, 2016

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