Mankind has been exploring, trading, migrating and colonising by sea for as long as we have had boats – at least an estimated 45,000 years. Sailing vessels have been around for some 7,000 years, helping the species populate and colonise every inhabitable continent, along with a myriad of islands. Most of the incredible stories are lost either in pre-history, or as a result of the tens of thousands of exploratory and trading vessels that were lost at sea. However, here’s a selection of some of the most important successful voyages…

1. Leif Erikson

While Christopher Columbus is widely thought to have been the first European to discover America when he landed on the Bahamian island of San Salvador in 1492, all the evidence points to this Icelandic voyager as having reached what is now Canada some 500 years earlier. He established settlements in a region called Vinland, encompassing parts of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Even then Erikson is unlikely to have been the first European to have seen the Americas. There are reports that other Norse voyagers found the continent a few years beforehand. Equally in the early sixth century St Brendan is widely reported to have discovered the Americas, having followed a similar northern route, as early as 512AD. While there’s no reliable evidence to indicate which lands the navigator called St Brendan’s Island, in the 1970s Tim Severin demonstrated that a similar leather clad boat could have reached Greenland and North America from Ireland.

historic sea voyages: The Matthew

The replica of the Matthew at sea off Ilfracombe, Devon. Photo: Mike Edwards/

2. The voyage of the Matthew

Columbus never visited the north American mainland, so the first European ship to do so was John Cabot's Matthew, which set sail from Bristol 1497 with a complement of just 20 men. On June 24 he landed in North America, most probably on the island of Newfoundland. He then explored the coast for a month, before returning to England in August. In doing so he became the first European to make landfall in what would become known as the Americas and discovered what would become the highly lucrative cod nurseries off the continent’s north-eastern coast.

A replica of the 24m long ship was launched in 1996 and completed a re-enactment of Cabot’s voyage to mark the 500th anniversary the following year. Find out more on the Matthew's website.

historic sea voyages

The Nao Victoria replica. Photo Rupert Holmes.

3. The first circumnavigation

Ferdinand Magellan set out from the Spanish city of Seville in 1519 in an attempt to discover the Spice Islands in modern day Indonesia. In doing so he also circumnavigated the globe, proving the Earth is round and establishing the existence of time zones.

Drake’s Passage, the 400 mile wide open water channel between Cape Horn and Antarctica, was yet to be discovered, so they explored a reputed route further north that would subsequently become known as the Magellan Straits. They became the first Europeans to sail through the straits, although Magellan lost one of his ships in a scouting mission and a second deserted back to Spain. Finding the route through to the Pacific Ocean was a huge achievement, without any charts and given this was more than 200 years before the advent of the sextant.

The fleet had initially comprised of five of ships, with some 250 crew from at least eight nations. However, after a further series of mishaps, just one vessel and 18 men returned at the end of the circumnavigation. Magellan was not among them, having been killed during a battle in 1521 in what is now the Philippines, after which Juan Sebastián Elcano took command of the vessel.

A replica of Magellan’s ship, the Nao Victoria was built for EXPO, the World Fair held in 1992 in Seville. The ship subsequently completed a 28,000 mile circumnavigation and is still in commission. At the time of writing the Nao Victoria is on a tour of the UK and Northern Europe during which she will be open to the public in Brixham, Weymouth, Poole (April and May 2017) and Plymouth (August). You can watch the video below and find out more here.


historic sea voyages: HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens

HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego (painted by Conrad Martens).

4. HMS Beagle

While the voyages of the Beagle are more often remembered for the discoveries of Charles Darwin that led to his theory of evolution, her main focus was a hydrographic survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, hence the naming of the Beagle Channel.

Given this was in the late 1820s it was a stunning feat of seamanship in an enormously hostile part of the globe. Even for today’s mariners this area and the coastline to the west – a massive lee shore deep in the Southern Ocean – is treated with trepidation. Imagine exploring those waters on a sailing ship with no engine, that won’t sail with the wind forward of the beam, and that doesn’t even have proper charts – while earlier explorers had recorded some details no proper surveys had been carried out. It’s a huge testament to the Beagle’s crew, led first by Captain Pringle Stokes and then Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy, that their work still forms much of the basis of the current cartography of the area.

historic sea voyages: Captain Blugh Mutiny on the Bounty

Captain Bligh's amazing feat of seamanship and navigation in a small boat after he was removed from the Bounty has recently been re-enacted for television. Photo: Channel 4.

5. Captain Bligh

The story of the Mutiny on the Bounty was by no means an exception. For instance, in the early stages of his circumnavigation Magellan had to quell a rebellion by three of his five captains. Nevertheless the Bounty story and that of Captain Bligh and his 18 supporters remains by far the best known. Their subsequent 4,000 mile voyage in a 23ft open boat, so dangerously loaded that it had only seven inches of freeboard and initially only five days’ food and water, is another superb example of seafaring.

This is another voyage that has been re-created, most recently as a TV series for the UK’s Channel 4. Find out more in our interview with Conrad Humphreys, the most experienced sailor on board.

historic sea voyages: Launching the James Caird 2

Launch of the James Caird from Elephant Island in 1916.

6. Shackleton

While many lives were lost at sea – or skirmishes onshore – during these amazing voyages, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story is a happier one. After HMS Endurance sank as the sea ice off Antarctica broke up in late 1915. Shackleton’s crew salvaged some lifeboats from the ship and lived a meagre existence on ice flows for months, before setting out 350 miles to the scant sanctuary offered by Elephant Island.

From there Shackleton and five others set out for the 800 mile voyage in a 20ft lifeboat across the Southern Ocean to the island of South Georgia to alert others to their predicament and organise a rescue party. In preparation for the voyage the boat was given a makeshift deck of wood and canvas, sealed with oil paint and seal blood, along with a strengthened keel and raised freeboard.

After arriving at the island after a 15 day voyage, they still had to cross the 1,500 metre high mountain range to reach the whaling station at Stromness on the northern shore of the island. The first three attempts at reaching Elephant Island with a rescue party were disrupted by sea ice, so it eventually took more than four months to reach the remaining survivors. See our story about a recent re-enactment of the voyage here.

Our feature 10 top seafaring superstitions for sailors and boaters may also interest you.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.