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Lost at Sea

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Tools of the Trade

Shakespeare for Kids

Willem Janszoon Blaeu. Terrestrial Globe. 1602. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Sailors used many kinds of tools to help them find their way across the ocean.


These tools included:

  • An astrolabe. Sailors could use astrolabes to measure the position of the sun, moon, or stars and find out their latitute, or distance north or south of the equator.
  • A compass. Compasses have a needle that points north. The needle responds to the earth's magnetic field. Compasses helped sailors know which direction they were moving in. 
  • An hourglass. An hourglass was filled with sand. As the grains dropped from one side of the glass to the other, sailors could measure time.
  • Sails. Ships moved through the water as the wind pushed against their sails. Sailors did not want to be in a place where there was no wind! Getting stuck on the ocean was called "becalmed."
Ship model of The Sovereign of the Seas.

Mariner's astrolabe. Replica of an instrument from Valencia, ca. 16th-17th century

Did you know?

The food on ships often did not have enough vitamins and nutrients in it. Sailors could get sick. One common disease was scurvy. Doctors figured out that citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes could keep sailors from getting scurvy. British sailors were given limes to eat, and were sometimes called limeys.

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