Phoenician Navigation

The Phoenicians were masters of sea travel covering great distances in their ships of trade and war. They were the first people to venture to the western Mediterranean and beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe. To accomplish these feats of seamanship, they had two systems of navigation.

The first was coastal navigation. They used this in short-haul voyages while trading between villages and towns along the coast, and was done while keeping the coast within sight. This was typically a daytime voyage between ports that were no more than 25 to 30 nautical miles apart, and when there were no problems with visibility or direction.

The second type of navigation was deep-sea navigation. This was used when the Phoenicians were sailing over open water to destinations that were very far from the port of departure. While they would also keep land in sight, they were much farther out in open water. When possible they liked to anchor safely for the night, but when unable to, they would maintain the right direction by observing the Ursa Minor constellation, called by ancient writers the “Phoenician Star” and now known as Polaris or the North Star. Most nights and during bad weather they chose to bring their ships in to protected areas along the coast. Commercial navigation on the Mediterranean took place almost totally between March and October when weather condition were best.