Since ancient times, ocean-going explorers have relied on three things: experience, sturdy vessels and knowledge of the stars. Expeditions of the 18th century travelled great distances and followed courses that took them around the globe. Sailors used a mixture of seafaring traditions, philosophical thought and modern scientific developments to help them. Their ships needed to be seaworthy and versatile enough to meet with conditions ranging from tropical storms to Arctic ice. Flexible and buoyant wood was used to construct ocean vessels, including warships, small manoeuvrable vessels for charting surveys, and the finely crafted canoes of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
Powered by the wind that filled their great sails, barques, corvettes, and merchant vessels were tested by weather and currents cycling around the world’s oceans. Shipbuilding advanced through a process of trial, error, and tradition, which meant the basics of 18th century boat design were still based on techniques popularized hundreds of years earlier. Buyers and captains could order modifications to a few standard vessel types, but the emerging scientific understanding of stability of vessels at sea and sail power was rarely applied to architectural and engineering improvements in the shipyards of Europe, Russia and the Americas.
Scientists and astronomers dedicated themselves to the quest for an accurate system for the measurement of an east-west position on the globe known as longitude. The rocky, island-filled coastline of the Pacific Northwest was demanding for navigators. Expeditions relied on careful logbook and record keeping, along with a toolkit of navigational instruments to measure distance and time as they travelled. These measurements were added to maps of the ocean and coastline known as charts. The ability to pass on nautical information in the form of charts allowed other expeditions to build on experiences and observations made in the Pacific.