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The first Coast Pilot

Jan 1, 2003

"A sloop belonging to Dartmouth, from Kennebeck, with lumber, in the violent blow of Saturday, upset 16 leagues from our bar, her deck load was washed off, when she righted, and came in by the assistance of Blunt's Coast Pilot..."Newburyport HeraldJune 21, 1808Publication of the first American Coast Pilot in 1796 made Edmund Blunt the premier purveyor of navigational information to mariners plying the Atlantic coast of North America. The leather-bound book (pricey at $4.00) combined detailed maps with information on courses and distances, as well as the positions of lights, buoys and shoals, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. As the story above suggests, the little book rapidly became an invaluable seaman's guide.

The contents of the ninth edition of the Pilot (1817), which I found under a pile of newspapers in a New Hampshire bookshop, are of significant historical interest, especially its cautions and warnings, which provide the modern reader with an informative glimpse into a sailing era long passed.

Caribbean-bound masters were warned to be cautious "while crossing the Bahama Bank, never to follow vessels, if they alter their course often; as the New-Providence Wreckers have frequently decoyed them for the purpose of plunder " Blunt added, "This is not published to give offence to anyone, but it applies to some of the Providence Navigators, and it is our duty to point out danger to Mariners, from which the Editor will never deviate, or hide from investigation."

Blunt also advised mariners of legislative acts in force along the Atlantic seaboard, such as: "the Legislature of Nova Scotia have enacted that any person convicted of stealing from any vessel wrecked on the coast of that province or the Isle of Sable shall suffer death." He also quoted United States Federal Law dictating that U.S.-flagged vessels, bound for Europe, must "have on board, well secured under deck, at least sixty gallons of water, one hundred pounds of salted fresh meat, and one hundred pounds of wholesome ship bread, for every person on board," in addition to any live chickens or pigs brought aboard by passengers of more "epicurean" tastes.

After narrating the necessary niceties for navigating to Newburyport, Blunt noted that a local Marine Society had constructed small shelters, stocked with fireworks, fuel, straw, and food, for the use of shipwrecked souls cast upon their shores. He also lamented the vandalism of those huts and "the wantonness of individuals and companies, who frequent this spot in the warm season, on parties of pleasure."

In the matter of one Monsieur Touro of New Orleans, chandlery merchant and retail agent for Blunt's nautical publications, the author reserved a whole page of his Pilot to expose Touro as a deadbeat client. Touro had failed to pay for orders, and Blunt went for the jugular by publishing the entire unpaid account, ending the barbed exposé with the words, "character often survives life."

Sadly, few modern sailors know of Edmund Blunt, or are aware that it was he who hounded an obscure hardware clerk, Nathaniel Bowditch, to write the timeless New American Practical Navigator (published by Blunt in 1802). Today's pilot books are the heirs of that first, informative American Coast Pilot.

J. Gregory Dill

dill.jg@ns.sympatico.ca


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