WRIGHT THINKING: Reaching out beyond what is known to man

Watching the British astronaut Tim Peake heading for the International Space Station this week set me thinking about famous explorers from centuries ago.

I’ve just enjoyed the privilege of making a return crossing of the Atlantic following the route that Christopher Columbus took in 1492.

In terms of technology, today’s astronauts have it easy – enjoying communications and navigational aids which crews of yesteryear would have found to be literally incredible.

Columbus and his men set off with no sure path to a destination – and in the certain knowledge that it would be months, if not years, before they could return home.

Some cynics have suggested that the early quests for the “new world” were a bit like modern bureaucracy – they didn’t know where they were going, they didn’t know where they were when they arrived, and, when they returned home, they weren’t completely certain of where they had been.

As you may know, Columbus headed west hoping to find a new route to the Indies on behalf of his Spanish sponsors – he was not able to travel east because of a division of the known world which split the potential riches between various European powers of the time.

It seems hard to comprehend now that the “known world” of the time wasn’t much wider than the lands which bordered the Mediterranean Sea – translated, of course, as the sea in the middle of the earth.

In a situation which many modern business people would fully understand, the biggest starting delay for Columbus was finding a sponsor who would pay for his voyage of exploration.

After trawling around Europe, including the English court, for funds, it was the Spanish who came up trumps.

My own journey was on a cruise ship, much more comfortable than the Mayflower, and beyond 15th Century imagination in terms of power and navigational aids.

My own trip was of about 9,000 miles, including stops at the Azores, Madeira and Lisbon – all places used as staging posts by Columbus and those who followed his lead.

Travelling by sea really does make an impression of the sheer distances involved – on a ship travelling at about 17 knots, it’s totally different to zooming over the ocean in a plane at 500 mph.

Being at sea with land a long way off always brings to mind those people, including many Hartlepool men past and present, who have been in those sometimes stormy waters, whether seeking fish or defending their country.

Of course, Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas – that honour goes to the Viking Leif Erikson almost 500 years before.

What Columbus did, though, was make a journey from Europe to the west feel almost normal, and not a source of fear.

He thought he had reached the Indies in the east and was loathe to admit at first that he had found somewhere previously unknown – which is why he called the local inhabitants “Indians” – a name which still sticks.

When he landed in Cuba, he thought it was Marco Polo’s “Cipango”, or Japan, and it’s easy to smile at the lack of knowledge compared to ours.

In the end, though, the examples of Columbus and Tim Peake are typical of man’s desire to reach beyond what is known – and that’s a valuable aspiration.