One of the first and most valuable inventions in navigation was the lead line. In the 13th century the lead line was used for measuring the depth of water and determining the nature of the sea floor. This line was weighted with lead and had graduated markings to determine sea depth. The lead was coated with tallow, grease or wax to bring up samples of the bottom. A method of navigating from one depth to another based upon the condition of the bottom developed, with sailing directions from the 14th century reading:

”Ye shall go north until ye sound in 72 fathoms in fair grey sand. Then go north until ye come into soundings of ooze, and then go your course east northeast.”

72 fathoms is 432 feet! That’s a long lead line!

These days sailors no longer use soundings alone as an accurate form of navigation. Instead soundings are marked on navigational charts as a reference to be used along with accurate compass bearings, triangulation and a GPS. All mariners’ charts show the depth of the ocean floor below sea level. When a boat is near the shoreline your depth sounding can verify your position when compared to the chart’s listed depth at your plotted fix.

Questions: Click on the question to see the answer

How does the depth gauge on the boat measure the depth of the water?

Where did the fathom measurement come from?

Marine Biology
Marine Ecology
Marine Navigation

A unit of measurement used for depth, one fathom is six feet.

The art and science of conducting a vessel safely from one point to another.

A measure of the depth of water.