Every US naval ship and most American merchant ships carry aboard a copy of the American Practical Navigator, which most refer to simply as Bowditch, after Nathaniel Bowditch, the author of the first edition in 1802. On March 26, 1773, Nathaniel Bowditch, the fifth of seven children, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to a seafaring family of limited means. Apprenticed as a bookkeeper, he was a self taught mathematician with a particular interest in navigation.
Bowditch had the radical notion that navigation could be made simple enough so that everyone aboard the ship, including the cook, could be taught to navigate.
From the Preface to The American Practical Navigator
The New American Practical Navigator was published in 1802 as a first edition. Bowditch vowed while writing this edition to “put down in the book nothing I can’t teach the crew,” and it is said that every member of his crew including the cook could take a lunar observation and plot the ship’s position.
Bowditch made a total of five trips to sea, over a period of about nine years, his last as master and part owner of the three-masted Putnam. Homeward bound from a 13-month voyage to Sumatra and the Ile de France (now called Mauritius) the Putnam approached Salem harbor on December 25, 1803, during a thick fog without having had a celestial observation since noon on the 24th. Relying upon his dead reckoning, Bowditch conned his wooden-hulled ship to the entrance of the rocky harbor, where he had the good fortune to get a momentary glimpse of Eastern Point, Cape Ann, enough to confirm his position. The Putnam proceeded in, past such hazards as “Bowditch’s Ledge” (named after a great-grandfather who had wrecked his ship on the rock more than a century before) and anchored safely at 1900 that evening. Word of the daring feat, performed when other masters were hove-to outside the harbor, spread along the coast and added greatly to Bowditch’s reputation. He was, indeed, the “practical navigator.”
Bowditch was also the first insurance actuary in the United States, serving as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. Under his guidance the company prospered even despite the War of 1812.
The 1995 edition of the American Practical Navigator is available on-line.
Numerous vessels have been named after Bowditch including the schooner Nathaniel Bowditch currently sailing from Rockland, Maine.