When John Cabot, alias Giovanni Caboto - he was, after all, born in Venice - set out from Bristol on May 2, 1497, he could scarcely have imagined what lay ahead. He and his crew of 18 were intending to sail to Cathay (China) in the Matthew, a medieval caravel. Somehow, as had Christopher Columbus before him, he landed on the American continent. His exact landfall is still the subject of scholarly disputation and has variously been claimed to be Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador or Cape Breton Island.
Nor could he have envisaged, 500 years later, the scope of the celebrations for his epic voyage of discovery, much of which is centred on a modern Matthew, built by a team of shipwrights on Redcliffe Wharf, Bristol, and which today, launched by the Queen and Prince Philip, sets sail once more for the "New Founde Landes".
Giovanni would certainly have felt at home on the replica ship, with its Douglas fir decking and masts and English oak frames, and he would have surely been impressed by 20th-century seafaring equipment. The 73-ft three-masted caravel has a sail area of more than 2,000 sq ft. Modern travellers also have the sensible luxury of a 200-horsepower diesel engine.
Most of all, though, Cabot would have been enthralled by the navigation and communication technology carried by the present crew. If Prince Philip - who is at the helm for part of the first stage of the seven-week transatlantic voyage - has difficulty navigating his course with traditional instruments, he can always avail himself of the on-board GPS (Global Positioning System) which is linked to a chart plotter. There are read-outs in both deck cabins and in front of each steering position. The GPS is also linked to an electronic chart system that is displayed on the radar.
There's no message in a bottle for these sailors. Telecommunications on the new Matthew include a VHS radio, a set of hand-held radios and a cellular phone. A microwave dish will send weekly signals for the BBC documentary being broadcast during the crossing, and satellite equipment will enable the crew to send and receive electronic mail, and to maintain and update their Internet site on the World Wide Web.
Among the excellent source material found on the Matthew Project site is detail from a 17th-century print of Bristol showing St Nicholas Street where Cabot and his family stayed. There is also a reproduction of a Bristol custom roll, circa 1498, which records the payment of John Cabot's pension, and the famous Letter of Discovery, written by the Bristol merchant John Day. This document goes some way towards establishing Cabot's route. Serious historians will find a lively and stimulating thesis by Derek Croxton of the University of Virginia on Cabot's 1497 voyage.
The home page of the Matthew Project has hypertext links to the ship's log, ship's statistics, ship's history, the Matthew Society and the John Cabot 500th anniversary celebration Web site hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Tourism and Culture. Which, in turn, is linked to the Discovery Collegiate High School and to Matthew Elementary School in Bonavista, Newfoundland.
While the builders of the new Matthew crafted a ship based on period designs and conventional materials, Anglia Multimedia has used state-of-the-art video technology to produce a multimedia CD-Rom which aims to give children a flavour of those exciting times. John Cabot and the Merchant Venturers is being released later this month to coincide with the anniversary celebrations and sailing. The disc is aimed at eight to nine-year-olds and is intended to complement the "Life in Tudor Times" history study unit of the national curriculum.
Two interactive characters - John Cabot and his navigator - introduce themselves and the viewer is asked to help Cabot prepare for his journey by selecting supplies from three "shoppes". Among the resistible delectations on offer are salted fish, ship's biscuits and "pease". All the provisions will have a price tag to give children an idea of the cost of food at that time.
The ship's chandler contains nautical and navigational aids such as rope, compasses, hourglasses and astrolabes and, in the library, viewers will find biographies of 10 other explorers such as Marco Polo, Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama.
The educational version of the disc also contains a variety of activity sheets for either group or individual study, and two classroom games which are designed to help children better understand the concepts of barter and trade.
An interactive button on the CD-Rom will take viewers to Anglia Multimedia's Web site. Tim Youngman, education sales manager, believes that the CD-Rom will be "an important addition to the resources available to primary teachers".
On June 24, 1997, a tiny oak caravel will, once more, appear off the east coast of North America. Unlike its predecessor, however, this seven-week journey across the Atlantic will have been recorded and relayed every nautical step of the way. This time, there's going to be no dispute over the landfall.
* The Matthew Project Web site is at: http:www.cabot.ac.ukMatthew * The Matthew can be e-mailed at: email@example.com * Matthew Elementary School is at: http:www.k12.nf.camatthew * Discovery Collegiate High School is at: http:firefly.eastcoll.nf.cadiscoveryindex.html * The Cabot celebrations site is at: http:enterprise.newcomm.netcabot500Education version of John Cabot and the Merchant Venturers costs Pounds 40 exclusive of VAT and is available mid-May from SCA (Anglia Multimedia), PO Box 18, Benfleet, Essex SS7 1AZ Tel: 01268 755 811. Platforms: PC, Apple Macintosh, Acorn * Anglia Multimedia's Education site is at: http:www.anglia.co.ukeducation