M.F. Maury: The Physical Geography of the Sea, 1855.



How Passages have been shortened, § 568. -- How closely Vessels follow each other's Track, 570. -- The Archer and the Flying Cloud, 571. -- The great Race-course upon the Ocean, 573. -- Description of a Race, 575. -- Present Knowledge of Winds enables the Navigator to compute his Detour, 582.

568. The principal route across the ocean are exhibited in Plate VIII.; the great end and aim of all this labor and research are in these, and consist in the shortening of passages -- the improvement of navigation. Other interests and other objects are promoted thereby, but these in the mind of a practical people, who, by their habits of thought and modes of action, mark the age in which we live as eminently utilitarian, do not stand out in relief half so grand and imposing as do those achievements by which the distant isles and marts of the sea have been lifted up, as it were, and brought closer together, for the convenience of commerce, by many days' sail.

569. We have been told in the foregoing pages how the winds blow and the currents flow in all parts of the ocean. These control the mariner in his course; and to know to steer his ship on this or that voyage so as always to make the most of them, is the perfection of navigation. The figures representing the vessels are so marked as to show whether the prevailing direction of the wind be adverse or fair.

570. When one looks seaward from the shore, and sees a ship disappear in the horizon as she gains an offing on a voyage to India, or the Antipodes perhaps, the common idea is that she is bound over a trackless waste, and the chances of another ship, sailing with the same destination the next day, or the next week, coming up and speaking with her on the "pathless ocean," would, to most minds, seem slender indeed. Yet the truth is, the winds and the currents are now becoming to be so well understood, that the navigator, like the backwoodsman in the wilderness, is enabled literally "to blaze his way" across the ocean; not, indeed, upon trees, as in the wilderness, but upon the wings of the wind. The results of scientific inquiry have so taught him to use these invisible couriers, that they, with the calm belts of the air, serve as sign-boards to indicate to him the turnings, and forks, and crossings by the way.

571. Let a ship sail from New York to California, and the next week let a faster one follow after: they will cross each other's path many times, and are almost sure to see each other by the way. Thus a case in point happens to be before me. It is the case of the Archer and the Flying Cloud on their last voyage to California. They are both fine clipper ships, ably commanded. But it was not until the ninth day after the Archer had sailed from New York that the Flying Cloud put to sea, California bound also. She was running against time, and so was the Archer, but without reference to each other. The Archer, with "Wind and Current Charts" in hand, went blazing her way across the calms of Cancer, and along the new route, down through the northeast trades to the equator; the Could followed after, crossing the equator upon the trail of Thomas of the Archer. Off Cape Horn she came up with him, spoke him, handed him the latest New York dates, and invited him to dine on board the Cloud, which invitation, says he of the Archer, "I was reluctantly compelled to decline."

572. The Flying Cloud finally ranged ahead, made her adieus, and disappeared among the clouds that lowered upon the western horizon, being destined to reach her port a week or more in advance of her Cape horn consort. Though sighting no land from the time of their separation until they gained the offing of San Francisco -- some six or eight thousand miles off -- the tracks of the two vessels were so nearly the same, that, being projected on the Plate IX., they would appear almost as one.

573. This is the great race-course of the ocean; it is fifteen thousand miles in length. Some of the most glorious trials of speed and of prowess that the world ever witnessed have taken place over it. Here the modern clipper ship -- the noblest work that has ever come from the hand of man -- has been sent, guided by the lights of science, to contend with the elements, to outstrip steam, and astonish the world.

574. The most celebrated and famous race that has ever been run came off upon this course: it was in the autumn of 1852, when navigators were beginning fully to reap the benefits of these researches with regard to the winds and currents, and other facts connected with the Physical Geography of the Sea, that four splendid new clipper ships put to sea from New York, bound for California. They were ably commanded, and, as they passed the bar at Sandy Hook, one by one, and at various intervals of time, they presented really a most magnificent spectacle. The names of these ships and their masters were, the Wild Pigeon, Captain Putnam; the John Gilpin, Captain Doane -- alas! now no more; the Flying Fish, Captain Nickles, and the Trade Wind, Captain Webber. Like steeds that know their riders, they were handled with the most exquisite skill and judgment, and in such hands they bounded out upon the "glad waters" most gracefully. Each, being put upon her mettle from the start, was driven, under the seaman's whip and spur, at full speed over a course that it would take them three long months to run.

575. The Wild Pigeon sailed October 12; the John Gilpin, October 29; the Flying Fish, November 1; and the Trade Wind, November 14. It was the season for the best passages. Each one was provided with the Wind and Current Charts. Each one had evidently studied them attentively; and each one was resolved to make the most of them, and do his best. All ran against time; but the John Gilpin and the Flying Fish for the whole course, and the Wild Pigeon for part of it, ran neck and neck, the one against the other, and each against all. It was a sweepstake with these ships around Cape Horn and through both hemispheres.

576. Wild Pigeon led the other two out of New York, the one by seventeen, the other by twenty days. But luck and chances of the winds seem to have been against her from the start. As soon as she had taken her departure, she fell into a streak of baffling winds, and then into a gale, which she fought against and contended with for a week, making but little progress the while; she then had a time of it in crossing the horse latitudes. After having been nineteen days out, she had logged no less than thirteen of them as days of calms and baffling winds; these had brought her no farther on her way than the parallel of 26° north in the Atlantic. Thence she had a fine run to the equator, crossing it between 33° and 34° west, the thirty-second day out. She was unavoidably forced to cross it so far west; for only two days before, she crossed 5° north in 30° -- an excellent position.

In proof that the Pigeon had accomplished all that skill could do and the chances against her would permit, we have the testimony of the barque Hazard, Captain Pollard. This vessel, being bound to Rio at the same time, followed close after the Pigeon. The Hazard is an old hand with the Charts; she had already made six voyages to Rio with them for her guide. This was the longest of the six, the mean of which was twenty-six and a half days. She crossed the line this time in 34°30', also by compulsion, having crossed 5° north in 31°. But, the fourth day after crossing the equator, she was clear of Cape St. Roque, while the Pigeon cleared it in three days.*

577. So far, therefore, chances had turned up against the Pigeon, in spite of the skill displayed by Putnam as a navigator, for the Gilpin and the Fish came booming along, not under better management, indeed, but with a better run of luck and fairer courses before them. In this stretch they gained upon her -- the Gilpin seven and the Fish ten days; so that now the abstract logs show the Pigeon to be but ten days ahead.

Evidently the Fish was most confident that she had the heels of her competitors: she felt her strength, and was proud of it; she was most anxious for a quick run, and eager withal for a trial. She dashed down southwardly from Sandy Hook, looking occasionally at the Charts; but, feeling strong in her sweep of wing, and trusting confidently in the judgment of her master, she kept, on the average, two hundred miles to leeward of the right track. Rejoicing in her many noble and fine qualities, she crowded on her canvas to its utmost stretch, trusting quite as much to her heels as to the Charts, and performed the extraordinary feat of crossing, the sixteenth day out from New York, the parallel of 5° north.

the next day she was well south of 4° north, and in the Doldrums, longitude 34° west.

Now her heels became paralyzed, for Fortune seems to have deserted her a while -- at least her master, as the winds failed him, feared so; they gave him his motive power; they were fickle, and he was helplessly baffled by them. The bugbear of a northwest current off Cape St. Roque (§ 276) began to loom up in his imagination, and to look alarming; then the dread of falling to leeward came upon him; chances and luck seemed to conspire against him, and the mere possibility of finding his fine ship back-strapped filled the mind of Nickles with evil forebodings, and shook his faith in his guide. he doubted the Charts, and committed the mistake of the passage.

578. The Sailing Directions had cautioned the navigator, again and again, not to attempt to fan along to the eastward in the equatorial doldrums; for, by so doing, he would himself engage in a fruitless strife with baffling airs, sometimes re-enforced in their weakness by westerly currents. But the winds had failed, and so too, the smart captain of the Flying Fish evidently thought, had the Sailing Directions. They advise the navigator, in all such cases, to dash right across this calm streak, stand boldly on, take advantage of slants in the wind, and, by this device, make easting enough to clear the land. So, forgetting that the Charts are founded on experience of great numbers who had gone before him, Nickles, being tempted, turned a deaf ear to the caution, and flung away three whole days, and more, of most precious time, dallying in the doldrums.

He spent four days about the parallel of 3° north, and his ship left the doldrums, after this waste of time, nearly upon the same meridian at which she entered them.

She was still in 34°, the current keeping her back just as fast as she could fan east. After so great a loss, her very clever master, doubting his own judgment, became sensible of his error. Leaving the spell-bound calms behind him, where he had undergone such trials, he wrote in his log as follows: "I now regret that, after making so fine a run to 5° north, I did not dash on, and work my way to windward to the northward of St. Roque, as I have experienced little or no westerly set since passing the equator, while three or four days have been lost in working to the eastward, between the latitude of 5° and 3° north, against a strong westerly set;" and he might have added, "with little or no wind."

In three days after this he was clear of St. Roque. Just five days before him, the Hazard had passed exactly in the same place, and gained two days on the Fish by cutting straight across the doldrums, ad the Sailing Directions advised him to do.

The Wild Pigeon, crossing the equator also in 33°, had passed along there ten days before, as did also the Trade Wind twelve days after. The latter also crossed the line to the west of 34°, and in four days after had cleared St. Roque.

But, notwithstanding this loss of three days by the Fish, who so regretted it, and who afterward so handsomely retrieved it, she found herself, on the 24th of November, alongside of the Gilpin, her competitor. They were then both on the parallel of 5° south, the Gilpin being thirty-seven miles to the eastward, and of course in a better position, for the Fish had yet to take advantage of slants, and stand off shore to clear the land. They had not seen each other.

579. The Charts showed the Gilpin now to be in the best position, and the subsequent events proved the Charts to be right, for thence to 53° south the Gilpin gained on the Pigeon two days, and the Pigeon on the Fish one.

By dashing through the Straits of Le Maire, the Fish gained three days on the Gilpin; but here Fortune again deserted the Pigeon, or rather the winds turned against her; for as she appeared upon the parallel of Cape Horn, and was about to double round, a westerly gale struck her and kept her at bay for ten days, making little or no way, except alternately fighting in a calm or buffeting with a gale, while her pursuers were coming up "hand over fist," with fine winds and flowing sheets.

They finally overtook her, bringing along with them propitious gales, when all three swept past the Cape, and crossed the parallel of 51° south on the other side of the "Horn," the Fish and the Pigeon one day each ahead of the Gilpin.

The Pigeon was now, according to the Charts, in the best position, the Gilpin next, and the Fish last; but all were doing well.

From this parallel to the southeast trades of the Pacific the prevailing winds are from the northwest. The position of the Fish, therefore, did not seem as good as the others, because she did not have the sea-room in case of an obstinate northwest gale.

But the winds favored her. On the 30th of December the three ships crossed the parallel of 35° south, the Fish recognizing the Pigeon; the Pigeon saw only a "clipper ship," for she could not conceive how the ship in sight could possibly be the Flying Fish, as that vessel was not to leave New York for some three weeks after she did; the Gilpin was only thirty or forty miles off at the same time.

The race was now wing and wing, and had become exciting. With fair winds and an open sea, the competitors had now a clear stretch to the equator of two thousand five hundred miles before them.

The Flying Fish led the way, the Wind Pigeon pressing her hard, and both dropping the Gilpin quite rapidly, who was edging off to the westward.

The two foremost reached the equator on the 13th of January, the Fish leading just twenty-five miles in latitude, and crossing in 112° 17';* the Pigeon forty miles farther to the east. At this time the John Gilpin had dropped two hundred and sixty miles astern, and had sagged off several degrees to the westward.

580. Here Putnam, of the Pigeon, again displayed his tact as a navigator, and again the fickle winds deceived him: the belt of northeast trades had yet to be passed; it was winter; and, by crossing where she did, she would have an opportunity of making a fair wind of them, without being much to the west of her port when she should lose them. Moreover, it was exactly one year since she had passed this way before; she then crossed in 109°, and had a capital run thence of seventeen days to San Francisco.

Why should she not cross here again? She saw that the 4th edition of sailing Directions, which she had on board, did not discountenance it, and her own experience approved it. Could she have imagined that, in consequence of this difference of forty miles in crossing of the equator, and of the two hours' time behind her competitor, she would fall into a streak of wind which would enable the Fish to lead her into port one whole week? Certainly it was nothing but what sailors call "a streak of ill luck" that could have made such a difference.

But by this time John Gilpin had got his mettle up again. He crossed the line in 116° -- exactly two days after the other two -- and made the glorious run of fifteen days thence to the pilot grounds of San Francisco.

Thus end the abstract logs of this exciting race and these remarkable passages.

The Flying Fish beat: she made the passage in 92 days and 4 hours from the port to anchor; the Gilpin in 93 days and 20 hours from port to pilot;* the Wild Pigeon had 118. The Trade Wind followed, with 102 days, having taken fire, and burned for eight hours on the way.

The result of this race may be taken as an illustration as to how well navigators are now brought to understand the winds and the currents of the sea.

581. Here are three ships sailing on different days, bound over a trackless waste of ocean for some fifteen thousand miles or more, and depending alone on the fickle winds of heaven, as they are called, to waft them along; yet, like travelers on the land, bound upon the same journey, they pass and repass, fall in with and recognize each other by the way; and what, perhaps, is still more remarkable, is the fact that these ships should each, throughout that great distance, and under the wonderful vicissitudes of climates, winds, and currents which they encountered, have been so skillfully navigated, that, in looking back at their management, now that what is past is before me, I do not find a single occasion, except the one already mentioned, on which they could have been better handled.

There is another circumstance which is worthy of notice in this connection, as illustrative of the accuracy of the knowledge which these investigations afford concerning the force, set, and direction both of winds and currents, and it is this:

582. I had computed the detour which these vessels would have to make, on account of adverse winds, between New York and their place of crossing the equator. The whole distance, including detour to be sailed to reach this crossing at season of the year, was, according to calculation, 4115 miles. The Gilpin and the Hazard only kept an account of the distance actually sailed; the former reaching the equator after sailing 4099 miles, the latter, 4077; thus accomplishing that part of the voyage by sailing, the one within thirty-eight, the other within sixteen miles of the detour which calculation showed they would be compelled to make on account of head-winds. With his way blazed through the forest, the most experienced backwoodsman would have to make a detour greater than this on account of floods in the rivers.

Am I far wrong, therefore, when I say that the present state of our knowledge with regard to the physical geography of the sea has enabled the navigator to blaze his way among the winds and currents of the sea, and so mark his path that others, using his signs as finger-boards, may follow in the same track?

* According to the received opinion, this was impossible. Vide § 276.

* Twenty-five days after that, the Trade Wind clipper came along, crossed in 113°, and had a passage of sixteen days thence into San Francisco.

* The abstract log of the Gilpin is silent after the pilot came on board.

M.F. Maury: The Physical Geography of the Sea.
Harper Brothers, New York, 1855 [3rd].

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

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