Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Response from a Reader: Sailing into the Atlantic – Part IV

Continuing from the previous posts regarding a comment sent in by a reader asking for our response to his friend’s reaction to one of our articles about sailing off the Arabian coast and into the Indian Ocean, and asking for our response. Listing seven factors in the previous three posts, we continue here with #8.    
    Because of the dangerous waters around the Cape, the Portuguese government erected two navigational beacons, Dias Cross and Gama Cross, to commemorate Vasco da Gama and Dias. When lined up, the crosses point to Whittle Rock, a large, permanently submerged shipping hazard in False Bay. Two other beacons in Simon’s town provide the intersection. In fact, when Dias first rounded the Cape, it was the result of a stroke of luck when storms blew him away from the coast and he is thought to have ordered a turn to the south of about 28 degrees that took him around the tip of Africa, far away from land, and kept his ships from being dashed on the notoriously rocky shoreline during the height of a storm with subdued vision.
Coming south on the Indian Ocean side (east side) of the Cape, one encounters a seemingly never ending finger of land, usually shrouded in fog from the numerous storms (some ship captains have reported not being able to see at all) hitting the area, and if the navigator becomes impatient to turn west, or his calculations are wrong and he turns west prematurely, he drives his ship into the rocky coast, as many a pilot before him. The same is true when coming down the Atlantic Coast and turning prematurely east

    However, the problems associated with such sailing around the Cape as indicated in the previous posts,  has its own problems, since keeping a good distance away from the edge of the African continental shelf is beset with wave action in this submerged area that contains a sharp drop in the sea floor that can cause rogue waves big enough to sink the sturdiest ships. Charts provide information regarding the relative depth of the sea floor. Similarly, even experienced sailors need to be wary of the converging currents around the cape. The meeting of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic result in waves that hit each at oblique angles and join to form a single, larger wave.
Where the currents collide, yellow circle is the graveyard of ship and the area of sailing few mariners wanted to go during the Age of Sail

 In addition, those who attempt the Agulhas Current to move quickly round the cape find that this second fastest ocean current, though useful for boats with an engine, often find its current running directly against prevailing winds that circulate fiercely from the west. The point is, there simply is no good way to make such a transition, and for those who were forced to do so during the early years of the Age of Sail found the going both dangerous and often terminal.
    On 12 March 1488, a little west of Bushman's River mouth, Dias dropped anchor at a headland, formerly called False Islet, now known as Kwaaihoek. Here, Dias erected his farthest stone pillar, the padrão de São Gregorio, which marked his easternmost point of Portuguese exploration, and then resumed his homeward journey. Eric Axelson excavated fragments of this padrão in 1938.
    Dias then returned to Portugul, and in Lisbon, after 15 months at sea and a journey of nearly 16,000 miles, the returning mariners were met by triumphant crowds. In a private meeting with the king, however, Dias was forced to explain his failure to meet up with two Portuguese parties sent overland. Despite his immense achievement, Dias was never again put in a position of authority. João ordered that henceforth, maps would show the new name for Cabo das Tormentas–as Cabo da Boa Esperança, or Cape of Good Hope.
Nearly twelve years later, after Vasco da Gama, in his flagship São Gabriel (left) reached India in 1500, Portugal sent a fleet of 13 ships to India, but they tragically met disaster at “the Cape of Storms,” with the feared Cape storms striking the fleet and sinking four ships, with all crew lost at sea, including Dias who had been in charge of four of the ships.
    The point is, the “storm-driven Cape” was not an easy area to navigate, and when people today who know nothing of its history begin flippantly talking about “rounding the Cape or tip of Africa” as though it was a trip around the block simply know nothing of the intrigue, fear and reluctance mariners approached this area in the Age of Sailing, with so many ships already claimed by the turbulent and stormy waters.
This is an ancient mariner’s drawing of his experience rounding the Cape of Good Hope on a voyage. The Yellow Arrow points to his ship, the White Arrow to the headland of the Cape. He was emphasizing the weather and how difficult it is to see because of the darkness that is always associated with the Cape’s bad weather. Note how difficult it is to make out the finger of rocky headland that juts way out into the sea

    This Cape of Good Hope is a rocky headland on the southwestern extremity of South Africa's Atlantic coast. Centuries of seafarers have regarded it as one of the most dangerous stretches of coastline in the world, originally called the Cape of Storms because of the continually bad weather and turbulent waters. According to the coastal authorities, even in today's modern yachts, rounding the Cape of Good Hope is extremely challenging and should only be attempted by highly experienced sailors.
    For Lehi and his ship of inexperienced Hebrews who had never been to sea of which we know, to have been sent around that route seems highly unlikely when an easier, simpler, and far more direct route was available to them is very improbable.
9. “…the currents from there would pull them into the Caribbean Sea.”
    In the case above of the 13 ship fleet that met disaster trying to round the south African Cape, the commander of the fleet was Admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral, who upon returning to Portugal, sailed into the Atlantic and was carried westward across the ocean into the coast of Brazil. He returned home with only six of the original 13 vessels sent in the fleet.
Arrows: (Red) Proposed course; (Yellow) Somali Current; (Blue) South Indian Current; (Brown) Agulhus Current driven backward; (White) weak Angola Current; (Dark Green) Benguela Current; (Bottom Purple) South Atlantic Current; (Light Green) Brazil Current; (Top Purple) South Equatorial Current; (Light Purple) Antilles Current; (Olive Green) left-Gulf Stream; top-North Atlantic Drift; right-Canary Current; bottom-North Equatorial Current

    Shown on the map is Lehi’s proposed course by the author being discussed, shown in Solid and Dotted Red Arrows. This course in the Indian Ocean is quite possible, as long as the Somali Current (Yellow Arrow) is eliminated by sailing at the right time of year; the problem arises when the ship reaches the area of the dotted turquoise circle around South Africa. The Blue Arrow is the natural course of the Agulhas Current that breaks off to the east called the South Indian Current to pick up the Indian Ocean Gyre crossing from west to east across the southern Indian Ocean, which flows into the Southern Ocean West Wind Drift and Prevailing Westerlies wind (see other maps in this series); Next is the natural movement of the Agulhas Current (Brown Arrow) to be driven back upon itself by the very strong and fast-moving (Dark Green Arrow) Benguela Current—there is also the action of the (White Arrow) Angola Current, the (Purple Arrow) South Atlantic Current (part of the South Atlantic Gyre), not to mention the turbulence, storms, and dangerous waters off the Cape at this point; if the ship got through, then it would sail (dotted red arrow) up the Benguela Current to the (Purple Arrows) South Equatorial Current and into the Caribbean Sea. To say the least, that is a lot of sailing for inexperienced mariners.
    You have to love it when people of today approach sailing in ancient times with a cruise on some local river. Ocean travel was extremely dangerous even to the most experienced of sailors and officers. By way of example, in just the years 1800 to 1899, peace time losses of ships at sea numbered 103, of which 28 belonged to the United States, 59 were British, with the loss of life about 30,550. These were wooden sailing vessels from major countries involved in peacetime sailing.
    Thus, once again what looks good on paper in the real world is really very different and in this case very dangerous for experienced sailors, telling us Lehi's crew would have been faced with an extremely hazardous voyage to attempt this course. In fact, this trip being described for Lehi around the Cape of Africa and into the Atlantic was, perhaps, one of the most difficult voyages that could have been undertaken in that time and under those conditions, especially with an inexperienced crew on their first ocean voyage.

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