Trip Reports

Christopher Columbus (25-Nov-2002-08-30):
8:30 AM local time, Monday, November 25 (0830 Nov. 25 UTC) 28 05 N 017 06 W. Temp. 75, Humidity 77%, Cloud Cover 100%. Rain. At a slip at the Marina La Gomera, San Sebastian, La Gomera, Islas Canarias (Canary Islands), Spain (Espana).

Warm greetings from the crew of Maverick.

Mr. Shrode and I had an easy sail overnight from Tenerife to La Gomera the night of the 22nd. We came here to see the harbor from which Columbus set sail to discover the New World. There are on this island, according to local lore, some points of interest where Columbus had a cappuccino or used the internet café, but for the sailor the main thing is seeing the harbor itself, where we know the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were anchored. Today, there's a modern seawall and good protection from any direction, but in Columbus' day it was pretty much an open roadstead with no protection from the southeast. The captains of the three boats that had no motors and couldn't sail to windward were fortunate that at this time of year, wind from that quadrant is unusual.

Mr. Shrode and I, along with the our friend from the boat Otter, singelhanded circumnavigator Brec Morgan of Milford, Connecticut, set out yesterday in a rent a car to see the rest of the island. It's perhaps the most spectacular of the three Canary Islands we've visited. As there has been little volcanic activity in geologically recent times, it's deeply cut by steep ravines reminiscent of the valleys of Hawaii, although a little less tropical. I don't know if there's much to do here, but the drive was adventure enough. There are Laurel forests at higher elevation, which we learn at the museum are relicts of the Tertiary forests of Europe that were wiped out in the last ice age, so evidently they have the same look that Europe would have had two million years ago. Unlike our California Bay Laurel, the local species has little or no fragrance.

Today we have some dirty weather associated with a low of 28.47 inches of mercury (964 millibars) off to the north. Columbus may well have had to sit out something like this and without a seawall it would have made for a rolly anchorage, but we're pretty snug. Some sailors north of here where the center of the lows come through are getting beat up, like our friend Alan on Karma, the ex-British Army officer who vowed to motor backwards up the Gulf of Suez when his transmission failed. Alan was stuck for a long time in Gibraltar replacing his engine and transmission and had to leave late for England enroute to Holland. He made it to England fighting tremendous storm systems but after more than one attempt, has been forced to return to harbor.

Another group of sailors having a bit of a bumpy ride is the 2002 ARC group. This rally, like most, sets a date far in advance and leaves whether the weather looks good or not. Despite prediction of high seas and contrary winds up to force nine, they departed yesterday and it's rough out there. The world cruisers I know just scratch their heads at this whole operation. There are a lot of first-time passagemakers in the ARC. It might be fun to be in a big group, but it's expensive, and how much would you pay to NOT have to leave on a day like today? But it's too late, the checks have been cashed and out they go.

We've got some problems needing serious attention. The prop shaft repair done in Tenerife didn't hold so Mr. Shrode is trying another fix today. Then your reporter will be diving on the prop to look for the cause of some vibration, and grinding fiberglass to repair a broken cockpit scupper. We wanted to leave tomorrow (Tuesday 25th) but I don't think that will happen. We're not very nervous about the crossing, but that could be a bad sign. You never know what could happen out there, and a late-season hurricane is not metaphysically impossible. Any sailor would consider an Atlantic crossing a big feather in his cap, and we hope soon to be among them. Our preparations are nothing out of the ordinary as we do the same checks before every passage of more than a couple of days. But we do find it kind of cool to be traveling the same route as Christopher and his fleet, five hundred years ago. No longer politically correct, is poor old Columbus. I suppose it's possible that the indigenous peoples of North and South America would have been left alone forever had he never lived, or that the next guy would have been Mother Theresa. Columbus was an autocratic leader who often made decisions based on superstition or biblical passages. Does that put him beyond the pale when compared to other contemporary or historical world figures? He was ridiculously wrong about a lot of things, but the same could be said of Newton, Jefferson, and Plato.

He sailed across an ocean and back with primitive navigational instruments and without any charts. This is a stunt that is so scary to contemplate that we could forget all the rest of the things he did that were neurotic or despotic, and we could still classify him as a certified nutcase based on his guts alone. The only similar achievement in our lifetime was the Apollo project, but there are a lot reasons to view Columbus' undertaking as far more daring. The astronauts had the entire nation behind them, whereas Columbus barely had the support of the King and Queen and had to come up with a lot of the dough himself. There was a ground support team of hundreds for the Apollo missions, in constant radio contact, but as soon as he untied the docklines, Columbus was utterly on his own. We knew within inches where the moon was, but Columbus was so wrong about where he was going that he died thinking he had sailed to Asia. And, there are no hurricanes in space. The great explorers went to places that were unknown in a way it's hard to imagine things being unknown today. Lewis and Clark are a good comparison, but they were able to find native guides along the way. Maybe Powell is a better likeness. He had heard that the Colorado went underground in the Grand Canyon, but he took his boats down the river anyway, where there was no turning back.

Having sailed from Spain, Columbus left San Sebastian on La Gomera in the Canary Islands on September 6, 1492. He had been previously that same year in Granada at the Alhambra, and witnessed the fall of the last Moor bastion in Spain. Despite the Muslims' loss of Spain, the Ottomans' power was peaking not far to the east. The overland trade routes from Europe to China and India were now essentially unusable, and the sea routes problematic. A new way to trade with the East was needed. The Portuguese had found the way around the Cape of Good Hope, but Columbus thought he had an idea for a more direct route. The political and economic threat of the Islamic world to Europe at the time was, in a manner not unlike what we see in our day, clothed in the garments of religion, and Columbus occasionally, possibly disingenuously, was as willing as the other politicians of his era to use the cause of spreading the Gospel to justify actions that the motives of power and greed could not. Whatever his personal shortcomings, Columbus is rarely criticized as a navigator and sailor, nor is his courage questioned. Columbus was so canny in his judgment of the best route westward from Europe by sail that in the subsequent 500 years no one has discovered a better way to cross the Atlantic. Just as he did, every cruiser heading to the Caribbean this year will go south and either stop at the Canaries, or continue to sail until they get to the southeast tradewinds that will carry them across. Supercomputers have no way of improving on his route. Even more improbably, since no one had sailed east from America, he also found the westerlies to take him home. The only thing different about today's passages from the Canaries is that we tend to leave a little later to avoid the late-season hurricanes along the way, something Columbus had no knowledge of, because no known ship had ever seen an Atlantic hurricane before.

Today we have what are called Pilot Charts of the oceans of the world. Maverick carries a set aboard. These charts are really books of twelve charts for each ocean, one for every month of the year. The oceans they portray are divided into small sections of five degrees by five degrees in which the frequency and velocity of winds are graphically represented, along with the frequency of gales and calms for the month. Also shown are wave heights, sea temperatures, tracks of tropical and extratropical cyclones, and a lot of other stuff. All this is based on averages compiled from actual reports from ships at sea over the last two hundred years or so. These types of guides were the idea of Matthew Maury, a lieutenant in the US Navy, who published his first maps of the winds of the earth in 1848. Disabled in a stagecoach accident and given a desk job of taking care of the archived ship's logs the Navy possessed, he realized that by tediously going through the numberless daily logs he could compile a picture of the average conditions at sea, all year round. He built on the archives by asking captains to fill out forms he devised, in exchange for a copy of his maps. It was the heyday of the China tea trade and the man who knew the oceans' winds had a leg up in getting his cargo to market, and as a great fortune could hang in the balance, the captains were happy to trade some record keeping for the information Maury could give them. Before Maury's research, no sailor had anything but ad hoc and anecdotal information about the weather patterns of the oceans, even the ones they regularly navigated, and what they knew they jealously guarded. So Columbus, sailing in unknown waters, made a very smart guess. Today, the pilot charts are still used for a general guide in the planning of ocean passages. Once we're ready to get underway, specific, daily weather is delivered to the boat through the high-frequency radio, and decoded by the modem and computer into words or pictures. A modern skipper with a bigger budget than Maverick can also receive personal daily weather routing developed by an onshore specialist, but I've heard there's a HAM in the Caribbean, like the one we spoke to in Australia while crossing the Pacific, who will perform a similar service for us for nothing.

Columbus' little fleet, as is well known, consisted of the Santa Maria, a boat about 100 feet long on deck, and the Nina and Pinta, about sixty feet. Columbus had the big one. There were about thirty men on each boat, a few less on the small ones and more on the Santa Maria. In Redwood City, California, about ten years ago, Theresa and I visited a replica of the Nina constructed with traditional methods and materials. The builders didn't have access to lines plans of these boats and the replica was based on an accumulation of information and guesswork, but still, it was close enough to the original to learn some surprising things.

The shear was fairly radical and amidships, at the lowest point, freeboard was less than two feet, not as much as Maverick's. In paintings, this is disguised by the large gunwales, perhaps two feet in height, which makes the freeboard appear greater than it is. The scuppers were large, however and what this meant was that the deck of the 100-ton ship was awash in any reasonably large seas. That wouldn't be so bad if there were quarters for the crew belowdecks, which there weren't. That space was reserved for provisions and gear, and at least these had better lodgings than the supplies carried by the sailors in the Greek galleys. But the crew did not, so in all weather, they were exposed to the elements. The luxury berth for the senior seamen consisted of sleeping in a coil of rope rather than directly on the deck itself.

When we were in the Marquesas we had a chance to see the replicas of the Polynesian craft that had sailed the oceans. These new boats had also been s ailed across the Pacific in voyages meant to re-enact the deeds of their forebears. What impressed me most was the fact that they were entirely open to the elements. In Australia we saw the replica of Cook's Endeavor, the original of which was built almost 300 years after Columbus, and there were commodious accommodations for sleeping, eating, cooking, and lounging, out of the weather. For modern cruisers, who live in a (reasonably) dry cabin and out in the cockpit are protected by a dodger and Bimini, or even a doghouse, it's hard to imagine enduring a month or more at sea with absolutely no shelter. It can get plenty uncomfortable out here even with our advantages. Belowdecks was no pleasure palace, either. In addition to salted meat and other not particularly savory foodstuffs, Columbus' ships carried live cows, chickens, and pigs. The cows and pigs were suspended in slings, which is pretty tough duty, but if they were loose in pens they would break their legs with the boat's motion. Of course, they had to be fed and cleaned up after. Columbus' sailors are customarily portrayed in popular culture as fearful, ignorant fools who were afraid they were going to fall off the edge of the earth. The folks who portray them in this way must be people who themselves experience a fear of the unknown whenever they travel beyond the local 7-11. I don't think we have any records that tell us what the mortality rate among seamen was at the time of Columbus, but going to sea was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous professions in the world, as it remains in our day, even with infinitely improved navigation and safety precautions. It's not unreasonable to estimate that per man-hour at sea in Columbus' time, the death rate was a hundred times what it is today.

Even in their home waters, experienced captains could make fatal mistakes in navigation, since they had no way of telling longitude, or how far west or east you are on the planet measured from the prime meridian that goes through Greenwich, England. The British Navy was so concerned about accidents that the government of England finally offered a prize in the early eighteenth century, amounting to what would now be millions of dollars, to anyone who could figure out a reliable way to find one's longitude at sea. John Harrison's clock was the result, but it was no help to Columbus, sailing 250 years earlier. Without a timepiece, there is no way of determining longitude. In Columbus' day the sextant had not been invented. Columbus didn't even have an octant, and most likely used a clumsy astrolabe, so latitude wasn't so easily found, either. Though crude, compasses were familiar instruments, but it wasn't well understood why they didn't point to geographic north from all locations. We know now that this is because the magnetic north pole isn't in the same place as the geographic north pole, and what's more, it moves. Columbus had an even more serious navigational problem. The Arabs had come up with a pretty good estimate of a nautical mile, close to today's figure. By definition, a nautical mile is one minute of arc of latitude, and so, likewise by definition, the circumference of the earth is 60 x 360, or 21600 nautical miles. The nautical mile is very close to 1.15 statute miles, so a degree of latitude is about 1.15 x 60 or 69 statute miles, but Columbus used another figure which equates a degree of latitude to about 45 statute miles, and for this and other reasons, he believed the earth was only about 3/4 of the size it was. The story that he or his crew thought it was flat is false, although there are always the superstitious aboard. He also thought it was further to Asia from Europe by land than many of his day did, and as a result he thought Japan was far to the east of where it is. So when he found land, he had a completely erroneous idea of where he was, and he never revised it. Despite all this, if memory serves, though troubled by bad weather on his return from the Azores, he made landfall in Portugal only 15 miles from where he intended, which is an error of a quarter of a degree of latitude. Even with a modern sextant and good weather, this would have been a pretty decent piece of navigation. It's laughable by today's standards, where the GPS puts us less than one hundred feet from where we intend to be, but Columbus had state-of-the-art technology for his day, and given his equipment, his navigation was disciplined and brilliant.

Now the average seaman of the day was not a navigator and didn't perhaps fully understand how much the captain didn't understand about where he was. And Columbus kept his progress, really an estimate based on dead reckoning and latitude from Polaris, from his crew. Nevertheless, no seaman aboard would have been in the dark about the real possibility of hitting the rocks with fatal consequences, as it was not unusual even in familiar waters. If a painter or a teacher or a story-teller wishes to portray Columbus' men as weak, ignorant cowards, let him climb aloft in a gale to furl a sail, and then perhaps reassess these old seamen's courage. Sure they were afraid to go where Columbus was attempting to sail, but for an excellent reason: it was dangerous as hell.

Yet they safely made landfall on San Salvador in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492. They survived because they were professionals who knew how to sail a ship and find land, with Columbus making the tough calls. The problem Columbus faced is that even if he had been able to figure his latitude and longitude, he would have had no idea how close to land he was, as he had no charts. The books say there are certain signs of land, but in my opinion they're overrated. Birds are a clue, that is, if the island supports birds other than the kind you see at sea, and not all do. You can't smell land from upwind, which is the direction from which Columbus was approaching. A reflection of green on the underside of clouds? I've never been able to make it out with certainty, that is, in the absence of knowledge that an island is there, which of course I have, since I'm a twenty-first century guy. But maybe the seamen of olden times could. And of course, there were no city lights or lighthouses.

A good watch at the crow's nest would see land, you'd think, but that didn't stop the Titanic from hitting an iceberg. Columbus had even less of a chance of spotting San Salvador at night, as it's not white and it's very low, probably no more than fifty feet above sea level at any point. Your reporter has sailed to San Salvador, and been on watch at night when we were five miles from the island. The only reason we knew we were five miles from the island is that we had a good chart and GPS. Otherwise, it was completely invisible. It gave me the willies to imagine Columbus sailing in these waters with no way of seeing the land in the dark. At night or on a day with limited visibility, you'd hear the surf before you saw it. Since a sailing vessel in that era could not sail above 60 degrees off the wind at best, and since this would have taken some deft boat handling to achieve quickly from dead down wind, it would have been too late to save the ship at that point.

In the great days of sail it was not unusual for a ship to carry a lead line, which is a long line with a lead weight on the end, over a mile long. They could "sound," or lower the line to the bottom, either underway or after heaving-to, and when the weight hit the bottom they could judge their depth by marks on the line at the surface. Tallow was placed in a hollow on the bottom of the weight, so when it was brought back aboard some of the bottom was stuck to the tallow, and they could see whether they were over sand or mud or gravel. Today, we say a boat is "off soundings" when it passes the continental shelf, or when it's in water deeper than 100 fathoms, but we read the depth off a screen of an electronic depth-sounder. In Columbus' day, both the physical handling of the lead line and the reading of it were highly skilled arts.

Now, you'd think the lead line would be of service, as you could see that you were in shallower water and start looking for land. According to the chart of San Salvador that I have in my possession, the seabed rises from the abyssal plain of the Atlantic Ocean to the east, where the bottom is three miles down, to the surface of the island, in a distance of less than seven miles. Less than 4.5 miles from shore, it's still 5,000 feet down. Columbus could have been sending his crew out with the lead line all the way across the Atlantic, and perhaps they'd gotten complacent. But it would take less than an hour, sailing at five knots, between finally finding the bottom with a mile of line and hitting land. If he had been sounding with 500 feet of line, he would have found the bottom, depending on where he was along the shore, about half a mile from the reef.

Suppose it was a nice, bright, sunny day with 10 knots of wind and calm seas when they approached the land, like in the movies. Sure they'd see it, no problem. On the other hand suppose it wasn't. Suppose it was night, or suppose there was fog or rain, or 35 knots and a twelve-foot sea. Only clairvoyance would have prevented their hitting the reef and sinking, thousands of miles from home. From a very few days out of the Canaries, now in unknown waters and heading for a landfall only existing in Columbus' visionary mind by hypothesis, they must have had a constant concern of running aground. Perhaps we could say they were ignorant; every explorer is ignorant of what he's going to see, and that's why we call them explorers. But only a fool would call them incompetent or cowardly.

We're not heading as far north as Columbus did, but will make landfall somewhere on the islands that in the Caribbean are known as "The Windwards." We won't be nearly as nervous about hitting land. We'll have charts, GPS, a depth sounder, radar, and we'll know we're close to land long before we get there. If it's night, we'll slow down until dawn so we can find our way into a harbor in the daytime, guided by buoys and marks that those who have gone before have put in place to mark our way. Piece of cake.

Next report form this location: "Head Out On The Highway"

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