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  • James Wheeling

Too much wind or not enough current, or both!— Sailing around Cape Horn in 1849

Having grown up in a world where engines rule everything, the idea of being at the whim of the wind is hard for me to conceive. I’ve never sailed a ship, been on a sailing ship or even been in a glider, although I’m quite familiar with its destructive power when it tears apart structures on the farm.

Harnessing the wind to move a vessel across water takes years of experience and skill. In 1849, the oceans were alive with sailing vessels, some steam-powered ones too, but mostly sailing ships. To get to California, the majority sailing from Europe and the East Coast of America went around Cape Horn. There were some who chose to sail around the Cape of Good Hope but that’s another story. In my story, the Cape Horn route is key.

Leaving New England meant sailing south and against the Gulf Stream Current toward the equator. On the other side of the equator, the ship would pick up the southbound Brazil Current before bumping directly into the eastbound Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The key to remember here is the current is eastbound.

Currents Map

Once on the Pacific side of Cape Horn, the ship would pick up the northbound Peru current, bump into the westbound South Equatorial current, then the eastbound Equatorial current, the westbound North Equatorial current, all before bucking against the southbound California current to San Francisco. Yikes!

Wind currents aren’t any easier! The wind currents from Newburyport are blowing west, then east at the equator, until they turn north at the tip of Brazil, south for a little bit and then pure on eastbound around Cape Horn. Once the ship gets past them around Cape Horn, the wind currents turn north bound for a little bit, then toward the northeast around the equator before southeast off of Mexico all the way to California.

One last thing… it's known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone but sailors call it the “doldrums” or the “calms.” It is an area of windless weather where the northeast and southeast trade winds converge at the thermal equator. While its position varies by the season, it is easiest to think of it on either side of the equator.

Alright, the stage is set. The ship sails from Newburyport, MA headed to Cape Horn. All is going pretty well, storms not counting, the ship always tacking into the wind and fighting the Gulf Current. Once the ship has slogged its way past the general area of the Caribbean, the ship’s captain has to start dreading the doldrums. Here there is only a whisper of a breeze until the current carries the ship beyond the equator and to around Brazil, when it picks up again. While the Brazil Current flows south (the “right” direction) the winds are blowing north but a good captain is ready. Hopefully, he has taken advantage of the doldrums to change his sails and prepare for the hell that is Cape Horn.

Once the ship approaches the Falkland Islands, both the wind and the current are against it. Both are flowing at full throttle eastward while the ship’s captain really, really, really must go west. Here is where disasters happen. Ships can ply the winds for weeks, tacking back and forth, praying for some kind of miracle to take the ship westbound. Great storms and monstrous waves, called “Greybeards,” slam the ship relentlessly. To make headway, some frustrated captains sail too close to the shore where rocks rip open the ship’s hull and all is lost. Some sails simply tear to pieces and the ship flounders only to be pushed out to sea, also lost. But, amazingly, there are stories of sailing ships that make this ridiculous trip dozens of times, captains who guide their ships through this craziness without loss or damage.

On the other side of Cape Horn, the ship will most likely make a stop at Valparaiso, Chile to recover. Any damage done will be repaired, passengers and crew recoup and enjoy solid ground while food stores are resupplied. When ready, the ship takes off again using the northbound Peru current and the northbound winds. What an incredible feeling that had to be after the struggle around Cape Horn!

Before long though, another round of the doldrums is upon them and the ship waits to float to the other side of the equator. Once across the doldrums, it will run the back and forth across the maze of the Pacific Equatorial currents with the help of the northeast wind. Finally, the southeast winds will help push the ship against the southern bound California current until the ship sails into the port of San Francisco.

Most ships that survived the 13,225 mile trip from New England to San Francisco would make the trip in around 130 days. As ship technology got better, some ships trimmed the time with the best time recorded being the “Flying Cloud,” in 1854, at 89 days and 8 hours, which stood for more than 130 years. Most recently, the record was set in 2013 by the crew of the Soldini-Maserati VOR70 in precisely 47 days and 42 minutes from New York to San Francisco. Wow! The ship was a monohull only 70 feet long and 20 feet wide (see Blog #4 to compare the 1849 model I used in my story) and was crewed by the skipper and eight sailors. Technology has come a LONG WAY since my story’s setting, and this modern ship has a keel that counterbalances the sails to stabilize the boat and has sails made of Kevlar. Imagine what my characters would think of those improvements!

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