The Gulf Stream

 
by NOAA


Chapter 1




General Historical Account Of The Gulf Stream
Its Investigations Up To The Time Of Franklin

Before the time of Columbus's grand discovery of the New World the coasting vessels of the Old must have recognized that there were currents in the Atlantic Ocean which were entirely independent of the tides; but the first indication that currents on the coast of North America were noticed is found in the writings of the Northmen in their description of voyages to America. Several suggestive names were given to prominent objects of discovery, such as Straumsoe (Isle of Currents), Straumsfjorde (Bay of Currents), and Straummes (Cape of Currents), but their exact location can not be identified. Some claim that the voyages extended even to Florida, but it seems probable from later investigations that the points named were all in the vicinity of Cape Cod.

Columbus, before undertaking his voyage of discovery toward the west, resided for some time on the island of Porto Santo, and it was here that he was shown a piece of curiously carved wood that had evidently drifted there from other lands. Strange woods and other floating objects were continually being thrown upon shores of Norway, Scotland, and Ireland, all of which, to a thoughtful mind like that of Columbus, must have induced the belief that there were other lands at no great distance to the west, and so it is probable that to the Gulf Stream in part the world owes the discovery of America.

In actual observations in the Gulf Stream, or rather in the currents contributing to it, Columbus was the pioneer. It is related that September 19, 1492, he sounded with a deep-sea line, and the lead, passing through the surface drift into the dead water below, showed at once that there was a current setting his vessels to the southward and westward. On his subsequent voyages he remarked the strong currents of the Caribbean Sea. He says, for example, " When I left the Dragon's mouth" (the northern entrance to the Gulf of Paria) "I found the sea ran so strangely to the westward that between the hour of Mass, when I weighed anchor, and the hour of Complines, I made 65 leagues of 4 miles each with gentle winds." He also says of the currents entering the Caribbean between the Windward Islands, "I hold it for certain that the waters of the sea move from east to west with the sky, and that in passing this track they hold a more rapid course, and have thus carried away larger tracts of land, and that from hence has resulted the great number of islands."

On his fourth voyage Columbus discovered and noted the strength of the current on the coast of Honduras, although it is probable that at this time the Gulf Stream itself in the Straits of Florida had been found by independent navigators. Peter Martyr says "he left in wryting that sailing from the Island of Guanassa toward the east he found the course of the waters so vehement and furious agaynst the fore part of his ship that he could at no time touch the ground with his sounding plummet, but that the contrary violence of the waters would bear it up from the bottom. He affirmeth also that he could never in one day with a good wynde wynn one mile of the course of the waters.

Columbus speculated as to the cause of these currents. He thought that the equatorial waters followed the motions of the heavens about the world--that is, the rotary motion by which the stars and air revolve about the globe (as was the opinion of the time), so also the water was supposed to partake of the same motion.

John and Sebastian Cabot, in 1497, crossed the North Atlantic Ocean, rediscovering the coast of Labrador. From this point they steered to the southward and westward, "so coasting still by the shore that he was brought so far into the south by reason of the land bending so much to the southward that he was then almost equal in latitude to the sea called Fretum Herculeum, having the north pole elevate in manner in the same degree. He sayled likewise in this track so far toward the weste that he hadde the Island of Cuba in his left hande in manner in the same degree of longitude." * * * "He sayeth that he found the like course of the waters towarde the west, but the same to run more softly and gently then the swift waters which the Spanyards found in their navigation southward."

It is probable that the Cabots did not double Cape Hatteras and discover the Gulf Stream. It is thought by some that they entered the Straits of Florida, but from the testimony of Peter Martyr, quoted above, they were north of Hatteras and probably in the vicinity of the Delaware, but in the longitude of Columbus's discoveries in the West Indies. They did, however, notice the fact that a gentle counter current existed.

The Cortereals, between 1500 and 1502, on several voyages extending from Labrador toward Cuba, probably crossed the Gulf Stream and may have recognized its strength, but very little is known as to the exact localities visited.

In the year 1508 the Island of Cuba was for the first time circumnavigated. Sebastian de Ocampo, under the authority of the Governor of Hispaniola, sailed along the northern coast of the island through the old Bahama Channel and around the western point, Cape San Antonio. In this voyage eight months were occupied, and as it was against the Gulf Stream it would seem that he must have noticed it. As the times demanded however the custom of secrecy on all expeditions, no record has been left of the fact.

The first record, on which the evidence is satisfactory, of the discovery of the Gulf Stream current, is that of Ponce de Leon in his expedition in 1513 in search of the fountain of youth. In company with the afterwards famous navigator, Antonio de Alaminos, he sailed from Porto Rico, along the northeastern side of the Bahamas, and crossed the Gulf Stream somewhere above Cape Canaveral. After reaching a latitude of about 30o north he turned and skirted the coast as far as Tortugas, thus stemming the current for a distance of several hundred miles. Referring to these currents, their journal says that they saw a current which, though they had a good wind, they could not stem. It seemed that they were going through the water fast, but they soon recognized the fact that they were being driven back and that the current was stronger than the wind. Two vessels, which were somewhat nearer the coast, came to anchor; the third vessel, a brig, being in deeper water, could not anchor, and was soon "carried away by the current and lost from sight although it was a clear day." Ponce de Leon, on this expedition, crossed the stream no less than four times, and Alaminos received his first apprenticeship in its navigation, which in after years proved to be of great benefit to him.

During the next few years the Spaniards crossed and recrossed the Stream between Cuba and Florida many times in their search for gold, and of course gained much practical knowledge of the strength and velocity of its currents.

It is interesting to note the speculations of the day as to the cause of this startling phenomenon, and its result on the sailing route to Europe. The which, while I consider I am drawn into no small ambyguetie and doubt, whyther those waters have their course which flowe with so continual a tract in the circuite from the easte, as though they fledde to the weste never to retourne, and yet neyther the weste thereby any whit more fylled nor the east emptied.

If we say that they fall to their centre (as in the nature of heavier things) and assign the equinoctial hyll to be the centre (as some affirme), what centre shall we appoint to be able to receive so great abundance of water, or what circumference shall be found wet.

Many think that there should be certayne large strayghts or entrances in the corner of that great land which we describe to be eight times larger than Italie, and the corner of that land to be full of gulfes, whereby they suppose that some strayghts should pass through the same lying to the weste side of the Island of Cuba, and that the said strayghts swallowe up those waters and so conveys the same into the weste, and from thence again into the easte ocean or north seas as some think. Others will, that the Gulf of that great lande, be closed up and the lande to reach far to the north in the back side of Cuba, so that it embrace the north landes which the frozen sea encompasseth under the north pole, and all the lande of these coasts should joyne together as one firme lande. Whereby they conjecture that these waters should be turned about by the object or resistance of that lande so tending toward the North, as we see the waters turned about the crooked banks of certayne ryvers. But this agreeth not in all points, for they also who have searched the frozen sea, and sayled from thence into the weste doe likewise affirme that those north seas flowe continually toward the weste although nothing so swiftly. * * * Wherefore it is not only more likely to be true but also of necessity to be concluded, that between both these landes hitherto unknown, there should be great certayne open places whereby the waters should thus continually passe from easte into the weste, which waters I suppose to be driven about the Globe by the incessant moving and impulsion of the heavens, and not to be swallowed up and cast out again by the breathing of Demo-gorgon as some have imagined, because they see the seas increase and decrease, flowe and reflowe. The same writer continues at a later date:

Let us now therefore speake somewhat again of the later news and opinion as concerning the swift course of the sea toward the weste about the Coast of Paria. So it is therefore that Andreas Moralis, the pilot, and Ouidas (of whom we have made mention before) repayred to me at my house in the time of Matrite. As we met thus together there arose a contention between them two as concerning this course of the ocean. They both agree that these landes and regions pertayning to the Dominion of Castile, do with one continuale tract and perpetual bond embrace as one whole firme lande or continent all the mayne lande lying to the north of Cuba and the other islands, being also northwest from both Cuba and Hispaniola. Yet as touching the course of the waters they vary in opinion; for Andreas will, that his violent course of the water be received into the lappe of the supposed continent, which bendeth so much and extendeth so farre toward the north, as we have said, and that by the object or resistance of the lande so bending and crooking the water as it were, rebounde in compasse and by the force thereof be driven about the north side of Cuba and the other islands excluded outside the circle called Tropicus Cancri, where the largeness of the sea may receive the waters falling from the narrow streams and thereby represse that inordinate course by reason that the sea is there very large and great.

The Admiral himself, Diegas Colonus, sonne and heyre of Christophorus Colonus the first finder of these landes, being demanded of me what he found or perceived in sayling to and from, answered that there was much difficultie in retourning the same way by which they go; but whereas they first take their way by the mayne sea toward the north before they direct their course to Spayne, he sayth that in that tract he felt the shippe sometymes a little driven back by the contrary course of the waters yet supposed that this chaunceth only by the ordinary flowing and reflowing of the sea, and the same not to be enforced by the circumflection of the water rebounding in compass as we have sayde; but thinketh that this mayne lande or supposed continent should somewhere be open.

Ouidas agreeth with Andreas Moralis as touching the continual adherence of closeness of the sayde continent, yet neither that the water shoulde so beat agaynst the bending back of the weste lande, or be in such sort repulsed and driven into the mayne sea; but sayth that he hath diligently considered that the waters runne from the deepest and wyddest of the mayne sea toward the weste. Also that sayling near into the shore in small vessels, he found the same waters retourne agayne toward the east, so that in the same place they runne together with contrarie course.

Thus have we made you partner of such things as they have given us and written their divers opinions. We will then give more certayne reasons when more certayne truth shall be known. We must in the meantime leane to opinions until the day come appointed of God to reveal this secret of nature with the perfect knowledge of the pointe of the pole Starre. It is certainly most remarkable, when we consider how imperfect was their knowledge of the form or extent of the continent, that their views should have been so near the truth. The Gulf of Mexico was not discovered until 1517, and explored the year after, when the current on the western of the Straits of Yucatan must have been found. Ocampo, in circumnavigating Cuba, judging from experience of the present day, could have found only the tidal currents in the vicinity of Cap San Antonio. The current in the passages in the eastern Caribbean was known to be strong and westerly, and on the Honduras coast the same. Alaminos and Ponce de Leon had found the current in the Straits of Florida, and evidently some of the speculators determined that the land was continuous and in some way the two parts of the flowing stream of water were connected.

Antonio de Alaminos was without doubt the most experienced navigator and pilot in the West Indian waters. He had been chief pilot with Columbus on his last voyage, had been with Ponce de Leon around and among the Bahamas and along the coast of Florida from St. Augustine to Tortugas, and had crossed and recrossed the stream several times. He had afterwards been with Cordova and Grijalva exploring the coast of Yucatan and the Gulf of Mexico. He was familiar with the fact that there was a passage north of Cuba from Gulf to the Ocean, but beyond the Straits to the northward was unknown to him. He thought, however, as Herrera says, "that these mighty currents ought to empty somewhere into an open space." Upon fitting out the expedition for the conquest of Mexico, Cortez gave the chief command of the fleet to Alaminos, and when, later, it was thought necessary to send dispatches and presents to Spain, he was given the fastest vessel to carry the Envoys. Instructions were given him to hold his course north of Cuba and pass into the Atlantic through the Straits of Florida, not touching at any port in the West Indies. Probably this route was suggested to Cortez by Alaminos as being most favorable for a quick passage, and one by which he would be sure to avoid a chance meeting with an enemy either of his own or of a foreign country. The vessel sailed from Vera Cruz July 26, 1519, and after disobeying his instructions by making a stop at the port of Marien on the north side of Cuba, Alaminos passed through the Straits of Florida and reached Spain in safety. It is of course doubtful how far he followed the Gulf Stream, but it is probable that he did so well up the coast toward Cape Hatteras. His voyage changed the course of navigation from the West Indian ports and contributed largely toward the growth of Havana. This port soon became the rendezvous of the West Indian trading fleet, the distributing point of goods from Europe, and the starting port for the return home.

During the half century following the remarkable voyage of Alaminos, there were expeditions without number to the West Indies and the mainland, and while there are minute and detailed descriptions of the land, products, and people, yet scarcely anything is said of the sea currents.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert, writing before 1576, says that all the waters of the ocean "run by nature circularly from east to west, following the diurnal motions of the Primum Mobile." He traces the motions of the waters from the south of Africa and says that from there it strikes over to America. Not finding free passage "it runs all along the eastern coast of that continent northward as far as Cape Freddo, being the farthest known place of the same continent toward the North, which is about 4,800 leagues." He thinks that even if this current has not been traced all along the coast of America, "still it must exist either in uppermost or the nethermost part of the sea." For the reason that this current must have a free passage somewhere Gilbert says "it must either flow around the north of America into the South Sea or it must needs strike over upon the coasts of Iceland, Norway, and Finmark." He adopts the first of the alternatives, as he is anxious to prove the existence of the Northwest Passage. In the journal of his last voyage he mentions that in 50o north latitude they saw ice being carried to the southward, and so conjectured that a current must be setting in that direction. In 1579 and again in 1583 he made two unsuccessful attempts to establish colonies on the east coast of the present United States, and it is curious to see how great was the influence of the Gulf Stream, even at that time, in directing navigation. In considering the advisability of taking the southern passage from England or the more direct but more difficult northern one, he says, "by what way to shape our course, either from the south northward, or from the north southward. The first course, that is, beginning south, without all contraversie was the likeliest wherein we are assured to have commoditie of the currents, which from the Cape of Florida setteth northward, and would have furthered greatly our navigation, discovering, from the foresaid cape toward Cape Breton and all these lands lying to the North." The advantage of being able to provision the vessel at the Banks of Newfoundland led them to decide upon the northern route "although contrareity of currents descending from the Cape of Florida into Cape Breton and Cape Race would fall out to be great and irresistible impediments unto our further proceeding for that year, and compel us to winter in those northern regions."

The records of the voyages of Martin Frobisher are of great interest as showing the gradual extension of knowledge on the subject of ocean currents. He crossed the northern Atlantic six times during the years 1576-'77-'78. In the account of this third voyage he says: Sayling toward the northwest parts of Ireland we mette with a great current from out the southwest, which carried us [by our reckoning] one point toward the northeastward of our said course, which current seemed to us to continue itself toward Norway and other of the northeast parts of the world, whereby we may be induced to believe that this is the same which the Portugese mette at Capo de Buong Speranza [Cape of Good Hope], where, stricking over from thence to the Straits of Megellan and finding no passage there for the narrowness of the sayde Straits, runneth alongue to the great Bay of Mexico, where also having a let of land it is forced to strike back again toward the northeast, as we not only here but in another place also further northward by goode experience this year have found. How the currents returned to the Cape of Good Hope from the "northeast parts of the world" is not stated, but the general course of the Atlantic system is very fairly laid out.

About this time there appeared the theory in "La Cosmographie" that the currents in the Straits of Florida were caused by the rivers emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, and this theory has been held by writers at much later dates. In 1596 it is recorded by D. Layfield, chaplain of the Earl of Northumberland, that between Bermuda and the Azores they thought they observed a current,but shortly before arriving at the latter they were sure of a current setting southward.. The next expedition to that of Gilbert, for settling Virginia and North Carolina, was under Captains Amadas and Barlow. They took the southern passage, as did also all of those under Raleigh. Some of these left the Caribbean east of Cuba, and others continued to the westward and passed through the Straits of Yucatan and Florida.

In 1590 John White, who had been Governor of the colony at Roanoke, referring to the portion of the voyage from Florida Keys to Virginia, says: "We lost sight of the coast and stood to sea for to gaine the helpe of the current, which runneth much swifter farre off than in sight of the coast, for from the Cape of FLORIDA to Virginia, all along the shore, are none but eddie currents setting to the south and southwest." This is the first instance in which there is indicated a knowledge of an approximate position of the axis of the Stream.

In 1606 an observation is recorded by Lescabot, which is evidently a meeting of the Labrador and Gulf Stream currents. He noticed that while in latitude 45o and "six times 20 leagues to the eastward of the Banks of Newfoundland, we found for the space of three days the water very warm, whilst the air was cold as before, but on the 21st of June quite suddenly we were surrounded by fogs and cold that we thought to be in the month of January, and the sea was extremely cold." He attributes this to the ice from the north which comes floating "down from the coast and sea adjoining to Newfoundland and Labrador, which is brought thither by the sea in her natural motion."

The influence of the Gulf Stream in the colonization of North America was about this time very great. In 1606 the English divided their possessions into two parts, the northern part of Virginia (new England and vicinity) was one, and the present North Carolina and Chesapeake Bay region the other, and for each a company was established and commissioned by the King. The route used in going to the first was that tried in 1602 by Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, crossing the Atlantic on about the fortieth parallel, while the southern expeditions held the old passage through the trades and Caribbean. The Dutch vessels bound to New York adopted the West Indian route, so that Nantucket really became the dividing line of travel, and a difference in destination of a degree in latitude necessitated a difference of thirty degrees in route. This seems only to be accounted for by the real or imaginary assistance of the winds and currents in one and the impediment of the Stream in the other. After the English and Dutch settlements became firmly established and crossing the Atlantic a common thing, the personal experience of navigators was no longer thought to be of sufficient importance to print, and the time had not yet arrived for adopting a plan of collecting ship's journals and publishing such nautical information from them as would be of value to others. The writers on the subject, however, must have had access to these journals and corrected and improved their ideas on the subject of currents, and in the latter half of this century many works on hydrography appeared.

In 1650 Varenius gave the most complete description of currents which had been issued up to this time. He classified them into perpetual and periodical, special and general. The system of which the Gulf Stream forms a part he placed as a perpetual special motion of the sea, and describes it as a gigantic Stream beginning at the eastern Capes of Brazil, flowing from south to north and ending toward Florida. He adds, "a similar current from south to north is observed along the Philippine Islands and toward Japan." He also wrote that "some Copernicans, as for instance Keppler, pretend that also the movement of our globe contributes not a little toward it" (the currents), "because the water, not being adherent to the earth but only in a loose contact with it, cannot follow the quickness of its motion toward the east, but is left behind toward the west, so that the sea does not move from one part to the other, but on the contrary it is the earth which quits or leaves the parts of the sea, one after the other."

In 1663 Isaac Vossius wrote a work entirely devoted to the motion of wind and sea, and in it particularly describes most of the currents known in the present day. He says:

With the general equatorial current, the waters run toward Brazil, along Guyana, and enter the Gulf of Mexico. From there, turning obliquely, they pass rapidly through the Straits of Bahama. On the one side they bathe the coasts of Florida and Virginia and the entire shore of North America, and on the other side they run directly east until they reach the opposite shores of Europe and Africa; from thence they run again to the south and join the first movement to the west, perpetually turning in this manner circuitously. He emphasizes this by saying that "a ship without sails and sailors might be conveyed solely by the force of the currents from the Canary Islands to Brazil and Mexico, coming back from there by way of the Florida stream toward Europe on a route some 4,000 German miles in length." Vossius's theory as to the cause of the ocean circulation was that the heat of the tropical sun attracted the ocean and at the same time increased its bulk and formed, as it were, a long mountain of water, "to which the vessels even have some difficulty in ascending when they sail toward the line." He concluded that the sun carried this mountain of water toward the South American shore, where it broke and ran along the coasts. A French hydrographer, George Fournier, some years later propounded a theory almost the opposite. It was that the sun evaporated enough water in the tropics to make a deep valley, and therefore the water from the poles was forced to run toward the equator along the coast of Africa to replace the lost water. He though that the depression always ran before or with the sun and the arriving polar water behind the sun and the rotary system of currents was thus produced.

In 1678 Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit, gave to the world in his "Mundus Subterraneus," the first published chart showing the system of ocean circulation and the Gulf Stream. He says of the causes of the Gulf Stream:

This motion touches many things, whether partly from the general motion of the trade winds against the opposing shores of that region and thence again reflected, which they call the Sailor's Current, or from wind-storms, or finally from the flow and the reflow caused by the moon's force. He was, however, a strong believer in submarine abysses as the cause of vortices and special currents. In 1685 a German named Happelius published another chart of Ocean currents
quite similar to Kircher's. In his work he says:

The general motion of the Ocean goes from east to west, and it is most obvious in the torrid zone. The sun is the cause of this general course of the sea as well as of the trade winds. The particular motions of the sea are of two kinds, one on a straight line and the other with a circulating or whirling movement. Of those which run in a straight line some are constant, regular, and perpetual the whole year through. Some show themselves only at times and change even in direction, are irregular, depending much on the direction of the wind. In the Atlantic from the Brazilian Cape to St. Augustine toward the Antilles and Florida is a constant and perpetual course of the sea from the south to north. About this time the question began to be agitated in the minds of scientists as to how the strange fruits and woods were deposited on the shores of Ireland, Scotland, and other northern lands. The molucca bean was frequently found there, and the fact was thought to be proof of either a northeast of northwest passage to the East Indies. In 1696 Dr. Hans Sloan proved that these beans came from Jamaica. He says:

It is very easy to conceive that, growing in Jamaica, and having got to sea by the rivers, they may be carried by the winds and by the current which is forced through the Gulf of Florida, going there constantly east into the North American Sea; but how they should come the rest of their voyage I can not tell, unless it be thought reasonable that the beans, being brought north by the current from the Gulf of Florida, are put into the westerly winds' way, and may be supposed by this means at last to arrive at Scotland. This is exactly the opinion of many people at the present day.

In 1702 and again in 1720 the fact was stated that the Gulf Stream ran the strongest in the Straits of Florida during strong northerly winds, and as an explanation of this phenomenon Professor Leval thought that it could only be accounted for by the supposition that during the north winds in the channel in the Gulf of Mexico they were blowing from a more northwesterly direction, and in this was pushed the waters of the Gulf into the Straits and so forced them through the latter with increased velocity. The French route from Louisiana to Europe followed the Gulf Stream along the North Atlantic coast toward the Banks of Newfoundland, differing considerably from the more southern route taken by the Spaniards, but while adopting this most expeditious track they went to the other extreme in sailing from their Gulf to their West Indian possessions. They followed the Stream well up toward the Grand Banks, then south to the trade winds and west to their port.

Up to this time, with the exception of Kircher and Happelius in 1679 and 1685, there seems to have been no attempt to indicate the Gulf Stream upon the charts, and even these were more for scientific interest than for the practical benefit of mariners. One chart published in 1630 by the Earl of Northumberland gave the words "Corrento verso Greco," placed about half a degree from Cape Hatteras; but with this exception up to the first half of the eighteenth century, charts generally only show an inscription between Cuba and Florida, "Canalis Bahama versus Septentrionem semper fluit," or its translation into other languages. About the middle of the eighteenth century arrows appeared on the charts of the British colonies to indicate coast currents, and at the same time French charts indicated currents in the Caribbean and in the Straits of Florida in like manner. In 1772 detached indications of the Gulf Stream currents appear, and in 1775 on a special map of Carolina there are arrows near the coast pointing to the southward and westward, and farther off the coast pointing North.

That the want of knowledge as to the limits of the Stream was felt is shown by the length of time consumed in passages between the same ports in opposition directions. A voyage from Boston, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina, would sometimes take three or four weeks, while a return trip would frequently be made in one week. The coasting captains and whalemen, however, were gaining experience regarding the Stream, and to the latter more than all others, up to the time of the Revolutionary War, Franklin was indebted for the information which led to the publication of his chart of the great Ocean current.

These whalers extended their search as far south as Bahama and as far east as Newfoundland, or even to the longitude of the Azores. They discovered that the whales appeared to the north of a certain line and to the south of another line, and were but rarely seen between the two, and these lines they concluded were the limits of the Gulf Stream. The whale fishery soon became the school for American navigators, particularly of New England vessels, and in this way knowledge of the Gulf Stream was introduced into the commercial traffic of the times. The American shipmasters, from their superior information on the subject of currents, inaugurated a change in the sailing route from Europe, by which they could save two weeks or more in the passage. From England they crossed the Newfoundland Banks in about latitude 44 and 45 degrees, and thence on a course inside the limits of the Stream.

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