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Sailing the Pacific Ocean in 250 years history leaps

With an area of over 165 million square kilometers, the Pacific, the greatest of the Earth’s Oceans has seen humans venturing into its vastness for a long time. When we talk about the history of navigators and colonizers usually our minds drift to the Spanish explorers and Conquistadores from the 16th Century, the Magellan-El Cano odyssey sailing for the first time around the globe, or the adventures of Captain Cook in the 17-hundreds.  

But thousands of years before their arrival, South Pacific Islands (Polynesia and Melanesia) were inhabited, and the largest Ocean on the planet had seen already boats and sails navigating its waters. 

Many think that the first European vessels to dare the Pacific waters and explore its islands were great sailing ships, large and sturdy, but in fact, besides almost all of them being just over 30 meters in length (need to say here that this is almost half the size of the Europa) they were ill-prepared and ill-supplied by our modern standards.  

The Magellan Galleons, were the first ones to venture into the Pacific waters which made what has been called the most important maritime voyage ever taken and the greatest sea voyage in the Age of Discovery. Used from the mid-16th century until the early 19th century, Spanish galleons combined the use of square and lateen or triangular sails on their three masts, later growing in size and having four masts. The foremasts had three square sails each, while the mizzenmast had two square sails and a lateen sail. In addition, there was usually one or two small square sails on the bowsprit. They showed a distinctive beak at the prow, and a high sterncastle. 

The Trinidad, flagship of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet in its expeditions was one of those wooden galleons barely 23.5 meters in length. 

Jumping forward in time about 250 years, we find another one of the most famed characters sailing in the Pacific. 250 years that had seen other explorers venturing into these waters and 250 years of evolution on the shipbuilding. This time we talk about Captain Cook, the most wide-ranging and accomplished of the eighteenth-century explorers on his three separate voyages to the Pacific in 1768–71, 1772–75, and 1776–80. He encountered many Pacific cultures for the first time, and collected from them the first important compendium of artifacts to bring back to Europe. During his trips, he discovered and charted many territories. Different ships took part in his small exploratory fleet: His favorite one, the HMS Resolution, a sloop of the Royal Navy. A converted merchant collier adapted to a three-masted ship-rigged sloop-of-war. A fully rigged ship has a sail plan of all her masts square-rigged. She was also the largest of Cook’s ships, 33.73 meters in length. The HMS Endeavour, a bark, sturdily built with a broad, flat bow, a square stern, and a long box-like body with a deep hold. HMS Adventure, a bark-rigged Collier; broad-beamed and shallow draught merchant sailing ship, and the HMS Discovery, the smallest of Cook's Pacific ships, originally a brig, Cook had her changed to a full-rigged ship. 

Another leap of 250 years brings us to the present day, when in most of the sailing vessels fiberglass, aluminiumor, like it is the case of the Europa, steel replaced wood for the construction of their hulls. Almost all mount engines to help the sails on their progression or to get over windless areas of the ocean. 

The Europa is much better fitted than the ships in these old times. Built in Hamburg in 1911 with a riveted hull, she reconverted from a lightship in the Elbe River to the three-masted bark she is nowadays, sailing the world’s oceans since 1994. Along her 56 meters in overall length, the fore and main masts carry 5 squares each, sometimes even a sixth one can be rigged too, and a Mizzen with a Spanker and a Gaff sail. Below decks, she has comfortable cabins equipped with showers and toilets and enough space to store provisions and diesel for long voyages, fresh drinking water tanks, and a water-maker as well. 

But all of those vessels were pretty different from the original means of sailing used by the indigenous explorers and settlers of the Pacific Islands. It was around 3000 years ago that people began heading eastwards from New Guinea and the Solomon Islands into the open waters of the ocean. We can imagine their great navigation skills and courage to sail across vast stretches of open sea. Between 1100 and 800 BCE these voyagers reached Fiji and West Polynesia, including Tonga and Samoa. Around 1000 years ago people began to inhabit the central East Polynesian archipelagos, settling the closest to the western areas first.  

In the 18-hundreds, the English writer William Henry Giles Kingston published a work on Captain Cook, where he describes these native boats; canoes “of superior quality though their tools were made of stone, bone or shells. The canoes are built of several pieces, sewed together in so neat a manner that on the outside no join could be seen. They were of two kinds, double and single. The single were from twenty to thirty feet long, and twenty-two inches brad in the middle, with wedge-shaped heads and sterns, and decked over at both ends, leaving only a third part open. They had outriggers, and some few carried sails, but were generally impelled by short paddles, the blades of which were broader in the middle. The double canoes were composed of two vessels, each from sixty to seventy feet long, and four or five brad in the middle, and sharp at each end. They were fastened together by strong beams placed across their gunwales, which were raised for that purpose, and they were kept about seven feet apart. A platform of boards was placed on these beams, and served as a deck. They were very strongly built, and as the cables themselves were also decked over, they might be immersed to the very platform without sinking. On the platform was a hut, serving as a cabin, and there was a hatchway through the platform in to the hulls by which the water was baled out. The canoes also carried, as a movable fire-earth, a square, shallow trough of wood, filled with stones. They were rigged with one mast, which could be easily lowered, and had a lateen sail of matting, stretched on a long, slightly bent yard, which could be quickly shifted round when beating to inward. These vessels were capable of making long voyages. 

… Indeed, when these vessels are seen, there is no difficulty in understanding the means by which so large a number of islands of the Pacific have been peopled by the same race, some retaining a portion of the civilization their ancestors possessed, others losing it altogether” 

William Henry Giles Kingston. “Captain Cook. His Life, Voyages and Discoveries”. 1871 

Not just their boats but of course also their methods of navigation differ greatly from the ones we use nowadays. The early Polynesian voyagers are considered some of the best way finders in history, being able to find their way across the Ocean using their knowledge of the star movements, the changes in swell patterns, the different types of clouds, and seabird migrations routes. 

On our trip in the Europa, as in any modern ship, a quick look at the wheelhouse instruments tells us about our course, the true and apparent wind, the depth and the presence of other ships, islands, or land contours around, the presence of dense passing showers as well. A barometer gives us the atmospheric pressure and weather models downloaded in a computer give information about the winds forecast for a few days ahead. A Global Positioning System locates us precisely in the chart. 

Like that we could know in advance the wind shift that started yesterday, from a southerly to a westerly and this morning to a good 20kn of North-northwesterly, planning our route accordingly. It also tells about the next change to a Southwesterly that soon will allow us to change course again towards Easter Island, from the Northerly direction we have been following now for almost two days in a row. A course that has brought us to lower latitudes and which overnight has positioned us an additional 30nm further away from our destination. A night when the wind picked up and decreased on several occasions, while several squalls kept passing by, all in all making us reduce a bit our sail plan, furling the Royals and taking away the Upper Staysails. Similar weather welcomed us on deck this morning and lasted for the day, so we woke up realizing that not much sail handling was to happen soon. 

But actually, in the middle of the morning-watch there was action on deck. When we want a ship like ours to stop as she is happily sailing on good wind, it can be done using the sails over a maneuver called Heaving-to. Sometimes it is because she uses the wind and has to sail in a course that we don’t want anymore, others is because some maintenance or repair must be done that requires the ship to be as steady as possible. A bit of a combination of both brought us to gather on deck, brace the Main mast aback, and drop some of the staysails and jibs. With the Fore mast taking wind and the Main pushing us back, the Europa stops her progress and mainly drifts at 1.5kn Eastwards on the still blowing Northwesterly wind. The ship stops her northerly progress while she waits for the fair southerlies to come, and maintenance jobs are taking place in her engine room. After lunch, we are ready again to set sail, adjust the braces, and resume our way. Maintenance is finished and the wind is already backing to West by South.

Geschreven door:
Jordi Plana Morales | Expedition Leader

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