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The Silent Landscape
Chapter Six. Kelp and Cold Light
Hamilton, Bermuda, 32o18'N, 64o 48'W, to Edinburgh, Tristan da Cunha, 37o03'S, 12o18'W

Bermuda

Challenger left Bermuda in a hurry, driven from there by news that the disease was spreading across the island. But, as Matkin could now unhappily testify, they were not completely successful in avoiding it. The crew complement was further reduced by the need to leave two particularly severe cases behind in hospital. This loss, combined with the desertions in Halifax, had brought the crew complement down to 236. All the missing men would have to be replaced at the Cape. But first there was the long haul down the Atlantic via the Azores, Cape Verde Islands, St. Paul's Rocks, Bahia, and Tristan da Cunha, a journey that would take almost four months. Yet on the first leg to the Azores dredging proceeded apace and successfully, the Scientifics were gleeful, and Captain Nares regularly issued wine to Challenger's hardworking crew.

The Prairie of Kelp

It was in Bermuda that Wyville Thomson started the first of the several articles he was to write for the popular magazine Good Words, despite a correspondence workload that was already high... As the ship pulled away from Bermuda, northeast toward the Azores, he explained to his audience the importance of their new destination; situated on the northern border of one of the strangest places in the North Atlantic. For more than 300 years, since the time of Columbus, its name had struck terror in the hearts of mariners all over the world and tales were told of ships becalmed for all eternity in a choking mass of seaweed that matted the center of the mid-Atlantic. When Challenger finally made harbor in the Azores, she would have sailed completely around the Sargasso Sea.

 

Strangely enough, legends of “a sea of lost ships” were common centuries before the Bermuda Triangle became notorious. Since the Middle Ages, floating derelicts have often been found in this region of the Atlantic, which broadly extends between about 20o N and 35oN and 30Wo and 70oW (the large uncertainty in this estimate is part of the mystery of the Sargasso Sea). The legend maintains that the Sargasso Sea derelicts are found shipshape but otherwise bereft of a living soul. On one occasion a slaver was sighted but when boarded was found to contain nothing but the skeletal remains of crew and slaves. In 1840, the ship Rosalie sailed through the area but, as the London Times later reported, was thereafter found drifting and derelict. In 1857, only a handful of years before the Challenger expedition, the bark James B. Chester was found becalmed in the Sargasso, with the chairs upended, a putrefying meal still on the mess table, and no sign of the crew.

Even after the Challenger voyage, legends about ship disappearances continued to haunt the area. In 1881, the schooner Ellen Austin, bound for London, discovered a derelict adrift in the Sargasso. The captain put a prize crew aboard but then the two ships became separated by a squall. When Ellen Austin resighted the derelict, the prize crew was gone. And today, in the early twenty-first century, more recent legends of the Sargasso continue to haunt us. As recently as 1955, the Connemara IV was found deserted and drifting in the area, only 150 miles from Bermuda.

For hundreds of years the Sargasso Sea, like the Bermuda Triangle, has been a magnet for the tabloid press. Lurid nineteenth-century paintings show sailing vessels being devoured by the weed that floats on the surface of the sea: Sargassum, so named by Portuguese sailors who spotted the resemblance of the weed's air-filled bladders to the grapes of their homeland. And like the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, the legends of the Sargasso Sea have some basis in fact. Much of the sea's peril comes from its location in the almost windless “Horse Latitudes”; so called because ships en route to the Spanish Main were often becalmed there and their horses were slaughtered for fresh meat and to preserve water. Another name for the Horse Latitudes is the “Doldrums.”

The Sargasso Sea is surrounded by some of the strongest surface-water currents in the world: the Florida Current to the southwest, the Gulf Stream to the northwest and north, the North Atlantic Current to the north and northeast, the Canaries Current to the east, and the North Equatorial Drift running along the entire southern margin of the sea. These currents form a cordon around the sea, isolating it from the rest of the Atlantic. This isolation causes two other curious features: the sea's unique temperature structure and its unique ecology. The Sargasso Sea is actually a thin lens of warm water perched on top of much colder water and is home to great floating beds of the Sargassum kelp that gives the sea its name.

The Azores, 38o30'N, 28o 00'W

On July 1, 1873, Challenger dropped anchor off Horta, capital of the Azorean island of Pico. “We are pretty close in now and in a few minutes the pipe will go 'all hands bring ship to anchor'” wrote Joe Matkin, “and out will come the Portuguese boats with fish, fruit etc… They soon found though that the town was in the grip of a smallpox epidemic and that another raged in Madeira. On the strength of this, Nares decided that their visits to both islands would be as short as possible and that they would make all plain sail for the South Atlantic and the Cape at the earliest opportunity.

Matkin realized sadly that whatever happened now it would be another three years before they saw the Azores again. Only then, with a fair wind up-channel, would they truly be only “five days from home.”

Challenger left San Miguel on July 9, 1873 under all plain sail for the island of Madeira, 490 miles to the southeast. The transit would take a week because of the usual delays of sounding and dredging. Because of the smallpox outbreak there, none aboard expected to stay very long in Madeira and indeed, Nares was so impatient to leave that the ship, which arrived in the evening of July 16, was in port only 24 hours before departing again for the Cape Verde Islands, a thousand miles to the south.

Under the influence of the northeast trade winds, Challenger made good time despite the frequent stops required by the Scientifics. Heading south, they dredged again near the Canaries in an effort to rediscover the area where they had found the manganese nodules on their first trans-Atlantic transect. They found the narrow plateau where they had retrieved the first specimens but not the exact spot, in spite of having, as George Campbell put it, “the night before run before the wind under bare poles so as not to overshoot it.”

Following the 1000-mile run south to the Cape Verde islands, by July 27th the Challenger crew was dredging off the island of St. Vincent. There they were to pick up two new members of the crew, a new sub-lieutenant and a replacement schoolmaster sent out from England to take over the care of Captain Nares's young son, Billy, following the death of Adam Ebbels in Bermuda. But when they arrived at St. Vincent they found that the schoolmaster had disappeared. The new lieutenant, Harston, could shed little light on the matter except that the schoolmaster had gone out for a walk soon after their arrival eight days before and had not been seen since.

St Paul's Rocks, Equatorial Atlantic Ocean, August 27, 1873, 01o00'N, 29o 23'W

“On 27th August,” wrote Lord Campbell, "…we sighted St. Paul's Rocks, steamed to leeward of them, and as there is no anchorage, sent boats with ropes and hawsers to the rocks, wound a rope round and round a bit of rock, made a hawser fast to the rope and swung to it with a length of 75 fathoms of hawser, 104 fathoms of water under our bows and there we comfortably lay for a day and two nights, made fast to a pinnacle of rock in the middle of the Atlantic!—something no other ship has ever done here before. St. Paul's Rocks are a cluster of five separate craggy rocks, all lying close together in a horseshoe shape, the highest being about 60 feet high, which, as are also two other peaks rather less high, is colored white from the birds 'boobies' and 'noddies' which were sitting about on the rocks, flying over the ship and close over the sea, in thousands..."

The remoteness of their situation was not lost below decks, either. Joe Matkin wrote of the Rocks, “They are 850 miles from the African, and 650 miles from the American continent, and are only 90 miles from the equator. The sea all around them is two miles in depth, they rise only 60 feet out of the water, and as it breaks all over them, landing is very difficult… They are out of the track of any ships, and as nothing is to be obtained, no vessel ever comes, the last known to call here was a man of war in 1845.”

On August 29, 1873, Challenger cast off from the desolate pinnacles of St. Paul's Rocks and headed for the equator, only 90 miles distant. Their next stop, the island of Fernando Noronha, hove into view on September 1st. Brazil used the island as a penal colony for its worst offenders...

...On the morning of Wednesday, September 3, Challenger weighed anchor and left Fernando Noronha. With a heavy heart Wyville Thomson watched the tiny penal settlement disappear over the horizon. “Some of us,” he wrote, “had set our hearts upon preparing a monograph of the natural history of the isolated little island.” But Campbell, as usual, was more practical and forthright, “I was mighty glad,” he wrote, “as it was a stupid little place.”

And yet, on reflection, Wyville Thomson tended to agree with Campbell's assessment, “I am inclined to think that there was a general feeling of relief on leaving a place which, with all its natural richness and beauty, is simply a prison, the melancholy habitation of irreclaimable criminals.”

After the desolation of St. Paul's Rocks and the remoteness and hostile reception at Fernando Noronha, Challenger's crew were only too pleased at the prospect of several days rest and recuperation in the mainland port of Bahia on the east coast of Brazil. They arrived there on September 14 after a difficult passage against the southeast trade winds.

In all, Challenger spent 10 days at Bahia and in that time several expeditions were fielded...

...by noon the next day Moseley was safely back aboard Challenger after his adventures in the interior. He found the officers and Scientifics relaxing with new friends. The American corvette Lancaster lay in harbor, and “we fraternized greatly with the officers,” wrote Herbert Swire, “who turned out to be a capital set of fellows.” Indeed, Swire was having an excellent time, he and several of the other officers having struck up great friendships with the members of Bahia Cricket Club with whom they played the sport of gentlemen.

So cordial had relations become, in fact, that the Challenger crew had no fewer than three balls to look forward to. But then disaster struck. “During the first few days of our stay a large amount of rain had fallen,” wrote William Spry, “this, succeeded by a hot sun and again by rain, formed just the forcing bed for disease.” On the day of the ball to be given in their honor by the Bahia Cricket Club, one of the bluejackets went down with Yellow Jack. He was immediately hospitalized and Nares put Challenger out to sea, bound under all plain sail for colder lands ...

...by mid-October the ship was within sight of one of its most desolate destinations: the remote forbidding island of Tristan da Cunha.

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Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk