CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS ||| Ch.XIV. THE SARGASSO SEACategory: Christopher Columbus
THE SARGASSO SEA
Columbus decided to keep two records of the trip — one for himself and one to show the men — because he did not want them to know how far they really were from home.
Besides, he was getting ready for the day when his sailors would come to him and say, “Look here, Captain-General Columbus, you promised us that we would turn back after 750 leagues.” Then he would be able to show them false record and say, “Your reckoning is mistaken! See here, we have travelled only four hundred leagues.”
Of course, he had to inform the master and the pilot about this. They had many arguments about the distance travelled, because their reckoning was not the same.
But there was small need for deceiving the men just after the beginning of the voyage. Nobody thought of turning back because everything went well and the weather was perfect.
It was a fine ten days’ sail. On September 19, Columbus told his men that they had covered four hundred leagues — about 1,163 nautical miles. That was good sailing on any sea, at any time.
Then came trouble.
Something was happening to the compass. It no longer pointed to the North Star at night. Night after night Columbus checked the compass but could not understand what it meant. He tried to keep it a secret, but the ship was small and crowded and not a place where any secret could be kept for long.
The men crowded to the quarter-deck and looked angrily up at Columbus. “Turn back,” they shouted. “We know about the compass that now points to the west of the North Star! The Devil’s hand is on the compass!”
Columbus looked down at the angry faces making himself smiling confidently. “Nonsense!” he told his men. “The compass needle is not moving at all. It is only the North Star that moves. All stars move, don’t you know that? What kind of sailors are you? This is nothing to be worried about. I have seen such a thing happen many times. Now go about your work and don’t bother me with these childish fears.”
The men looked at each other. Was their commander telling them the truth? He looked so confident. They accepted Columbus’s explanation and went about their business.
The next day the men crowded to the forecastle again, eagerly looking westward. Excited and happy, they pointed to masses of sargassum weed drifting past.
Of course this was a sign that land was near! The sargassum, or seaweed, had been torn from land by wind and wave and brought to this place. Enthusiasm became even greater when a live crab was discovered on seaweed. How far could this crab be from his home? One day’s travel? Or two?
The sailors looked up at Columbus, who smiled down at them. ‘That old sea dog knew it all the time,” said a mariner. “He knows his job, that Genoese!”
The next day there were even more signs of land. The sea was very still.
The wind died. They even saw a – flock of birds flying west. A sailor aboard the “Nina” caught a tuna fish, which is seldom found far from land.
Everyone was happy. The two caravels, the “Nina” and the “Pinta”, sailed ahead. They wanted to be the first to sight land. A prize of ten thousand maravedis had been offered to the first one who sighted land.
Columbus consulted the charts he had compiled from Toscanelli’s and his own reckonings. They showed islands all around at this position. He was certain that the voyage would soon be over.
But there was no land. Instead, the seaweed became thicker and thicker.
The men whispered. The whisper grew to a growl. The growl became a shout. The Sargasso Sea!
All had heard the legend about the terrible Sargasso Sea, a sea of weed so thick that ships could never come out of it. There were stories of monsters that lived in this sea, of ships that were pulled under by sea dragons.
Columbus remembered Pedro Vasquez de la Frontera, the old seaman who had been left behind in Palos. He tried to calm his men. “Has not Pedro Vasquez told us about this sea of weed? There are no monsters here, as you can see. The weeds part before our bows and not hinder our progress.”
It was true. The weeds did not hinder the ships’ progress and no bottom could be felt.
“You see,” Columbus told his men, “there is clear deep water under these weeds. No rocks, nothing to be afraid of. Have no fear, we shall sail through.”
He was right. There was nothing to be afraid of in the Sargasso Sea. This great mass of seaweed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is not dangerous for ships. The weed, gathered
into one mass by the currents of the ocean, lives and grows thousands of miles away from land. Crabs and many different kinds of microscopic plants and animals live in it. Birds find much food on it. Under it live countless fish who feed in its shelter.
Columbus and his men were the first to sail through the Sargasso Sea.