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The Weather Luck of Christopher Columbus
Despite the fact that, on his first voyage, Columbus left European waters during the Western Atlantic hurricane season, his fleet of three small ships experienced generally storm-free sailing weather as they cruised the West Indian Islands. Walter Henry has reconstructed possible weather situations from Columbus' log book entries. Henry suggests that as Columbus approached the American waters, a cold front pushing off the Florida peninsula influenced his fleet's course. Behind the front, northerly winds forced them to sail south, making landing first on San Salvador and then Cuba. Had the front not moved through the region, Henry believes, the Trade Winds would more likely have steered the fleet into the Gulf Stream and then northward up the US coast, making landfall in Florida or Carolina instead.
Only on the return voyage did Columbus's good fortune slacken. In the Azores region, Columbus encountered a well-developed extratropical cyclone. Two weeks later, the fleetendured a series of three storms which held the ships in gale-force winds for six days. Fortunately, the night after the storm's peak had lashed the barely sea-worthy crafts, land was sighted. The luck of Columbus had held, for his flotilla had passed south of the storms and not into their more fierce northerly sectors.
Columbus' Second Voyage
The news of Columbus' discover laid the foundation for a second voyage to the newly found world. Six months after returning from his initial explorations, Columbus again set sail for West Indian waters, this time with a fleet of 17 ships and 1,200 men. Again, his weather luck held. In the first year of the voyage, Columbus's fleet again encountered no severe organized storms, although they did met with several strong squalls, the second of which, Bishop Las Casas described as "a thunder squall so sudden, horrible, and perilous that it threw the flagship on her beam-ends."
On the return voyage to the island of Hispaniola in mid-September of 1494, there appeared to Admiral Columbus a "sea monster" upon the ocean surface, an ancient mariner's portent of foul weather in the offering. This omen and, most assuredly, his own weather knowledge persuaded the Admiral to anchor his fleet in the protected waters behind Saona Island, located just off the southeastern tip of Hispaniola. Little has been told about this storm in the Columbus log books. Thus, it must be assumed that the storm was not severe (either a weak tropical storm or the fringes of a more severe storm), for damage reports on Columbus's fleet are non-existent.
The month of June, 1495, most certainly caused Columbus to revise his opinion that "all weather is like May" in the West Indies. As his fleet was anchored in the harbor of Isabella on the northern coast of Hispaniola, there arose "a boisterous tempest of wind" which left the San Juan, the Cardera, and probably the Gallega destroyed. In the words of historian Peter Martyr: "When this whirlwind came to the haven of the city, it beat down to the bottom of the sea three ships which lay at anchor, and broke the cables in sunder: and that (which is the greater marvel) without any storm or roughness of the sea, only turning them three or four times about." The Island natives declared that neither they nor their great-grandfathers had ever seen "such violent and furious Furacanes, that plucked up great trees by the rootes."
The exact name for this tempest is a matter for discussion. From the only contemporary reference available, that of Martyr, Andres Poey y Aquirre and Ivan Tannehill both place this storm in their historical listing of hurricanes. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his biography of Columbus, also calls this storm a hurricane. David Ludlam, however, in his Early American Hurricanes, disagrees, calling the tempest: a tornado/waterspout.
From Martyr's account, I must agree with Ludlam. Martyr makes a strong point of the lack of roughness of the sea, which alone must eliminate the storm from consideration as a hurricane. Martyr also states that only the trees in the path of the storm were destroyed, typical of the destruction of tornadic winds. Also, the rarity of the storm alleged by the natives would rule out hurricanes, which would strike that region at least once every few years and thus have been seen by the natives or their great-grandfathers.
Perhaps Martyr's use of the word Furacane has been misleading. The word which is the forerunner of our hurricane most likely referred to any severe wind storm regardless of its size. Nonetheless, only the Nina survived the storm. The other three battered ships were salvaged and reworked into one new ship, the Santa Cruz.
Admiral Columbus's third voyage again renewed his good weather fortunes. The only unfavorable mention of the winds was the lack of them, for his fleet of caravels was becalmed for eight days, drifting westward on the equatorial current. At no time in the next two years did Columbus's path cross that of an organized tropical storm.
A Fourth Voyage to the Indies
Mid-May of 1502 found Admiral Columbus at sea again commanding a four-ship fleet. For the first time in his explorations of the New World, he arrived in West Indian waters in advance of the peak hurricane season.
Upon arriving in the vicinity of Santo Domingo, Columbus sent one of his captains ashore to negotiate for a vessel to replace one that Columbus felt was unsuited for his explorations. He also wished to convey a weather warning to the governor of Hispaniola. From his experience in navigating these waters, Columbus had read the weather signs and sensed the imminent approach of a strong storm. ln his message, he requested permission to ride out the storm in Santo Domingo harbor and advised the fleet of treasure and slave ships about to set sail for Spain to remain in port a few days longer.
It was characteristic of the treatment Columbus received from many officials in the lands he had claimed for the Spanish crown that his proposal was scornfully rejected. To add further insult, he was denied shelter. Governor Ovando then ordered the flotilla of treasure ships to set sail for Spain.
The Admiral's Gold Is Saved
Two days out of port, the treasure fleet caught the brunt of the storm as they passed the eastern tip of Hispaniola. At the mercy of hurricane-force winds and heavy seas, 20 ships foundered with all hands lost, and six more sunk losing most of the crew. Three of four vessels managed to return to Santo Domingo harbor. Only one ship was capable of continuing on to Spain. Ironically, this vessel carried gold belonging to Columbus.
The Admiral's weather luck was again strong, for the Spanish fleet lost over 500 lives along with the treasure whereas Columbus' fleet suffered only minor damage by seeking refuge in the harbor of Azua where they were sheltered from north and west storm winds.
There were anxious moments, however. The storm struck at dawn and strengthened to hurricane force by nightfall. Only Columbus' own ship held anchor; the rest were blown seaward. "The storm was terrible," Columbus wrote, "and on that night the ships were parted from me. Each of them was reduced to an extremity, expecting nothing save death; each one of them was certain the others were lost." Bartholomew Columbus, the Admiral's brother, added, "the Admiral had saved his ship by lying close to the shore, like a sage astrologer who foresaw whence the danger must come."
A rendezvous point had been prearranged before the onset of the storm, and Columbus was pleased to see his three other ships enter the small land-locked bay. After a few days of rest and repair, the fleet was again ready to resume its mission. Eighteen months later, Columbus learned that all thatch-roof houses in Santo Domingo had been leveled when the hurricane hit land.
Columbus's exploration force sailed to Haiti, then south of Jamaica and Cuba to the coast of Central America. The Admiral's journal for this passage is a mystery. He wrote: "Hence as opportunity afforded I pushed on for the mainland in spite of the wind and a fearful contrary current, against which I contented for 60 days, and after all made only 70 leagues. All this time I was unable to get into the harbor, nor was there any cessation of tempest, which was one continuation of rain, thunder, and lightning; indeed it seems as if it were the end of the world. Eighty-four days did this fearful tempest continue, during which I was at sea."
The mystery here concerns the lack of any record of the tempest in the narrative of the voyage by Columbus's son, Ferdinand. It would seem that a boy of 13 years would have the memory of such a tempest firmly engraved on his mind, but no mention of this episode can be found. Further Columbus's own records show the voyage took only 74 days, not 84 days. Whether his memory or the surviving text of his narratives is at fault, we shall not know.
A Tempest's Fury
As the year of 1502 drew to a close, the good fortune that had pervaded the relationship between Columbus and the weather terminated. Off the west coast of Panama, the wind battered the fleet about. In Columbus's words:
"The tempest arose and wearied me so that I knew not where to turn... eyes never beheld seas so high, angry and covered by foam. The wind not only prevented our progress, but offered no opportunity to run behind any headland for shelter...Never did the sky look more terrible; for one whole day and night it blazed like a furnace, and the lightning broke forth with such violence that each time I wondered if it had carried off my spars and sails; the flashes came with such fury and frightfulness that although the ships would be blasted. All this time the water never ceased to fall from the sky; I don't say it rained, because it was like another deluge. "
Ferdinand added, the crew was "struggling with all the elements and dreaded them all; for in such terrible storms they dread the fire in lightning flashes; the air for its fury, the water for its waves, and the earth for its reefs and rocks of that unknown coast." "Besides these different terrors," he continued, "there befell one no less dangerous and wonderful a waterspout that on Tuesday, December 13th passed between two ships. Had the sailors not dissolved it by reciting the Gospel according to St. John, it would surely have swamped anything it struck; for it raises the water up to the clouds in a column thicker than a water butt, twisting it about like a whirlwind."
The rest of the voyage was uneventful from a weather standpoint, save for a heavy squall encountered off Cuba. "But it pleased God to deliver us there, as already He had from many other dangers." Perhaps the most significant aspect of this 18-month period was the marooning of the exploration team for one year and four days on the northern coast of Jamaica.
No Peaceful Journey Home
Columbus's days in the New World were coming to an end as he embarked from Santo Domingo in mid-September 1504. Again the Admiral was traveling through Atlantic waters at the peak of the hurricane season. The final crossing was slow and not without weather problems. One storm quartered the mainmast. A jury was rigged, and the voyage continued. A second storm fractured the makeshift mast, and again repairs were undertaken.
After eight troubled weeks at sea, Christopher Columbus reached the Spanish shore ending his last voyage to the Americas. At age 52, he concluded a career of exploration that had opened a world of riches to the crowns of Europe. But Columbus never received the honors accorded his accomplishments during his lifetime.
In the end, even his old friend the weather had mocked the Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
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