Posted by: Rob Viens | September 2, 2012

Anchors Away

For the past few days the Beagle had trouble with its anchors.  Well, more correctly, it had trouble anchoring the ship and then retrieving the anchors from the ocean floor.  Here is what Darwin had to say:

“By the middle of the day we got within surveying distance of the coast. — We let go the anchor: but the sky clearing we soon had a regular dry SW wind.— The anchor would not hold in the sand and we were forced again to stand out.— To night it has lulled, & we have anchored.” (Aug 31)

“The breeze freshened during the night & in the morning there was a good deal of sea. In heaving up the anchor, a sudden pitch in the vessel broke it off just above the flues.— It has been a cloudless day; but with a strong breeze right in our teeth.— To night we have anchored & to our universal joy the wind has chopped round to the North.” (Sept 1)

Admiralty Anchor (from Wikipedia Commons)


Then on the 2nd of September the Beagle suffered a loss of a main anchor – the second thing of some value lost off the coast of Patagonia in the last couple of weeks (after the howitzer lost in a storm last week – see Barometric Musings).  Darwin described the situation:

“Again in heaving up the anchor (one of the best & largest) it broke off like the former ones:— it is supposed that the bottom consists of a clay so stiff as nearly to resemble rock, & that during the night the flue of anchor works into it, so that no power is able to wrench it out.— So early in the voyage it is a great loss. The wind blew a gale; but under close reefed topsails we ran along about 70 miles of coast.— Out of all this range scarcely two parts could be distinguished from each other: nothing interrupts the line of sand hillocks.” (Sept 2)

Anchor in Wales (from Wikipedia Commons)


The Beagle apparently had nearly twice as many anchors on board as a typical ship of its size.  Presumably this was based on FitzRoy’s prudent planning – knowing full well the potential for the loss of an anchor in uncharted waters, and the need to be prepared for different sorts of conditions.  Paperwork suggests that the Beagle had the following anchors on board when leaving Plymouth at the end of last year:

  • 5 – 14cwt bowers (These are the main anchors – usually found at the bow of the ship.)
  • 2 – 7cwt stream anchors  (These are medium-sized anchors used to help stabilize the ship in tidal regions or river channels.)
  • 4 – 3 cwt kedge anchors (These are light anchors usually used for helping to turn the ship while it is moving – a technique called “kedging”.)
  • There was also a combined 1100 fathoms – 6600 feet or roughly 2 km – of chains and cables to be used with the anchors.

Anchors are measured in “hundredweight” or cwt.  One cwt equals 100 pounds, meaning the Beagle‘s anchors each weighed from 1400 to 300 pounds.  Combined they would have weighed 9600 pounds or almost 5 tons.

Weight alone is not enough to hold a big ship on place though. The anchors on the Beagle would have also have been “hooked”, allowing them to become embedded into the sea floor (think of the classic anchor shape).  It appears that the loss of the anchor on this day in 1832 resulted from the flue (“hook”) getting stuck in the bottom.

The news these past few days was not all about anchors.  Some was not so good – such as the return of seasickness:

“At last I find myself decidedly much less afraid of sea-sickness, although during two of the days I was on my “beam ends” (Aug 31)

But other reports were quite positive:

“This day will always be to me a memorable anniversary; in as much as it was the first in which the prospect of my joining the voyage wore a prosperous appearance.” (Sept 2) [It was the day before this in 1831 that Darwin’s father agreed to allow him to go on the voyage (after some convincing) – see How Darwin Almost Stayed How Part II.]

“This last week, although lost for surveying, has produced several animals; the examination of which has much interested me.” (Sept 2) [No kidding – this has been one of densest weeks in Darwin’s Zoological Notebook so far!]

Darwin was clearly back in his routine. Though by the weekend they would drop anchor at Bahia Blanca and the next set of adventures would begin. (RJV)

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