Posted by: Rob Viens | September 3, 2012

Two Feet From Sinking the Beagle

The coast of Patagonia is proving to be (so far) one of the most perilous places for our little survey ship.  So far there have been some close calls with grounding the ship, some dangerous variable winds, a howitzer that slid overboard, and a lost anchor. Today the saga continues, when a leadsman almost sinks the ship:

“The weather has been tolerably fair for us; but in the evening the breeze was fresh & a good deal of sea.— At this time, the situation of the vessel was for a few minutes very dangerous.— We came suddenly on a bank where the water was very shoal.— It was a startling cry, when the man in the chains sang out, “& a half, two”. Our bottom was then only two feet from the ground.— if we had struck, it is possible we should have gone to the bottom; & the long swell of the open ocean would soon dash the strongest timber into pieces.— (Note in margin: We have since had reason to believe it was a mistake of the Leadsman.) It is beautiful to see the quiet calm alertness of the sailors on such occasions.— We soon deepened our water when we altered our course.— At present we are riding in a wild anchorage, waiting for the morning.” (Sept 3)

The Beagle being laid ashore for repairs on the Santa Cruz River later in the voyage (engraving by Thomas Landseer):

Beagle being repaired

The leadsman is the sailor who determines the depth of the water using a “sounding lead”. These are the long cables with a weight on the end that are dropped in the water to measure depth – a staple of a survey vessel. You may recall FitzRoy’s excitement in getting new leads back in February (see Mail “Trucks” and Flying Fish).

Imagine how history would have been different if the Beagle sank that day in 1832. (RJV)



  1. I scanned the print “The Beagle Laid Ashore, River Santa Cruz” from the book Francis Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin , p. 160, 1888. Enjoy.

    • Thanks! I like the picture you posted recently showing the same location today. It looks just as remote as it was then.

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