Posted by: Rob Viens | January 10, 2013

A “Serious and Utter Loss of Time”

After a week of silence, Darwin retured to his journal to scratch out a brief summary of what he was experiencing in the world’s toughest seas.  The Beagle was struggling in Drake Passage – prevented from moving westward, drifting south toward Antarctica, and virtually lost at sea:

“During all these precious days we have been beating day & night against the Westerly winds. The cause of our slow progress is a current which is always setting round the coast & which counterbalances the little which can be gained by beating up against strong winds & a heavy sea. — After passing the Il Defonsos rocks, it blew strong & in 24 hours we were rather to leeward of them. — After this the wind was steady from the NW with much rain, & we drifted down to the Latitude of 57° 23′. — On the 8th it blew what Sailors term a strong gale (it is the first we have had) the Beagle is however so good a sea-boat, that it makes no great difference.” (Jan 4-9)

Cape Horn is located at about 56° S latitude.  Each degree of latitude is equivalent to about 60 miles, so this means the Beagle had drifted about 100 miles south –  into dangerous waters of Drake Passage – some of the roughest waters in the world.  For reference, it is only about a 400 mile from Cape Horn to Antarctica. Take a look at this video (from YouTube) of storms in Drake Passage. Then imagine these rough seas on board a wooden “coffin ship” in 1833, when there was absolutely no prospect of rescue:

By the 9th Darwin fed up of being sick, and probably weak from throwing up:

“To day the weather has been a little better, but now at night the wind is again drawing to the old quarter.— We doubled Cape Horn on the 21st, since which we have either been waiting for good or beating against bad weather & now we actually are about the same distance, viz. a hundred miles, from our destination.— There is however the essential difference of being to the South instead of the East.— Besides the serious & utter loss of time & the necessary discomforts of the ship heavily pitching & the miseries of constant wet & cold, I have scarcely for an hour been quite free from sea-sickness: How long the bad weather may last, I know not; but my spirits, temper, & stomach, I am well assured, will not hold out much longer.” (Jan 9)

On the 10th was too weak to say much, he simply writes:

“A gale from the SW.” (Jan 10)

And it wasn’t over yet… (RJV)


  1. Great entry, Rob! I loved the video clip of the storm…I get seasick at the drop of a hat and if I had been on board, I would have had to kill myself…

    • I know – I’m pretty sure I would not have made it either. Though I find myself wanting to experience it myself!

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