27-Dec-2001 -- After having visited the Confluence near Ilhas Selvagens in Portuguese territorial waters, we continued on our course to the Cape Verde and thence to Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), Port Harcourt and Lagos (Nigeria). All is going well aboard ship, the 5,000 tons of fish in the cargo holds, loaded in Germany and the Netherlands, are already deep frozen and were arrived this day already at -23.5°C (-10.3°F).
Chief Officer Valentyn starts his day by sorting his notes made overnight on his numerous paper slips. Chief Engineer Volodymyr today has his "free day". Once a week Captain Peter gives him the permission to leave the engine room and to relax a bit, doing jobs on deck, in the sunshine. Here he is mounting a bracket for a new lifebuoy in the bridge wing.
This morning of 27 December we arrived in the Canary Islands Archipelago at 28N 18E, in the area between the Islands of La Palma, Gomera, and Hierro. The Canary Islands (Islas Canarias), for Europeans a holiday resort of first importance in winter, are separated from the African continent by a clear channel and comprise the seven islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Gomera, La Palma, and Hierro.
The Canary Islands are generally high and composed of volcanic mountains, so lofty that during a great portion of the year the summits of some are covered with snow (e.g. Pico de Teide on Tenerife). The coasts are for the most part cliffy, occasionally broken by bays and sandy beaches. Surprisingly there is not a single Confluence on these Islands, all are more or less close offshore. So, these points are reserved for yacht owners or ocean going ship masters.
The existence of the Canary Islands was well known in early times and they were inhabited by a fair race, known as the Guanchas, who were akin to the Berbers of Northern Africa. The first permanent settlement was made in the early part of the 15th century by a French nobleman who was assisted by the King of Castille in the subjection of the inhabitants - under the condition that the islands should belong to Spain. By the end of the 15th century, after numerous encounters with the inhabitants, Spanish rule was finally established. The Guanchas have now almost completely disappeared owing to mixture with the Spaniards, so that racial characteristics are chiefly Spanish.
The geological features of the islands prove that they formed part of the African continent in prehistoric times. The shapes of the islands clearly show that at one time they were part of the Atlas Mountains. The climate is very healthy, the heat is tempered by the elevation of the islands and the prevalence of NE winds.
The flora includes many trees of European origin, but owing to the climate almost any tree or plant can be cultivated, such as coffee, date palm, sugar cane, banana, and orange. Amongst the fauna are large goats and a vigorous breed of camel. Over 200 species of birds have been collected. There are numerous lizards, centipedes, and scorpions. Due to the Canary Current, setting S from the North Atlantic, the marine fauna is more European than African, and there are several American fish. The Canary cod rivals that of Newfoundland in quality.
The only mineral worked is pumice which is quarried on Tenerife Island.
Hierro (translated "Iron", due to the local magnetic anomalies around its area) played once a very important role in measuring the world. The "Zero"-meridian was not at all the times defined as the one going through the Greenwich Observatory. Many seafaring nations made up their own system of reference. A 2,000 years ago, the "Zero"-meridian passed through Hierro Island. According to this, London was on 18° East.
The upper part of Hierro is an elevated plateau with the highest point called Malpaso, attaining an elevation of 1,521 m (4,990 ft). The capital of the Island is Villa de Valverde (Village of the Green Valley) in position 27°48'N, 17°55'W.
At 09:16 hrs we were on the Confluence north of Hierro, exactly a 16.5 m away from the exact position. Unfortunately the wind had suddenly changed to SSE an hour before, and that means in this area: not the best visibility. Sand from the Mauritanian desert and humidity gives everything a hazy aspect. See the Island from North and East, as we have seen it. In the middle of the latter picture Villa de Valverde can be made out with a little imagination.
And now I believe the moment has come to go a little bit back and to talk about what happened in former centuries and what we call the
"BATTLE FOR THE LONGITUDE"
Six British warships are waiting off the Azores for Spanish ships returning from Central and South America, in order to attack and to rob them. But not Spanish ships, rather the "Madre de Deus", a wonderful Portuguese galleon with 32 cannons on board, on her way from India to Lisbon, appeared on the horizon. After a short battle the "Madre de Deus" fell as a prey to the British. Her cargo: 3 tons of nutmeg blossoms, 35 tons of cinnamon, 45 tons of cloves, 400 tons of pepper, ebony, cotton, ... cases full of gold and silver coins, pearls and diamonds; - the cargo was worth half the British national budget of oneyear, a half a million Pounds!
How could that have happened? How could the Portuguese step into this trap? They knew perfectly well the British around the Azores to be lying in wait.
There is a very simple explanation: Navigation at these times took place on strictly defined routes, on beaten paths, so to say, promising a quite safe return to the home ports, as there was not yet existing a reliable method to determine the ship's exact position on a chart. The determination of the latitude, i.e. the distance from the equator is easy, every day the height of the sun in culmination above horizon corrected by its declination and complement to 90° (astronomical noon) equals to the latitude. And at night the latitude is nothing else than the height of the Polar Star above the horizon.
But what about the longitude? Today it is easy as well. All you need is a GPS, or a sextant, a Nautical Almanac, a calculator or sight reduction tables - and an accurate watch. But let's start from the very beginning:
Even the most famous seamen, as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Sir Francis Drake, just sailed relying upon their feeling and experience. Magellan had no idea about his longitude as well, and especially with him we see what disastrous consequences this ignorance could cause. The roaming around prolongs the voyage, scorbut spreads among the crew, hundreds of ships strand on reefs and get lost, because they do only know their latitude, but never their longitude.
The only method to calculate the longitude was by the so called "dead reckoning", i.e. to calculate farther or extrapolate from the last definitively known position close to a landmark. This is a doubtful practice already in limited waters as the Gulf of Biscay, the Mediterranean or the Baltic Sea; in the open ocean, however, is absolutely unreliable, as nobody knows exactly the current and the effect of the wind.
The German mathematician Johann Tangermann wrote 1655, with his unequivocable North German dialect (Plattdeutsch), in his "Wechwyser tho de Kunst de Seevaerdt ("Manual of the Art of Navigation"):
"Wenn man de Lengde so korrect könnte hebben als de Breede, so weer de Kunst van de Seevaerdt vollenkommen". (If we had the longitude as exact as the latitude, navigation would be perfect) - and he is right.
Eratosthenes of Syene, a Greek living about 300 BC in Alexandria/Egypt, already knew: Sun reaches its highest point above horizon (culmination), i.e. at noon, on different meridians at different times. All points on the same meridian have noon at the same time, and each meridian has its individual noon time. Erathostenes defined the equator/Zero-parallel through Rhodos Island, and is so splitting the civilized world into a Northern und a Southern hemisphere. The Zero-meridian he lays through Alexandria, one of the most important towns in these times. He knew already Earth to be a sphere and he split it into 60 segments, later Hipparchos (190-125 BC) amended it into 360 segments. The geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus 150 AD defined today's equator as the line where sun is vertically above at begin of spring and autumn, and calculated each 1°-sector on it with 113 km, being amazingly accurate (it is 111 km, or 60 nautical miles, as we know today).
But defining the longitude remains an arbitrary act. Earth is rotating around its own axis, and so each meridian has the same justification to be the "Zero". Ptolemaeus decided to name the Zero-meridian the Western end of the known World - and these are - in these times - the CANARY ISLANDS - and namely it was HIERRO!
This will frequently change in later times. For Portugal the "Zero" is first through the Azores, then through the Cape Verde Islands, the Russians set it through St. Petersburg, there are other "Zeroes" through Pisa, Paris, and Philadelphia. And in 1884 according to an international agreement, it became London - to the rather dissatisfaction of the French. They kept their Zero-meridian until 1911, passing through the Observatory of Paris. Finally they recognized the London-meridian, but do call it still "Meridian of Paris, delayed for 9 minutes and 21 seconds" (= Paris is roughly 2 and 1/3° East or "earlier" of London.)
In 1567 King Philipp of Spain promises to the one solving the longitude problem, the discoverer of the fix point, the "punto fijo", an extremely high remuneration. Galileo Galilei submits a solution, but the Spanish Court refuses it. His method to determine longitude with measuring distances of the Jupiter-moons is complicated and not suitable for practical navigation. Other famous scientists, as Christiaan Huygens, Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley, try it. But they all commit the principal error: looking for an astronomical solution.
And finally there appeared another group of people, not scientists, but normal mechanics. Since many centuries it was evident that the course of the sun on the noon line is linking TIME with DISTANCE. And they came to the following conclusion:
When all meridians are extending N-S, it is possible to calculate the distance between them by measuring the time sun needs for it's travelling from one point to the other. Point #1 was the home port of the ship, point #2 the position of the ship. That works, provided that you have an instrument converting time difference into geographical distance. With simple words: a clock or a watch.
Earth divided into 360 degrees completes within 24 hrs a full rotation around its axis. In 1 hr it makes good 360/24 = 15° longitude. A time difference of 1 hour between home port and ship's position means a distance from the home port of 15° in longitude. On the equator these 15° are 900 nautical miles. More S or N of the equator this distance decreases (see and compare the "Poles Problem" of our Confluence Project).
If 1 hr = 15°, then 60 minutes are as well 15°, and 1 degree = 60/15 = 4 minutes. But these bloody 4 minutes have different lengths, - according to ship's latitude! And that was the major obstacle of this simple idea being accepted, although it is very easy to calculate.
1° on equator = 60 nautical miles = 111 km
1° on e.g. 60°N = 60 nautical miles x cos 60° = 60 x 0.5 = 30 nautical miles = 55.5 km.
And that's it. The only thing is to obtain the cosine of the latitude from a table or calculator and multiply it with 60 nautical miles or 111 km or 69 statute miles, and you have the distance between 1° longitude on your latitude.
There were lots of charlatans and impostors around, pretending to know the solution. The Longitude problem was compared with this to artificially make gold or to construct a perpetuum mobile. The following idea is mere quack, but I do mention it, so readers can see what people really tried out in their desperation:
An Englishman in southern France invented the so called "unguentum sympathicum" (sympathetic ointment), a medication being effective over long distances and very painful if applied. If the Englishman was putting the ointment on the knife with whom the patient has been previously hurt, the patient starts to cry full of pain even when he is hundreds of miles away. So the solution was: Bring a hurt dog aboard ship. Treat and feed it well, but do not allow the wound to healing. A reliable person in London applies the ointment every day exactly at noon on the knife the dog was hurt with, - and never mind the ship's position, the dog will start to howl, and on board they will know: NOW it's noon at London! The captain of the ship now compares the ship's time with the time in London and can easily calculate his longitude.
Of course, all that a crazy idea, but let's assume, it really worked: Then the shipmaster still needed a very accurate clock. If his clock shows an incorrect local time, all the hocus-pocus was good for nothing anyway.
What kind of clocks did they have on board ships in these days?
On the beginning only hour glasses. These were good for changing watches with sufficient accuracy (they lost about 1/2 hour a day), but humidity and list of the ship changed the constant flow of the sand - and it had to be turned upside down regularly. What, when at night the "drunken sailor" forgot about it for about 2 hours?
In 1714 they tried again to determine longitude with astronomical aids. The German astronomer Johannes Werner discovered the method of the moon-distances. A rather complicated method and the position of the stars with whom you compare these distances the moon is travelling between them in a certain time lapse, were not exactly known. An error of only 5 minutes had catastrophic consequences on the position at sea (some 150 nautical miles!). Far too much for a safe navigation.
It has to be said at this point, that the search for the longitude was a battle for world domination, too. It is not only a matter of the cargo onboard Portuguese galleons, but for the survival of whole nations, loosing more and more ships due to their shipmasters not knowing their position. It frequently happened that e.g. British ships homebound from India or so to Bristol or Thames River the night before crashed full power against the rocks of Land's End or Cornwall, just because they did not know their position and were still believing to be a 500 miles in open waters. And it's not only the ship's position. It is a major concern to be able to find again already discovered places, islands and countries. It's a matter of measuring and mapmaking. The finding of the correct longitude is an intrigue in the backrooms of the European Royal Courts, in Paris and in London, in Madrid and in Lisbon. It is the domination of time and space.
Galilei now contributed an important fact to the longitude search: He found out and proved that the LENGTH of a pendulum is determining the duration of an oscillation, and NOT the amplitude of the oscillation. And with this knowledge it was possible to construct more accurate clocks. Christiaan Huygens built the first in 1656.
But none of these clocks were suitable onboard a ship. Too big and not resistant against changes of the temperature. Huygens built another two clocks, and handed them over to two captains, and let them sail with them to the Cape Verde Islands. The masters gained quite useful results, but Huygen's clocks were only made for good weather. Rolling, pitching and yawing of the ship disturbed them considerably. The pendulum and the weights began to swing uncontrollably and could not be readjusted at sea.
Almost everybody agreed now on the idea to determine the longitude with a clock, but as they used to say in these times: "Such a watch hath not yet been made".
In 1714 the British Parliament released the "Longitude Act". Queen Anne wants to rule the world and offers the incredibly high sum of 20,000 Pounds to the one finally finding a solution (today several million US$).
And from this competition John Harrison from Yorkshire has heard, too. He is the son of a joiner. He has never learned watch making, he is a mere autodidactic, and already in 1713 he had constructed his first pendulum clock. It was made of wood and the wooden parts were connected with brass joints. When he heard about the "Longitude Act" he knew already that knowing the exact time at sea is the solution of the problem, and in 1722 he completed a clock for a tower in Brocklesby. The brass joints did not expand and shrink as wooden ones did, they did not need any lubrification, and the clock maintained its accuracy in various temperatures, too. Captain Cook took one of Harrison's watches on board and later he called it "my good friend on all my voyages".
In 1759, Harrison appeared with a small ticking clock, the H-4 (all Harrison clocks are numbered, from H-1 to H-5). With this clock Harrison will finally succeed and win the prize. The H-4, however, needs oil, and to minimize friction it has bearings of diamonds and rubies. Still today we can admire it in the National Maritime Museum in London. It is below a glass cover, no longer ticking, and not even the best specialists on Earth dare to touch and try to repair it. (The H-5 by the way is still working, since almost 250 years now, and lost only a few seconds since then!).
In 1761, Harrison's son made a trip to Jamaica with the H-4. The result was excellent: In 81 days it had lost only a 5 seconds! This watch completed the transition from mere latitude-navigation to real astronomical ship's positioning.
And then came the day when the clock began to talk. The Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi on 29 March 1899, residing in Boulogne-sur-Mer (France), received a time signal from Dover. The radio had come, and was introduced officially in 1910 for comparing and adjusting chronometers worldwide by means of radio time-signals.
Today a nuclear clock shows UTC in Flamsted House at London-Greenwich with an accuracy of some millionths of a second. But still every day at 13:00:00 the "time ball" on the mast in front of Flamsted House shows us the time as well visually: Exactly at 12:55:00 it is hoisted, and falls down at 13:00:00. This time signal was stipulated by a certain Captain Wauchope in 1824 in a letter to the Admiralty. Since 1833 the red signal ball is hoisted every day to enable navigators in the Port of London to adjust their watches.
Why the ball falls at 13:00:00 and not at 12:00:00 GMT/UTC?
Because at 12:00:00 astronomers are busy with the sun!
Well, this was a long story, but all these things do regularly come to my mind when I am passing Hierro with my ship. Would the world look different if we still used Hierro and the meridian through Villa de Valverde (17°55'W) as our "Zero"?
The WORLD probably not, but certainly the Degree Confluence Project! Picture that: all CPs shiftet towards East for a 5 minutes (on Equator 5 naut. miles, 9.3 km/5.8 st. miles; on 30°N cos 30° x 5 naut. miles = 0,87 x 5 = 4.35 nm / 8 km / 5 statute miles).
All would have to be redone!
(Information about the Canary Islands obtained partly from Nautical Publication Nr. 1, Africa Pilot, Vol I, 13th ed. 1982 and Supplement 7th ed. 1999, British Admiralty, Hydrographer of the Navy, Ministry of Defence, Taunton, England)
Recommended literature on the Longitude Problem:
Dr. Friedrich-W. Pohl, "Die Geschichte der Navigation", Koehler, Hamburg, 1999
Drava Sobel, "Längengrad" (The battle for the longitude and Harrison's life)
Umberto Eco, "L'isola del giorno prima", Bompiani, Milano, 1994 (novel about a ship wrecked at the date line; the battle for the "punto fijo" and the longitude as a game of intrigues on European Courts)
(the latter two titles available in many other languages as well)