The meteorological adventure of Columbus’s first voyage

Jose Miguel Viñas Today
Christopher Columbus
Statue of Christopher Columbus crowning the monument dedicated to him in Barcelona.

The first trip that Christopher Columbus made to America –although he arrived thinking that he had arrived in the Indies sailing west- can be classified as an adventure, since it has all the conditions to be so. Although the weather at sea was quite benign during the outward journey, the same did not happen on the return journey, as they had to overcome several Atlantic storms, which were about to prevent them from returning to Spain and completing the feat. Fortunately, they managed to weather these inclement weather, and no hurricane intervened in their journey; which is striking given the dates they sailed.

The first voyage began on August 3, 1492, when the three ships led by Columbus left the Huelva port of Palos de Frontera. They headed towards the Canary Islands, where they arrived on the 8th and stayed longer than initially planned, as they had to repair the rudder at La Pinta. The departure to “Las Indias”, with the “Sea of ​​Darkness” ahead (unexplored until then), took place from the island of La Gomera on September 6. At that moment the adventure properly began. Colon, who was already an experienced navigator at that time, he knew the prevailing wind regime in the Canary Islands (the NE trade winds), so he had this favorable factor, at least during the first days of navigation. After a couple of days of chicha calm, the trade winds began to blow.

Columbus's first voyage
Reconstruction of the itinerary of the first of the four trips that Columbus made to America, based on data from the Diario del Almirante. Source: Wikipedia.

Trade winds, westerly winds and the absence of hurricanes

The persistence of the trade winds was the dominant note during the long month of navigation that passed from the departure from the Canaries until they landed on American soil on October 12.; specifically on Guanahaní Island (present-day Watling Island) in the Bahamas archipelago, which Christopher Columbus named San Salvador. Known is the nervousness that began to spread among the crew a few days before, as the sailors saw the possibility of returning to Spain disappear, as it would be impossible to navigate against those constant winds that had pushed them there, thousands of kilometers from home. . Fortunately for them, Colón had an ace up his sleeve.

The Admiral knew that if for the return trip they ascended a bit further north, they would end up finding favorable westerly winds, since in his previous navigations across the Atlantic he had verified that those winds (those associated with the fronts and storms that reach the Peninsula Iberian) were the dominant in mid-latitudes. What Columbus did not know (because his meteorological knowledge – those of the time – was limited) it was how complicated sailing is in the North Atlantic in winter (the return trip begins in mid-January) and the existence of hurricanes, with maximum activity in the autumn season, when the adventure began. Had he been aware of both circumstances, surely the trip would have been planned for other dates.

Hurricane Climatology
Number of hurricanes and tropical storms observed in the North Atlantic and the Caribbean area over 100 years. According to statistics, the peak of maximum activity is reached on September 10. © NOAA

The fact that as it approached America and in its three-month journey through the Caribbean area, no hurricane or tropical storm interposed in its path, could well be the result of chance (because, according to the statistics available to us, the The probability of this hypothetical encounter is around 25% in the Bahamas area on the October dates in which they arrived), or it is possible that the cyclonic activity of that time and that particular year (1492) was significantly lower than the current one. At the end of the 15th century, the Little Ice Age was already beginning to manifest itself, so it is likely that the waters of the tropical and subtropical areas of the Atlantic were significantly colder, which would have contributed to less hurricane formation.

An eventful return to Spain

In the early morning of January 16, 1493, the return journey of La Pinta and La Niña (Santa María was stranded) from the island of Hispaniola (currently shared by Haiti and Santo Domingo) begins, and does so for several days with anticyclonic weather, without meteorological shocks. Moving slowly, the ships are heading north until they finally begin to take advantage of the winds from the southwest and west. The navigation runs quietly throughout the second half of January and the first days of February, until On the 12th, a three-day trip from the Azores archipelago, they were surprised by a violent storm, most certainly associated with a deep Atlantic storm.

The Admiral leaves it written in his Travel Diary: “(…) The waves were frightful, contrary to each other, that crossed and impregnated the ship that could not pass or get out of between them and broke in it (…) And, seeing the great danger (…) each one made his vow in particular, because none of them thought to escape, all of them considered lost, according to the terrible storm they suffered “.

After three interminable days in which the two caravels were about to capsize, after the storm came calm, although the ships were widely separated, each of them starting the final leg of the trip to Spain separately. The end of the story was happy and is known to all. The main meteorological teaching that Columbus acquired from his first voyage was to avoid navigating the North Atlantic again in the middle of winter, which he fulfilled. Regarding hurricanes, he did not come across one of them until his fourth trip, and he used what the locals (Taínos) had told him to protect his ships from a fatal outcome (see the article: The hurricane that crossed with Columbus).


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