A Brief History
On June 23, 1611, the ship appropriately named Discovery, captained by explorer Henry Hudson, was in what is now called Hudson Bay and was the scene of a mutiny. Hudson, his son and 7 loyal men of the crew were set into a small open boat and cast off by the angry mutineers. Captain and loyal followers were never seen again, victims of a deadly voyage during the Age of Discovery. Back in the day, 4 or 5 centuries ago, when brave explorers were sailing what today seem like tiny ships all over a strange world, finding new lands and seas, there was no guarantee of returning home alive to share the newfound knowledge. Here we tell about 5 such voyages where the danger to captain and crew was extreme.
5. Discovery, 1610-1611.
Henry Hudson and his crew were attempting to locate the elusive Northwest passage around Canada to the Pacific Ocean when they were iced in over the winter and nearly starved. The following June Hudson was still eager to continue exploring, but his weary crew would have no more of exploring and demanded to sail home. When Hudson refused, the crew jettisoned the captain and his few loyal followers and left for home. The fate of Hudson and the others in the small boat they had been cast adrift in is unknown, virtually certain not to be a happy ending. Mutinous crews were a pall that hung over captains on dangerous and long voyages to uncharted waters and strange lands. Many captains had their hands full trying to keep their crews in line. Only 8 of the 13 mutineers made it back to England alive, and none were ever punished for the mutiny. Survivors cleverly blamed the mutiny on those that had died. Discovery was only 38 feet long at the main deck and displaced 20 tons!
4. USS Nautilus under the North Pole, 1958.
Entering service in 1955, the Nautilus was the first nuclear powered submarine in the world. Submarine service is dangerous at all times, but the Nautilus was routinely breaking speed and endurance records during her first years. In 1958 she and her crew embarked on an exciting and perilous voyage to the North Pole, under water and under the ice. The sub had a hard time even getting to the North Pole area because at first the distance between the bottom of the ice and the sea floor at the Bering Strait was not high enough for the sub to pass. Once they did make it under the polar ice cap, the magnetic compass was virtually useless and the crew had to navigate by gyroscopic compass, always in constant danger of blundering into ice or an underwater mountain, or being trapped under many feet of ice. The captain considered attempting to blow a hole in the ice with his torpedoes had the sub been trapped. The ship and crew made their historic transit safely and surfaced off Greenland 4 days later, no doubt exhilarated and relieved. The captain was awarded the Legion of Merit by President Eisenhower at the White House (a Cold War propaganda coup) and the crew awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. The ship went on to serve until 1980, logging over 300,000 nautical miles while underway as early as 1966. The Nautilus was 320 feet long with a beam of 38 feet and carried 105 officers and men. Her nuclear reactors provided 13,400 horsepower and a speed of 23 knots. The ship is now a museum in Groton, Connecticut.
3. Ferdinand Magellan Around the World Voyage, 1521.
Often cited as the first captain to sail around the world, Magellan did not actually perform the feat as he died along the way. Although in charge of the 5 ship fleet, Magellan was killed by Philippine Islanders at Mactan on the trip. Prior to his death, Magellan had to deal with horrific weather and the grumblings of nearly mutinous crews. Magellan died in an attack on natives he described as “ingenious and very thievous” that obviously did not go well, for Magellan and nearly 30 more of his men were killed. When the lone remaining ship of the fleet of 5 returned to Spain, only 18 survivors of the 237 men that had set out with Magellan arrived alive. Later, 4 more of Magellan’s sailors made it back to Spain on other ships, making a total death rate of over 90%.
2. Captain Cook and HMS Resolution, 1779.
An experienced sailor and war veteran, James Cook had already completed other voyages of discovery mapping new lands and charting the seas. In Hawaii he found his end at the hands of hostile native Hawaiians. When natives stole one of his ships’ small boats, Cook set about to gain its return by bringing the local King to his ship, probably as a hostage. Irate natives attacked the English at the shore, stabbing Cook and bashing his head with a club. Hostile natives were always a dangerous possibility when exploring new lands.
1. Columbus’s First Voyage to New World, 1492.
The voyage of Christopher Columbus that resulted in “discovery” of the “New World” of North and South America was based on the mistaken calculation that the distance from Iberia to Japan (the intended destination) was only about 2300 miles, the size of the Earth having been underestimated. The real distance is more along the lines of 12,500 km (around 7500 miles), a voyage too far for any ship available at that time to carry sufficient provisions. Thus, Columbus and his crew turned out to be quite lucky there was not open ocean all the way around the world to Japan or they would have almost certainly perished. The 3 ship flotilla, Santa Maria, Santa Clara (nicknamed Niña) and the Pinta were tiny wooden sailboats, the largest being Santa Maria with a length (at the hull) of 62 feet and a beam of only 18 feet! Santa Maria also had the largest crew, carrying 40 men. The return trip was as harrowing as the Westbound voyage, with the Santa Maria being lost to striking a sandbar and the crew crowding onto the other 2 tiny ships. Not only was the voyage farther away from Eurasia than white men had sailed, the compass discrepancy between true north and magnetic North created problems since Columbus was apparently not familiar with the phenomenon (though other Europeans were). After 5 weeks of nervous hope, Columbus found land he believed to be Japan (which was actually the Bahamas) and China (which was actually Cuba). Luckily for Columbus, the Native Americans encountered were not particularly warlike and did not slaughter him and his crew. Incredibly the Niña and Pinta made it back to Portugal safely and Columbus would go on to further voyages.
Question for students (and subscribers): What voyages would you add to the list? (Honorable mention to Apollo 13.) Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hakluyt, Richard. Voyages and Discoveries: Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation. Penguin Classics, 1972.
Rice, Tony. Voyages of Discovery: A Visual Celebration of Ten of the Greatest Natural History Expeditions. Firefly Books, 2008.
You can also watch a video version of this list below: