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Strait of Magellan

Many of the sailing vessels engaged in the coasting trade of the United States passed the straits or Cape Horn on their way to and fro between the Atlantic and Pacific parts of the country. Steamers always found it to their advantage to pass through the Strait of Magellan. In them, the winds and weather are more moderate; the sea smooth; the anchorages good and safe; the tides, taken at the right moment, an important auxiliary; and, with proper care and lookout, excepting where changes have naturally taken place, the dangers are of little importance.

One of the most noted of Portuguese-born explorers was Ferno de Magalhes (anglicized as "Magellan"), who instigated and organized the first circumnavigation of the globe from 1519 to 1522. Sailing for the King of Spain, he set out with the objective of finding a route to the Orient by sailing westward around the southern tip of South America.

Part of his legacy, especially in adding new place names to previously unmapped areas of the world, is reflected in this early eighteenth-century map of Magellanica or Tierra del Fuego. Magalhes named the strait that he discovered at the southern tip of South America, "Channel of All Saints." Other names have been applied to the strait, but this feature has come to be known by the name of the man who first discovered it -- "Strait of Magellan."

After navigating through the tempestuous waters of the strait, Magalhes encountered a very calm sea, which he appropriately named "Pacific." Interestingly, when Vasco Nuez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama seven years earlier, he named the same ocean "Mar del Sur" (South Sea). Although both names appear on this eighteenth-century map, it was Magalhes' designation that eventually gained acceptance.

Although the course that Magalhes plotted did not become the primary route for Europeans sailing to the Orient during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it did become the primary route for nineteenth-century New England whaling ships as they searched for whales along the western coast of North America. It was this industry that provided the link between the Portuguese-American settlements on the northeast and west coasts of the United States during the nineteenth century.

Features of the country and probably in the weather will be experienced in its various parts. From its East entrance to Cabo Porpesse, 100 miles WSW, the land is comparatively low and covered with grass, but no trees are visible. All over this East portion of the strait the most remarkable difference takes place in the appearance of the land according to the conditions of the light in which it is seen. In the vicinity of Cabo Porpesse, the land becomes wooded and its elevation gradually increases. The forest becomes more dense and the mountains more lofty as Cabo Froward is approached. These characteristics continue as far as the East part of Paso Largo.

From here, though the mountains still border the strait, the trees become smaller, until towards the W entrance of the strait the shores are bare and rocky, only the ravines showing a stunted, though dense, vegetation. East of Cabo Froward, the land is comparatively level compared to that W of the cape where there are steep mountains, bare on the upper parts, but covered with thick moss or dense forest on the lower slopes.

The passage through Estrecho de Magallanes is safe, but vigilance and caution are necessary. The difficulties and dangers in navigating the strait in either direction are the same that are experienced in narrow channels and close harbors of the same latitude elsewhere. If the weather is thick, as is likely to be the case for most periods, the passage is rendered more difficult because of incomplete surveys, the lack of aids to navigation, the distance between anchorages, the lack of good anchorages, the strong currents, and in some cases the narrow limit for maneuvering.

The difference in the duration of daylight in summer and winter forms an important consideration. In December, there is daylight from 0230 until 2030, while in June, daylight will be limited from 0800 to 1600.

Violent and unpredictable squalls are frequent all over the strait. Sustained gales are seldom encountered except in the widest entrances and passages. In many of the countless narrow passages, the wind follows the run of the passage and has only two possible directions. It may be reversed abruptly when there has been a large shift of wind direction over the open sea.

The most dangerous winds are the violent and unpredictable squalls. The occurrence of one or more of these in succession from the same direction is no indication that the next will not be from some widely different direction. Moreover, of two possible anchorages a few miles apart, the more open may be less subject to these squalls. These squalls depend largely, if not entirely, on the existence of strong winds or gales at sea or at a height of several thousand meters over land.

During the strongest squalls, which occur most often West of Cabo Froward and near the main coastline adjoining the stormiest region at sea, the wind almost certainly exceeds 100 knots. The squalls may not last more than a few minutes, but for a time visibility may become very poor in rain, sleet, or snow, and it may suddenly become dark, even though the sun has been shining brightly.

It is a noticeable feature of this area that the worst conditions may be replaced in the course of a few minutes by a cloudless sky and exceptionally good visibility at all levels, mountain peaks becoming clearly visible at a distance of 100 miles or more. Such a change is nearly always coincident with the arrival of drier and cooler air from higher latitudes.





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