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Abstract

The general surface currents of the western North Atlantic Ocean were learned quickly by the early explorers because these currents controlled, to a large extent, the directions in which their slow ships could sail. Columbus mentioned the surface currents many times, and the routes of his ships and of later ones generally followed the North Equatorial Current to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf Stream back to Europe. Ponce de León and Estévan Gómez were familiar with the Gulf Stream farther north, and Gomez even showed its position on his chart of 1525 (Fig. 1). John Cabot, and probably Jacques Cartier, learned of the Labrador Current inshore from the Gulf Stream, and Cabot noted that the Gulf Stream’s rate of flow north of Cape Hatteras was slower than the Spaniards had reported it to be farther south (Pillsbury, 1891).

In later years, whalers and fishermen knew the Gulf Stream well near the Grand Banks, because whales and the best and firmest fish stayed in the cold water at its edge. Moreover, the American captains of trading ships, knowing the eastward flow of the Gulf Stream, stayed clear of it on voyages from Europe to America. Benjamin Franklin learned that the British mail packets required 2 weeks longer on a westerly passage than did the smaller American trading ships because they sailed against the Gulf Stream instead of avoiding it. As an aid to navigation, Franklin (1786)—following a sketch by a Nantucket sea captain, Timothy Folger—prepared a chart

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