Thomas Lowe sails the Southern Atlantic

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

Thomas Lowe has survived the traditional shaving that results from crossing the equator on a sailing vessel in 1841, and now has the rounding of Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, to look forward to. Will he make it all the way round in this blogpost? I do not yet know and I think it’s unlikely. His journal reads:

19. Tuesday [October]. We have been fortunate enough to fall with the S.E. Trade Winds and now expect to carry them for at least 20 degrees. On the last Voyage this Vessel was only 31 days between Cape Horn and the Equator, but I doubt much if we be able to accomplish it in the same time outward bound, as she is now in much worse trim. 

So, it seems that on their last home voyage in Spring 1841, the Vancouver took a full month to sail from Cape Horn (the bottom point of South America), to the Equator. The ship seemed not to need a year-long refit in London, it being still new. (It was normal that the London Ships that sailed to the west coast of North America paused for a year on the Thames.)

Thomas Lowe’s journal continues:

 This is decidedly the best day we have had since we left England and altho’ it ought to be warmer where we are now than anywhere else, we have got so strong a breeze that it entirely intercepts the powerful rays of the Sun and leaves us quite cool and comfortable. Made 120 miles of Latitude, the wind still blowing fresh from the S.E.

Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines the Trade Winds as a “wind blowing almost constantly in one direction especially: a wind blowing almost continually toward the equator from the northeast in the belt between the northern horse latitudes and the doldrums, and from the southeast in the belt between the southern horse latitudes and the doldrums — usually used in plural.” Both winds and ocean currents are caused by the rotation of the earth, and have always been known to sailors. Even today navigators use these strong consistent winds and currents, that run on either side of the equator, to reach places both in the East, and the West.

But we are talking of the trade winds, and Lowe has not noticed the current: The earth’s rotation causes the air to slant toward the equator in a southwesterly direction in the northern hemisphere, and in a northwesterly direction in the southern hemisphere. This is called the Coriolis Effect, and in combination with an area of high pressure, this causes the prevailing winds — the trade winds — to move from east to west on both sides of the equator across this 60 degree belt. In the middle of this belt, at the equator, both air and ocean currents come to a halt in a band of hot, dry air.

Thomas Lowe’s journal continues:

20 Wednesday. Had rather a smart squall this morning at 4 o’clock, and were obliged to reduce Sail in double quick time, or in all probability we would have been on our beam ends. Running nearly 7 1/2 knots all day. 

If I remember correctly (from my few years as a sailor), squalls are a normal part of sailing through the trade winds. But I also think they are a normal part of being all alone on the surface of the ocean!

21 Thursday. Wind same as yesterday; distance sailed, 198 miles being decidedly the best run we have made as yet, averaging rather more than 8 1/2 knots the whole time. We lost sight of the North Polar Star on crossing the Equator and it will not be visible again until we reach the Equator on the other side of America.

22 Friday. Weather beautifully clear & cool, and the Sea smooth, Carrying studding Sails low & loft[y]; saw a brig to windward of us this afternoon, bound for Brazil, and when it is understood that this may be, and is very likely to be, the last vessel of any description we may see for a long time to come, the strong interest we took in this Brig is easily accounted for, and now I expect our chance of having any opportunity of sending Letters by a Homeward bound vessel is very much diminished, if not totally out of the question. Distance 167 Miles.

23 Saturday. Today we were exactly under the Sun, the wind was light and the Sky nearly clear of clouds. We felt the heat greater than it has been for some days, but not nearly so as it was about the Cape de Verde Islands. 

The Vancouver sailed past the Cape de Verde Islands in this post: His journal continues: 

24 Sunday. The wind having fallen light, we were exposed to a strong heat and unable to make more than 3 1/2 knots an hour. Saw a Nautilus today, a small fish about 3 or 4 inches long, of an oval shape, and carrying a sail on its back which it has the power of hoisting & lowering at pleasure. If the Sea proves too rough, or the wind too strong for it, it instantly furls it. However the one that we saw today had its sail set and was scudding along before a stiff breeze. 

The Nautilus? I am sure that if I google enough I will find out what this small “sailfish” is,  but there are tons of small fish that have large dorsal fins they might, conceivably, use as a sail. But what I think he saw was a jellyfish: a by-the-wind Sailor. Its scientific name is Velella velella, and it is also known as a Sea Raft, or Sail Jellyfish. It is a species of jellyfish that floats upon the ocean, and has a fin that protrudes and catches the wind, which propels it in the direction that the wind blows. They are generally found in the open ocean but are at the mercy of the wind and can be washed ashore in certain conditions. I even believe they used to be called the Nautilus, although I did not find that information today. For more information, see: 

His journal continues with a story that tells you how few safety precautions were used on these ships. No one kept an eye on this young sailor, and by the time anyone saw him in the water he was so far distant that no one could throw him a life preserver:  

25 Monday. An accident occurred today, leaving an impression on my mind, which (if I may judge from its present effects) will neither be speedily nor easily erased. One of the men was this afternoon descending the Starboard side of the vessel to scrape the outside when he lost hold of the rope by which he had suspended himself, and was most unfortunately precipitated into the water. The sea was comparatively smooth and we were only running 3 knots an hour at the time, and one of the boats was lowered and manned as speedily as possible, but scarcely had it touched the water, when we saw the unfortunate man sink for the last time to rise no more. . .After a fruitless search we were obliged reluctantly to get under weigh again, having lost one of the most peaceable and active hands the ship contained, he had not reached his twentieth year and I believe he was a native of America altho’ entered on the ships books as belonging to Liverpool.

They passed another ship which was heavily laden with hides and tallow for Havana. By Friday 29th the Vancouver was clearly out of the Trade Winds, because they put the ship about and sailed West by South. On October 30th, “Saw a number of Sharks today. Mr. Simpson blazed away at one for a long time but without much apparent effect.” This Mr. Simpson is heading for the Sandwich Islands, and so is Alexander Simpson, a cousin to Governor George Simpson. (His bio, so far as it goes, is at the beginning of this thread.) “We were becalmed all day but a gentle breeze sprung up at 11 at night. This day has been nearly lost to us.”

On October 31, a Monday, they sailed to a good wind all day, though it was cloudy, raining, squally, “and a raw sort of day,” according to Lowe. Then: 

1 Monday [November]. . . We had a very narrow escape about an hour ago, from a collision with another vessel. About 9 1/2 as we were sitting reading in the Cabin, just before retiring for the night, we were startled by hearing the Officer of the Watch bawl out in his loudest tone to the Helmsman “Ship ahead, starboard the helm, quick, quick.” We were all instantly on Deck, and the helm was just shifted in time to prevent us striking her. The “Vancouver” was running before the wind at this time, and would have struck her right amidships, the night was pitch dark, and the helms of both vessels were just shifted in time to prevent a collision, which appeared almost inevitable. Had it not been for the frequent and vivid flashes of Lightning and the lights on her binnacle (around which we saw the Officers congregated), we would inevitably have come in contact. It was a large English Brig. . .

The next days were uncomfortable sailing, even though they were in the southern ocean during its summer season. They are two months from Gravesend, and until the last two weeks had kept pace with the Vancouver‘s last outward bound voyage. However, they were now six days behind and moving so slowly that it was inevitable that another day would be added to that tally. “The wind still continues adverse and the weather is very unsettled,” Lowe says.

The same as ever — a heavy Sea and making little or no headway. The Sails are set but are of no service, only flap-flap-flapping against the Masts & Yards. We have taken a whole week to accomplish what we ought to have got through in half a day, and most abominable pitching and tossing we have had too, meeting an uncommonly heavy swell from the South. I certainly have no dislike to a Sea Life, but, really weather like this would make the greatest lover of the Sea sick of it.


For a while Lowe plays around with learning to use Quadrant [Sextant] and Chronometer to take observations, which is easier to do when the sea was calm. In the evening of November 6, however, “A favourable breeze sprung up,” and “we are now scudding along very contentedly at the rate of 6 or 7 knots an hour. This is pleasant after being so long pestered with calms and headwinds, to neither of which do I bear any partiality.” On Monday November 8:

The wind has again changed into a regular Sou’Wester and keeps strong ahead. We have been obliged to furl all the lesser sails and reef the Topsails. There is a tremendous sea running, and our decks have been several times washed fore and aft. As night fell, the wind increased almost to a gale, and the sea rose proportionally.

9 Tuesday. It still continues “dead on end” and strong as ever. There is no possibility of walking the deck in this weather, with so heavy a sea running, and when we do go on deck, are obliged to hold on by the masts and rigging, besides standing a pretty fair chance of having ourselves thoroughly drenched, as the water is breaking so constantly over us. 

They are in the southern ocean Westerlies, another band of winds that circle the globe, in the 30 to 60 degrees latitude in both northern and southern hemispheres. They blow steadily from the west toward the east. As Lowe says: “This is expected to be the worst part of the Voyage, as the prevailing winds are from the South West and must accordingly be contrary to us.” The weather continues variable, with pleasant days, some calms, and more storms of wind as they approach the Falkland Islands. On November 14, “During the night it [the wind] increased and I got no sleep, having just enough to do to remain in bed, once or twice I was nearly pitched out . .  This has undoubtedly been by far the roughest day we have had yet.” On Monday November 15:

The wind continues contrary and the Sea has fallen but very little. Made 100 Miles today, being now in Latitude 39 degrees 48 minutes South and Longitude 46 degrees West. Immense numbers of Cape Pigeons, Cape Hens, Stormy Petrels, Albatrosses, and other birds now surround the ship, and continue to increase as we near the Horn.

16 Tuesday. Last night the wind blew harder than it has done yet, and every sail had to be furled, except the Main & Fore Topsails, which were close reefed. It rained heavy in the morning and continued squally all day. This has been a very cold day and what we regard far more the wind still continued “dead on end,” and there is no sign of any change. We are within 12 degrees of the Falkland Islands, and this is expected to be the worst part of the Voyage, as the prevailing winds are from the S. West and must accordingly be contrary to us. 

They are still nowhere near passing the Falkland Islands: reading his journal that pleasure is still a week or more away! On November 22, they were 250 miles off the mouth of the “Colerado” River and Lowe said, “The water is very muddy here . . .Hitherto it has been of a light transparent blue colour, but it has turned into a dirty sandy hue.” The “Colerado River” must be the Amazon. On November 27, they came in sight of the Falkland Islands 

at noon. There are two large islands in the Group, Soledad, & Great Falkland Island, divided by a broad navigable channel. We passed the easternmost side of Soledad. These Islands are in the possession of the British but I believe the Buenos Ayrean Republic lay claim to them. Great Britain however pays no attention to their claim, and when we left England, I saw by the newspapers that a Lieutenant Moodie had been appointed Governor. There are few, if any, of original inhabitants, and they are now peopled principally by Americans & English. There are a few good coves & harbours which are a great resort of Sealers & Whalers, vessels [that] round the Horn likewise sometimes put in here for water or bullocks, of which latter there are about 40,000 head now running wild, originally introduced by the Spaniards. But how they contrive to spin out their existence here I cannot make out, as all that we saw was only bare and desolate looking rocks, with not the least sign of vegetation. However in the interior there must be good pasturage as the cattle thrive and have multiplied fast.  These islands can never be a place of much importance as the Soil is so poor, and the want of fuel is one of the principal objections to their settlement, there is scarcely a tree to be seen on the Islands, and the soil is too poor to bear them, the Climate is also one of the worst in any part of the Atlantic, being continually exposed to the South West Gales which sometimes blow here with terrific violence.. 

Lowe was definitely not impressed by the Falklands Islands, was he? Yet, a war was recently fought over these islands, which was won by Great Britain. The Falkland Islands lie 300 miles east of Argentina, and Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April, 1982. The Argentinians celebrated, with large crowds gathering in front of the presidential palace at the Plaza de Mayo — obviously in Argentina. The British, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, quickly assembled a naval task force built around two aircraft carriers, and the United States offered support to the Brits as well. The war ended June 14, 1982, two months after it had begun.

Today the Falkland Islands are a stopping place for cruise ships sailing for the Antarctic, or at least they were until Covid-19 arrived. They were first spotted in 1592, by an English sea captain named John Davis. One hundred years later, another sea captain made the first landing ashore, and named the strait between the clusters of islands, Falkland Strait. In 1764, France founded the islands’ first colony and these settlers created Port Louie on East Falkland. A year later Great Britain created a settlement they called Port Egmont on West Falkland. John Byron, who was unaware of the French colony already established, claimed the islands in the name of England. By 1770, the Spanish had taken over the French port, which they renamed Pureto de la Soledad, and pushed the British out of Port Egmont. At some point Argentinians had already settled on the Falkland Island. Spain returned Port Egmont to England a year after they had been chased out, and British troops (apparently) peacefully evicted the Argentinian settlers. 

But the interesting thing about the Falklands is that there are penguins everywhere! In fact, there are birds everywhere. This is an ideal place to watch for birds that you will see nowhere else. 

But Thomas Lowe didn’t see these birds. Oh, he did!!! “Saw several Penguins today, they are the most curious and uncouth looking birds I ever set my eyes upon, but most expert divers and well adapted for the water. They have two short wings which assist them in swimming, but they very seldom use them for flying, as they are too short for that purpose. Their legs are placed very far astern, very good in wading but most awkward in walking, causing them to stand almost upright. In size they are rather larger than a common duck, with beautiful plumage, and it is said they are very voracious, sometimes eating three or four large herrings at once. They go ashore to hatch, and lay their single egg on the bare ground, scraping a little in the ground. When the sailors looted [the nests?], they uttered a cry like a Jack Ass, from which they have acquired the by no means euphonious denomination of “Jack Ass Penguins.”

Two days later, Thomas Lowe celebrated his 17th birthday. “As most of us are Scotch, we had a regale in honor of the day.” For a man as young as he is, Thomas Lowe kept a very interesting, and very historic, journal.

The next section of this journal will be found here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.