Land ahoy?

If you’re not able to follow Halley on Twitter, you’ve missed a bit of excitement over the last few days – here’s what happened:

[1 Feb 1700, extract; Lat 52°24′ S] Yesterday in the Afternoon with a fresh Gale at NbW, I steard away ESE, and between 4 and 5 we were fair by three Islands as they then appeard; being all flatt on the Top, and covered with Snow, milk white, with perpendicular Cliffs all round them, they had this appearance, and bearing [*]


The greate hight of them made us conclude them land, but there was no appearance of any tree or green thing on them, but the Cliffs as well as the topps were very white, our people calld A by the Name of Beachy head, which it resembled in form and colour, and the Island B in all respects was very like the land of the Northforeland in Kent, and was as least as high and not less than five Miles in Front, The Cliffs of it were full of Blackish Streaks which seemed like a fleete of Shipps Standing out to us. Wind blowing fresh, and night in hand, and because our vessell is very leewardly, I feard to engage with the Land <or Ice> that night, and haveing Steard in as farr as I durst, I resolved to Stand off and on till day, when weather permitting I would send my boat to see what it was. In the night it proved foggy, and continued so till this day at noon, when by a clear glare of Scarce ¼ of an hour we saw the Island wee calld beachy head very distinctly to be nothing elce but one body of Ice of an incredible hight, whereupon we went about Shipp and Stood to the Northward.

[2 Feb 1700, extract] We Stood to the Norward all day close hald, at night we tackt and Stood to the Southards to spend the dark. [B]etween 11 and 12 this day we were in eminant danger of loosing our Shipp among the Ice, for the fogg was all the morning so thick, that we could not See a furlong about us, when on a Sudden a Mountain of Ice began to appear out of the Fogg…this we made a shift to weather when another appeard more on head with severall peices of loose Ice round about it; this obliged us to Tack, and had we mist Stayes, we had most Certainly been a Shore on it, and we had not beene halfe a quarter of an hour under way when anothr mountain of Ice began to appear…which obliged us to tack again, with the like danger of being on Shore: but the Sea being smooth and the Gale Fresh wee got Clear: God be praised: This danger made my men reflect on the hazzards wee run…and of the inevitable loss of us all, in case we Staved our Shipp which might soe easily happen amongst these mountains of Ice in the Foggs, which are so thick and frequent there.

Gosh, I’m not surprised his crew began to reflect on the dangers of their situation!

We’re witnessing Halley and his crew seeing something – an iceberg – for the first time in their lives and they can’t quite grasp what it is they’re seeing. They initially think it’s land with high chalky cliffs, but then they come to realise it’s nothing but ice. In a later letter, Halley says they couldn’t sound ground at 140 fathoms (≈840ft/256m), but that although he estimates the bergs’ height at around 200 feet [‡] and knows that “not Above an Eight part” of floating ice appears above the surface, he cannot conceive that the ‘islands’ are floating and thinks that they must be grounded.

A tabular iceberg (Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikimedia Commons)

Now I expect many of you are like me and have rarely experienced total darkness. Last year I spent a few days on the Kent coast (on the North Foreland in fact) and was surprised by how dark it was looking out to sea when almost all the lights were extinguished. I could see only a few metres in front of the hotel (where there was some lighting), but beyond that, nothing but inky blackness.

This gave me some idea of what it must have been like on a seventeenth-century ship in the middle of the ocean, of how nothing would have been visible unless there was moonlight, while daytime visibility would have been little better in a thick fog. It must have been quite terrifying for Halley and his crew when these huge, white ‘mountains’ suddenly loomed out of the fog, dwarfing their little ship. It seems to me they were extremely lucky to escape the icebergs – and it’s a horrid thought that had they hit one, they would all have been lost and no-one would ever have known what happened to them.

Icebergs looming out of the fog (Photo: W. Pfahler/Wikimedia Commons)

But Halley’s one of those people who seems to make his own luck and the Paramore, while not yet out of danger, has made it through the worst and is now heading towards warmer climates.

[*] This is an indicative drawing by me of Halley’s original sketch; it is not identical.

[‡] This number is no longer clear in the letter (TNA, ADM 1/1871) as the edge is frayed, but Thrower gives it as 200. We’ll take a look at the letter on the relevant date.

2 thoughts on “Land ahoy?

    • Oh thanks, Frances 🙂 It’s probably quite fun being at sea in the pitch black with the comfort of modern technology, but I wouldn’t fancy being in a field of icebergs at night on a rickety wooden ship in 1700!

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