Lost in the Roaring Forties

So far, says the Air Commodore, the only thing the radar has turned up are whales and dolphins…. 

Like everybody else, I’ve been gripped this last week by the sad mystery of Malaysia Airlines MH370 – not least, I have to confess with shame, for purely selfish reasons: I’m booked on a Malaysia Airlines plane in a few weeks time. Who would have thought that the search for a plane heading for Beijing would end up southwest of Australia, in the Great Southern Ocean?

Map of the roaring forties from 1873

Ship Navigation Chart – Southern & Pacific [sic] Oceans, Charles Wilson, 1 March 1873

The Roaring Forties are my territory, historically if not literally, though I’ve only personally ventured that far south once. A few years ago, I took a boat tour from Adventure Bay, south around the tip of Bruny Island, south-east of Hobart, to see fur seals breeding on an outcrop of rock. As we left the lee of Bruny to sail into the Great Southern Ocean itself, the sailors warned us that we would suddenly experience much rougher conditions, and sure enough we did.

When the wind reaches 40 knots, the wind lifts water droplets from the surface of the sea, so that there’s a constant haze at water level, even on a fine day. We were there in mid-summer, but the water was cold and choppy, and the sea felt very dangerous and deep indeed, and a long way from civilization. The planes that are currently searching in similar seas much further west can only fly over the search area for 2 hours at a stretch before they need to return to refuel.

The Roaring Forties are so-called from their latitude, below 40 degrees S. Unlike in the northern hemisphere, there are no continents here to interrupt the winds which blow predominantly from west to east around the globe, south of Australia, south of South America, south of Africa, and around again. Until steamships ended the reliance on wind power, starting in the 1850s, the route to East Asia and Australia from Europe was around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean in the Roaring Forties.

In the 17th century, Dutch merchantmen heading for Java and the Spice Islands took this route. You headed south around the Cape of Good Hope (stopping off to establish a Dutch settlement to supply ships) then used those fierce winds to sail eastwards. At some point, the ship had to turn northwards – but without any effective way of measuring longitude, this was always a hard call. Turn too early, and you lost the winds; too late – and you ended up as yet another shipwreck along the West Australian coast. The Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle is full of them.

The development of ships’ chronometers in the mid- to late-18th century changed all that.  Cook was testing 2 chronometers for the Admiralty during his Endeavour voyage, and by the time that convict and immigrant ships were coming to Australia, the route was relatively safe.

But only relatively so. Crewmen fell from the rigging or were swept overboard in rough conditions, and passengers must have been terrified of the gales, the high seas, the fog, and the occasional iceberg drifting north into the shipping channels in these high latitudes. Australia has a database of historic shipwrecks but this only covers ships wrecked within Australian waters. Others were just lost, without anyone ever knowing their fate. Most shipwrecks occur within sight of land – you do, after all, need something to be wrecked on. By the end of the 19th century, it was uncommon for a ship to just disappear from busy and well-mapped shipping routes, but it must have remained a nagging fear for every passenger.

The disappearance of MH370 has absorbed us all partly because we live in a connected world where we never expect a person or a plane to just disappear. Surely there’s an App for that?  Once it was a horribly common experience for people to farewell their friends and relatives and – just disappear. Just how awful such an experience is for those who are left behind has been brought home to all of us this last week.

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3 responses to “Lost in the Roaring Forties

  1. I know what you mean – people don’t seem to believe in accidents any more. But it did happen; Aaron Burr’s daughter disappeared on a voyage from Europe to America, and people have speculated ever since whether she died in a shipwreck or was captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery (the latter theory being the favorite among those who thought it was appropriate karma for Mr. Burr). And what happened to the crew of the Marie Celeste? Things happen, people vanish, ships vanish, planes vanish… Despite our control, it’s a big, big world, and most of it is still beyond our control.

  2. Thanks Marion. A very vivid description of the conditions in the Southern Ocean.

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