At sea , Maps

In the mist

Heading South

This is an article by Dave Horry, Tasman-expert in New Zealand and one of the people involved in the Tasman 375 project. His own website is: SixBoats.

In the mist

Tasman's course in October 1642


Abel Tasman finally escaped ‘Old Harbour’ Mauritius on 8th October, 1642. He must have had severe concerns about the strength of his ships, as he spent twice his allotted time there. He was to stop at Mauritius for approximately two weeks gathering provisions; firewood, water and livestock. But he remained there until he was satisfied that his ships were properly prepared for the rigours of the Southern Ocean.

His instructions were to sail from Mauritius South, to latitude 52°S or 54°S, and the instructions were remarkably specific.

As before mentioned, your necessities having been provided for, you will about medio October, or earlier, set sail from the Mauritius, shaping your course with the trade-wind nearly southward, as high as wind and weather shall permit, until about the Southern Latitude of 36 or 38 degrees, when you have got out of the eastern trade-wind, you shall fall in with the variable winds, with which you will always put about on the best tack for getting to the southward, until you get into the western trade-wind, with which you will sail nearly southward until you come upon the unknown South-land, or as far as South Lat. 52 or 54 degr. Inclusive; and if in this latitude you should not discover any land, you will set your course due east

He was to sail south, initially on the ‘Eastern trade wind’, but actually, at the Latitude of Mauritius, the wind is normally from the south-east, as he had so painfully discovered when trying to leave the Old Harbour. The ‘western trade-wind’ he would meet was the Antarctic Circumpolar wind. He would enter this at about 40°S.

In the shifting winds in the transition, he was always to take the tack that would best move them south.

The next day, they were sailing in good weather and a breeze, they still had Mauritius in sight, but after that Tasman began to record deteriorating conditions. Once clear of the influence of Madagascar the ocean swell grew dramatically.

On the 10th October he recorded the sea running ‘high from the south’, and despite all their earlier preparations, the Mizzen Mast broke. They ‘fished’ it. Two days later they had to do it again.


They pushed on south, but on the 18th October, had to heave to. The Zeehaen had turned to the wind and stopped. They hailed across that the boards that the shrouds were fixed to had worked loosed, and they needed to brace them.

By the 22nd October they were at latitude 38° 11′ and were now deeper into the Southern Ocean than anyone had been before. The most southerly land known was Amsterdam Island; halfway between Good Hope and Australia. The island had first been seen by Spanish explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano in 1522, but was not named. It was re-discovered for Holland in 1633, and named it Nieuw Amsterdam by Anthony van Diemen; Tasman’s boss.

It was on the 24th October that they hit their first big storm. They had reached 40°S; and were now in the ‘Roaring Forties’, the vicious wind that rips around Antarctica.

“…we took in our bonnets, lowered our foresail down to the stem, and ran on before the wind with our mainsail only; we dared not try to the wind because of the strong gale blowing. This gale was attended with hail and rain to such a degree that we feared the ship would not live through it.”

It must have been an extreme storm, as no-where else in his journal does Tasman ever describe concern for the conditions he was sailing in.

In the gale they lost sight of the Zeehaen, and this was a major problem. The Zeehaen was the principal supply ship, but more importantly, she was the only vessel capable of rendering aid should they require it.

They lay to, put a man up the mast,and waited. The next morning, to their great relief, the Zeehaen was sighted. They re-joined, but before they could get underway again, the Zeehaen broke a top yard, and they had to replace it.


They were finding the Southern Ocean very tough going.

The following day, 27th October they saw something in the water which gave them significant concern… ‘rock-weed’. There was land or shoals somewhere near.

“Item the 27th.

In the morning before early breakfast we saw a good deal of rock-weed and manna-grass floating about; we therefore hoisted a flag, upon which the officers of the Zeehaan came to board of us; we convened the Council and submitted to their consideration the instructions of the Honourable Governor-General and Councillors of India in case we should see and observe land, shoals, sunken rocks, etc. We then submitted to the council the question whether, now that we observed these signs of land, it would not be best to keep a man at the masthead constantly and make him look out for land, shoals, sunken rocks and other dangers; also what sum had best be fixed upon as a reward to be given to him who should first see land, upon which the Council thought fit to keep a man on the lookout constantly, and to give three pieces-of-eight and a can of arrack to whoever shall first see and observe land …”

The storms were so violent that their ships were breaking under the strain, and when they came, they had no choice but to run with the wind. Control over the direction they sailed was lost and now there was the possibility that when running they could be cast onto rocks.

The following day, matters got worse. They saw pieces of trees and leaves on the water and then, they became fog-bound. They knew that land was close because of the floating debris, but now, they couldn’t see it.

The position was extremely dangerous. They are in un-charted waters; and have no knowledge of the whereabouts of any land whatsoever. They also have no way to stop. They have no brakes. At sea, all the can do is slow their progress; they can either turn up to the wind and slowly drift backwards, or they can put out a sea anchor ( a large canvas bag on a line ) to slow their downwind progress.

There was however something they could do to detect the presence of land, even if they couldn’t see it.

“we time after time fired a musket and now and then also a great gun”.

Concerned that they would strike land that they couldn’t see, they fired guns, and listened for the echo.


On the 29th October, still locked in fog, Tasman convened the council, to ask;

“seeing that in this fog and darkness it is hardly possible to survey known shores, let alone to discover unknown land, it would not be best and most advisable to shape our course to eastward until the advent of clearer weather.”

The Council agreed, and despite not having yet reached the 52°S or 54°S prescribed, they turned East… and that decision probably saved the expedition.

For the last few days their progress had been south-south-east. This was as close as they could hold to the instruction, to proceed directly south.

Directly in their path, and unseen in the fog, was the 130km wide, French Southern and Antarctic lands; Islands that wouldn’t appear on a chart until 1722.