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How to survive a storm at sea

A galleon sails into stormy waters Storms are always a risk to any ship at sea—but much more so for small, wooden-built vessels tossed about on mountainous seas 500 years ago. The best way to deal with heavy weather was simply to avoid sailing during times with a high risk of storms. The hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean lasted from June to November, peaking in September. The Caribbean—back in the 16th century, just as it is now—was particularly prone to hurricanes.

Safe harbour on a windward shore. The white arrow indicates wind direction.

Safe haven

In the event of heavy weather, a commander would manoeuvre his ship into an area where she could best ride out the storm, for example, a windward shore—a shore that the wind is blowing out from. Here, the waves would be smaller because of the reduced "fetch", the distance of water that the wind was blowing over. Even safer would be to find a safe harbour. A wide-mouthed harbour on a windward shore was ideal. One on a leeward shore (the wind blowing towards it) with a narrow entrance could be too dangerous to approach.

The repeated impact of its hull slamming into the troughs between waves in a storm is dangerous enough for any ship. Modern cargo ships are made of thick steel, but if the battering lasts long enough, even they can break apart. Wooden-built sailing ships would not last long.


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