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The Lost Ships Graveyard of the Sargasso Sea

Sargasso Sea

The Sargasso Sea was one of the most feared traps for crews in the sailing days. It was synonymous with slow and terrible death for boats trapped in Sargassum seaweeds and abandoned by the winds.

The lost ships cemetery

Discovered by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage in 1492, the Sargasso Sea owes its name to a giant brown alga - sargassum - which floats on its surface in the form of isolated bundles or in large areas. In addition to this ecological specificity, there is a meteorological peculiarity: windless periods can last for months. These two elements have been fatal to many sailboats. The Sargasso Sea, without current and delimited in the west by the Gulf Stream, extends between the 20th and 35th parallels North, from the Greater Antilles to Cape Hatteras and all the way to the Atlantic ridge towards the east. It covers an area equal to 650,000 square km, more than half the surface of Europe, and is the exclusive place of reproduction of eels. When Columbus discovers the sargassum bundles, he deduces, by an error fortunately without consequences, that the earth is not very far away. Subsequently, sailors learn to appreciate the danger that these floating meadows represent, and the Sargasso Sea becomes the “Sea of ​​Fear” or the “Lost Ships Graveyard” as ships can find themselves trapped in seaweed reaching up to 100 meters long, and remain incalminated indefinitely, due to the lack of wind.

The terrible odyssey of an Italian three-masted

Having left Gulport, Mississippi, on July 19, 1912, bound for Buenos Aires, the Italian three-masted Herat was victim of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico and dragged against its will in the waters separating Cuba from the Yucatan. The storm eventually subsides and gives way to a flat calm. The ship finds itself in the middle of a sea covered with algae and tree trunks, on which floats ship debris. A decomposition odor rises from the surface of the water. After two months, the wind begins to blow again in a southerly direction: but it soon turns again and brings the Herat back into the trap it has just left. For four new months, it is the terrible wait, then, one night, when everything seems lost and supplies are practically exhausted, the wind picks up again and the three-masted finally manages to tear itself out of the Sargassum trap.

On February 12, 1913, almost seven months after leaving the United States, the Herat finally entered the port of Bridgetown, on the island of Barbados, its hull still blackened by the Sargassum seaweeds which kept it prisoner for so long.

Horse latitudes

Since the arrival of the Spanish in America, dozens of sailboats have been lost forever in still hell or have barely managed to escape. The English nicknamed the place Horse latitudes in memory of the galleon crews often forced to sacrifice horses brought to the conquistadors in order to fight against the shortage of water when they were stuck for too long. We imagine the appalling death known by the sailors trapped in sargassums when we read the report of the steamer Britannia who discovered, in 1884, in the Sargasso Sea, a sailboat with corpses on board, so eaten away by natural elements that its identification remained impossible.

Between reality, legends and phantasmagoria

Such a place could only fuel exaggerated stories and legends. In 1894, the American sailboat J. G. Norwood drifted, after a storm, into the Sargasso Sea, and remained prisoner there. The only survivor, a cabin boy by the name of Elipha Thomson, then recounted having seen a Spanish galleon still loaded with its gold, a brig, and finally a steamer on which he found provisions, as well as a sailing boat which allowed him to reach waters where he was recovered by another boat.

In 1968, the fantastic film The Lost Continent, by Michael Carreras, sums up, better than any other, the legends attached to this strange and terrible place: characters lost in the Sargassum seaweed living a series of incredible adventures faced with giant crustaceans, with carnivorous algae, and who finally meet a group of descendants of conquistadors stranded for centuries in the lost ships graveyard ...

The Sargasso Sea lent itself admirably to these phantasmagorias.

Beached in the open sea

Traps reminiscent of those of the Sargasso Sea can await the sailors on all the seas of the globe. Thus, in July 1890, the French three-masted Federation en route between Saigon and the Philippines, saw, at night, dark shapes that the crew ended up taking for islets not indicated by nautical charts. Suddenly, a shock occurs and the hull begins to moan. A moment later, a tree stands up and then falls on the bridge: another soon follows, and its leaves get stuck in the superstructures: the Federation is indeed stranded. An examination shows that the hull is not damaged and that there are chances of freeing the vessel. At dawn, the sailors tried in vain to pull it from the mass of vegetation from behind with two whalers. Fortunately, a breeze rises which finally allows the ship to clear. On the return, the captain of the ship goes back to the same place: he finds no trace of the smallest island.

The key to the enigma is provided much later, when we realize that, during major floods on the Asian coasts, pieces of land and their dense vegetation are sometimes torn from the shore and dragged offshore. It was one of them who had to capture the Federation.