Say What?

What does this mean?

The original Panama Canal was a revolution in geopolitics and economics; before it was built, the sea voyage was shorter from London to San Francisco than from New York to California…

Ummm, last time I checked, San Francisco was in California, and that was true even before the canal was dug. How could it have been a shorter distance from London to there, than from New York to there (or to southern California)? Both trips would involve going around the Horn (or taking the long way round the other way). Does anyone know what Professor Mead is saying here?

23 thoughts on “Say What?”

  1. Could it have been faster to sail the long way because of the prevailing winds???

    Not so sure I agree that “the Caribbean was a strategic dead end “. Wasn’t it an important refueling location in the early days of steam (ships bound from and too S. America)? And…wasn’t a lot of cargo from Africa and the far east transfered there to East Coast bound ships? Maybe I’m not understanding what he means by “strategic”…

      1. Almost certainly shorter in time. It may be that tacking down the coast would have made it shorter in distance as well.

      2. Shorter time. A guy I did my degree with was an engineer on a merchant ship. They tried going the short way around once and had to give up and go the longer way. It was a gamble the Captain took and lost. They spent 3 days at full steam going backwards.

    1. I’m not sure what he means by “strategic dead end”. The Caribbean was a vital road for the US’s economy, especially the Gulf of Mexico and the various straits through the Greater Antilles. America’s first foray into world-power imperialism was the Spanish-American War, fought primarily over control of Cuba and the rest of the remnant Spanish possessions in the northern Caribbean, and both the US and Spain cared enough to fight a serious war over it. A significant percentage of American shipping losses during the Battle of the Atlantic occurred around Cuba and Florida.

      I’m pretty sure that the London-to-Suez-to-San Francisco route is longer in sea-miles than the Drake route via the Cape. And with the decline in clippers in favor of steamers, prevailing winds were becoming less and less important in international commerce. I’m coming up with a sea distance of 14,500 miles from Liverpool to San Francisco via the Cape, and 14,000 miles for New York to San Francisco.

      1. A significant percentage of American shipping losses during the Battle of the Atlantic occurred around Cuba and Florida.

        During early 1942 (a period the U-Boat crews called the “Happy Time”), there were massive shipping losses just off shore of many American coastal cities. A major contributing factor was that the mayors of those cities resisted implementing blackouts for various reasons (including harming tourism), so the ships were silouetted against the lights. It was very stupid of them not to dim the lights. Those civilian shipping crews should’ve staged riots or refused to go near those cities.

  2. Probably has to do with ocean currents. They run clockwise in the Atlantic IIRC, so you go south from England, then west to the Carib, then north to New England, then east back to England. Going from NY to the Carib would involve going *against* the current, or going to England first. Either way will extend travel time.

  3. That caught my eye as well. My first thought was that with the Suez Canal, ships could make the trip from London to SF shorter by going East. Where’s a globe when I need one!?

  4. The crude measure is about 16000 miles from either London to San Francisco or from New York to San Francisco; if one travels via the South Atlantic and through the Straights of Magellan. It could be slightly longer from New York than London.

    1. That’s a nice site. I wonder if someone has done something similar for sailing routes–obviously the numbers would vary much more widely, depending on time of year and prevailing weather and sailing characteristics of the vessel (how long between ports, how much weather it can handle, how close to the wind it can sail, how much risk it is willing to allow, etc.).

      For sailing in particular I imagine time of travel is much more important than distance traveled.

      1. Daver,

        The Flying Cloud set the record for NY to SF via the Horn at 89 days, a record unbroken until 1980.

        1. That’s impressive. 85 days is only about a third again what powered commercial vessels take (although it doesn’t look like that’s a particularly common route any longer).

  5. But, from NY, you have to fight the Gulf Stream, whereas maybe the North Atlantic Gyre helps you most of the way to the tip of Brazil from London.

  6. I think it is a historical issue. When I read about New England whalers, there were various thoughts about getting to the Pacific via Cape Horn vs Cape of Good Hope. Many thought the trade winds more favorable going “the long way”. Further, even when going via Cape Horn, whalers would sail to Europe, travel down to Africa, and then cross at the narrow part of the Atlantic to South America.

  7. The distance is about the same , so the travel time is the controling factor. On the east coast of the US the wind and current heads towards the English coast, the winds also tend to push toward the east as well. So any ship leaving New York had to head half way to England before heading towards San Fransico. <<

  8. The distance for “shortest navigable route” from London to San Francisco was about 13 736 (per the sea distances page, thanks for that!) From New York, it was barely any closer: 13 277. Mead is wrong, though not by a lot, just a couple of hundred miles.

    Here’s why the distance is almost the same; the eastern tip of Terra Del Fuego, which you have to pass to round Cape Horn (Using the Strait of Magellan is a little less, but tricky in the days of sail) is at 65 degrees west. New York is at 74 degrees west. In other words, the route from NY to San Fran via Cape horn involves crossing a point that’s about 500 miles further east than New York is, before heading back west. (that adds a thousand miles right there). New York is further south than London by about 730 miles, but the need to go far enough east to round Cape Horn largely negates New York being further west and also further south than London for a Cape Horn passage.

    A further factor; London – San Francisco Via Suez was about 2000 miles longer, but it avoided rounding Cape Horn against the prevailing winds. On the other hand, it sailed largely into the prevailing winds (the SE trades) in the Indian and Pacific oceans for much of the way. For that reason, most London-California sailing ships went via Cape Horn to California, though many chose to come back via Suez.

    1. CJ,

      Good points, but you’re off. You don’t just have to get to Terra Del Fuego, you also have to get around Brazil, which puts you even further east (34 degrees west).

      So, based on your comment, I did an experiment with Google Earth, and looked at the great circle route. I suggest trying this. In Google Earth, draw a line from London to Terra Del Fuego. To me, it looked like a great route.

      1. You’re right!

        I tried it with a path measurement from NY as well; the distance from London to Cape Horn is pretty darn close to NY to cape horn.

        What I can’t figure out is how I forgot that Brazil jutted that far east. oops.

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