16 April 2009

Keel Overhauled: 175 years ago, a rather ticklish operation

In early 1827, during her first voyage in South America, HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes, was beating a hasty retreat from storms in the Strait of Magellan when she struck a submerged rock near Port Desire, damaging a large section of her false keel. In December 1833, during her second voyage under Captain Robert FitzRoy, Beagle was leaving Port Desire when she once again struck a rock. FitzRoy was convinced that it was the same rock. Charged with accurately mapping the South American coast for shipping, the ever-fastidious captain returned to the spot the following month to try to locate the rock, but to no avail. The ship's carpenter, Jonathan May, assured FitzRoy that Beagle must have knocked the top off the rock with her keel.

Being about to pass through the Strait of Magellan, FitzRoy did not want to risk having a damaged hull on his ship. Although Beagle was still watertight, any damage to her copper sheathing would leave her timbers open to attack from the South Pacific's notorious wood-boring worms.

One of the books in Beagle's well-stocked library was the sealer and Antarctic explorer James Weddell's snappily entitled:

A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822–24. Containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea, to the seventy-fourth degree of latitude; and a visit to Tierra del Fuego, with a particular account of the inhabitants. To which is added, much useful information on the coasting navigation of Cape Horn, and the adjacent lands.
Weddell's book did indeed contain much useful information. In one section about the Santa Cruz River he wrote, "The rise of the tide is so great in this river, being thirty-two feet, that the keel of the largest ship may be examined, by laying her on the ground". FitzRoy decided it was time to inspect Beagle's keel. He made for the Santa Cruz and, 175 years ago today, on 16th April, 1834, Charles Darwin recorded in his Beagle Journal:
16th The Ship was laid on shore; it was found that several feet of her false keel were knocked off, but this is no essential damage; one tide was sufficient to repair her & after noon she floated off & was again moored in safety. Nothing could be more favourable than both the weather & place for this rather ticklish operation. —
The event gave us one of the most iconic images of HMS Beagle: this magnificent engraving based on a sketch by Beagle's newly installed artist in residence, Conrad Martens:
Beagle laid ashore
Beagle laid ashore, River Santa Cruz
To commemorate the event, FitzRoy named the spot at which they beached Beagle Keel Point. He calculated the point's latitude and 'relatively right' longitude to be: 50° 06' 45" S and 4h 33m 34s W respectively. This converts into decimal as 50.1125°S and 68.3917°W, the point indicated by the pin on this clickable Google map:

Google Map of 50.1125S 68.39166667W
The co-ordinates of Keel Point calculated by FitzRoy

FitzRoy's calculations were pretty spot-on. The beach with the jetty to the south west of the pin is still known as Punta Quilla (Keel Point). This modern photograph of the beach clearly shows the same low, crumbling cliffs depicted in Martens' image.

I wonder if the good people of Punta Quilla know how their beach got its name, and whether they will be celebrating its 175th birthday today.



roberto said...

Punta Quilla 50°07'S; 68°25'W
The Beagle was laid on shore, for inspection of her damaged keel, taking advantage, in an interval of 6 hours between high tide and low tide which was 32 feet difference, enough to expose the whole ship bottom with the keel. The place Keel Point is called in Argentina as Punta Quilla directly.
According to the Tabla de Marea by Argentina Servicio de Hidrografia Naval, (http://www.hidro.gov.ar/oceanografia/Tmareas), the same place where Beagle laid dry has a smaller tide difference exactly 175 years later, as predicted:
2009/4/16 hr min tide(m)
0254 9.1
0947 3.3
1536 8.6
2209 4.6
Perhaps Captain FitzRoy has to wait until the next maximal tide at
2009/4/27 hr min tide(m)
0005 11.9
0638 0.8
1235 11.6
1858 1.7
The maximal tide experienced in the mouth of Rio Santa Cruz is about 12.0 meter. You see a ship moored alongside the pier now, then in hours she disappears, sinking to 3 floors below the pier where you stand. The sea water flows so quickly, that anybody drops overboard just disappear in seconds. In April the water is already icy cold, and sometimes the Patagonia wind..
The Argentina Patagonia coast boasts big tides, with 12.5m in Rio Gallego (51°36'S; 69°01'W) ; 8.8m in San Julian (49°15'S; 67°40'W), but strange enough is only 2.3m in Ushuaia (54°49'S; 68°18'W), capital of Tierra del Fuego and the southern-most city on Earth.
I would say that Captain FitzRoy made a wonderful calculation on the site of Beagle’s short landing, if he could move her to the river bank, instead of in the middle of Rio Santa Cruz as shown by the Google map.
Punta Quilla as a sea port has no permanent dwellers, it is 17 km east of the town of Santa Cruz, nowadays 3,000 habitants, used to be capital of Santa Cruz Provincia until 1901. The nearest airport is 270 km away in Rio Gallego, the current capital.
Punta Quilla serves as a very good seaport for squid jiggers (fishing boats on south Atlantic squids), during the summer fishing season, all Argentina, and Oriental ships come to Patagonia coast where I once had the chance to work.
Charles Darwin spent almost 2 years in Argentina Patagonia, made his basic collection for future famous work on Evolution. He is called Carlos Darwin somewhere in Argentina, but absolutely not popular as Maradona or Madonna.
I doubt if my Argentina friends know much about Keel Point, but they do celebrate the first catholic missa held in 1520 by Ferdinand Megellan at a nearby San Julian Port.
Roberto Hu

Goetz said...

The picture (I found it in Darwin-online) gave me an idea some months ago: I rotated and mirrored a segment of the HMS Beagle a bit in order to compare it with an illustration in another sea voyage report. You find Henry Holiday's illustration (1876) in the first chapter of The Hunting of the Snark: The Landing.