5. Getting the Drift: Accidental Voyages and Discoveries
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5 Getting the Drift Accidental Voyages and Discoveries Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood. . . . And portance in my travel’s history. —William Shakespeare, Othello I.iii, ca. 1604 Humans in ancient times unquestionably crossed wide waters both by design and by accident. In fact, fortuitous discovery may have played a fundamental role in expanding sailors’ horizons and leading eventually to purposive crossings on a regular or episodic basis. This chapter looks at unintentional drifts impelled by maritime winds and currents. It is based on empirical observation of the phenomenon as well as on the developing science of computer simulation of oceanic drifting. The Far Travels of Flotsam The oceans’ prevailing wind and current systems, described in chapter 3, carry along anything buoyant enough not to sink to the depths. The higher a piece of flotsam of a given density projects above the water surface, the greater the degree to which the wind pushes it along faster than the current itself; thus, tall icebergs may travel as much as 40 miles a day. Unguided materials can be, and are, conveyed many thousands of miles, to fetch up on distant—­ sometimes, almost unbelievably distant—shores. Columbus heard that a (presumably Ameri­ can) carved wooden statuette, almadías (canoes), and even bodies of “Chinese-­ looking” men (probably Native Ameri­ cans) occasionally washed up on the Azores, in the Madeira Archipelago, on the Canary Islands, and in Ireland, and that (Ameri­ can) bamboo arrived in Madeira.1 Columbus claimed that he himself saw two bodies washed ashore in Ireland; these were probably Eskimo (Inuit). Many logs from north­ west­ ern North America, as well as glass and plastic fishnet floats and other items from Japanese waters, commonly wash up on Hawaiian coasts, and flotsam from South America reaches the Tuomotu Islands.2 South­ east Asian sea beans, coconuts, bamboos, and tropical logs reach North Accidental Voyages and Discoveries / 49 America’s Northwest Coast. Uprooted Chinese trees have landed in Ore­ gon and other tropical trees in Maine.3 According to Alice B. Kehoe, “Knowledge [that] there is land to the west has been abundantly provided to Britons for millennia by the enormous quantity of drift timber washing up on their north­ west­ ern shores: a late Neolithic ­ building . . . in Shetland used 700 meters of dressed Labrador spruce, accepted as American-­ originated drift.”4 Because of its location in relation to the Gulf Stream, British littorals also receive logs from vari­ ous spots in the Caribbean, and Caribbean sea beans arrive on European strands. By the same token, most driftwood on the coast of Greenland is of European origin. Logs from the Americas reach Tasmania , ones from Siberia drift to Iceland and Greenland, timber and ice-­ locked watercraft get carried around the Arctic Ocean perimeter, and many Asian logs wash up on British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands).5 In fact, messages in bottles (MIBs) as well as plastic toys, sneakers, and the like lost from contemporary container ships have drifted all over the world.6 Some MIB examples: one launched in the south­ ern Indian Ocean arrived at the tip of South America, was relaunched and then drifted back to the Indian Ocean (its rate of travel was about 6 miles a day); another floated from off Gibraltar and ended up in Maine; one from South­ ern California was found on the shore of Okinawa, and others were retrieved in the Philippines, at Rio de Janeiro, in Colombia, and in Japan.7 As reported in the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer’s newsletter Beachcombers ’ Alert!, derelict boats, buoys, MIBs, and so forth have drifted from Nova Scotia to Wales, from Maine to Spain and on to the Turks and Caicos Islands, from the Cape Verde Islands to Barbados, from Japan to Wash­ ing­ ton and to California, and so forth and so forth. If unguided logs, nets, floats, bottles, and other flotsam, as well as unmanned vessels, could travel to these far-­ flung places, how much more so could functioning sailing-­ vessels whose captains selected favorable sailing seasons? R. T. Callaghan noted, “Computer simulations suggest that such [human drift-­ borne] contacts were feasible if not inevitable at any time period.”8 Intact Manned Vessels Out of Control The prominent linguist Lyle Campbell, generally skeptical regarding transoceanic influences, nevertheless had the following to say: “it should be remembered that there is really little difficulty in crossing the oceans—coconuts have done it . . . adventurers in rowboats have done it. The...