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Letters Written during the Late Voyage of Discovery


At sea, Wednesday,
26th May, 1819.


{4} You received, I hope, my long epistle of the 11th, which, by good fortune, was sent on shore from Yarmouth roads, by a boat belonging to H. M.'s ship Wye, on Saturday the 15th. Since then we have lost sight of every part and appendage of the British isles; and I now write to you from the great Atlantic ocean, from a spot due south from the centre of Iceland, and due west from the centre of Scotland. If you will turn up your Atlas to such a position at the intersection of the meridian of 20° 45' west from Greenwhich, and the parallel of 57° 3' North Latitude, you will then be able to give my mother and Mary some idea of the spot where, in imagination, I am as busy in conversing with you all as if I were seated beside you.

My last letter closed at the commencement of our voyage, since which we have been constantly under weigh, with the exception of short interruptions on the coast of Norfolk, in Yarmouth roads. The narrow passages between the sand banks and the land, and between one another, afford the only shelter for shipping in easterly winds to be found on the English coast of the German ocean. For that reason these passes are much resorted to; but for the same reason shipwrecks are there by no means rare. The Yarmouth boatmen are however of great service to the people on board, by their courage and skill in rescuing them from the wrecks. Just such an account as this you have heard me give of the advantages and dangers of the Godwin Sands and the Downs, and of the boatmen of Deal.

Before we arrived off Yarmouth we discovered that the Griper was in general no match for the Hecla in sailing, excepting on a wind; it became necessary, therefore, on several occasions, for the Hecla either to take her in tow, or to lie to, to wait for her getting up.

The voyage properly began at noon on Tuesday the 11th, when we left the river, and commenced our experiments and observations on the state of the weather and on the temperature of the air and the sea. On that day the thermometer in the shade stood at sixty-two degrees; the temperature of the surface of the sea was 57 degrees, and the barometer was at 30.19 inches. Early on the morning of Friday the 4th, while turning up to the northward, the wind being contrary and the sea rough, the Hecla touched on the east end of Sheringham shoal, occasioned by the {5} pilot carrying the ship too far to the westward. But the alarm was soon over, and no bad consequences followed from the accident.

It is common, you know, for land folks to charge us seamen with not being over attentive to our religious duties. It ought to be considered, however, that winds and waves know no distinction of days and times. The operations on ship-board must, of necessity, be performed at all hours, and it is not surprising, that by habit the sailor should become less regular in his devotions than persons on land, whose time is wholly at their own disposal. To show you, however, that the charge against us is not always well founded, you must know, that on Sunday the 16th, divine service was performed on board both ships, and attended by every officer and man who could be spared from the indispensable duties on deck.

Monday the 17th, being off the coast of Yorkshire, distant from twelve to fourteen miles, we discharged our pilot from the Thames. He carried back with him a number of letters, among which were a few lines from me, just to say that we were then all well. In the afternoon of Tuesday the 18th, we had a distant view of the mountains beyond the Aberdeen, on the north coast of Scotland; and, on the following afternoon, we came in sight of Fair Island, situated between the Orkney and the Shetland isles. Since Sunday morning the wind has been favourable, and the weather pleasant. Several flocks of divers, a bird frequently seen in Davis's Strait in Baffin's Bay, have come near us; also that kind, called by seamen the puffin. The people caught a number of excellent cod and coal-fish off Fair Island.

On Thursday the 20th, we were detained by calms; but, in the evening, the wind springing up, carried us round the north point of the Orkney isles, distant from two to three miles. From what I have learned on board, the appearance of these islands may be considered as a sort of intermediate step between the favored land which we have left, and the dreary regions to which we are bound. In the morning we passed a Danish whaler, on her voyage to Davis's Strait; but she steered a course more to the northward than we did. In the morning of Friday the 21st, we lost sight of the Orkneys, and, in the evening, we descried Rona and Bara, two small islands, the former inhabited, situated a little to the northward of the parallel of 59°, and the most northern of the western islands of Scotland. In the neighbourhood of these isles we saw vast numbers of sea-fowl of different kinds, which resort thither and to other remote islands in that quarter, situated in the open sea, where proper food is found in abundance. I mentioned that the Danish ship kept a course to the northward of us: but we steered according to the opinion of the most {6} skilful captains in the whale trade, who cross the Atlantic in or a little to the southward of lat. 58°.

Saturday 22d. -- You have occasionally read in the newspapers of sealed bottles being met with at sea, or driven ashore in several parts, containing notes of the time and place of their being thrown in to the sea. One was thrown overboard to day from the Hecla, in which was a paper, containing a request, in various languages, that whoever should find it would transmit it to the Admiralty, in London, mentioning where and when it was found. This is done every day that the ships are under weigh. The principal object of this custom is, that, by comparing the times and places of the throwing out and the picking up of bottles, if found at sea, or immediately after they are driven ashore, a calculation may be made of the direction and the motion of the currents of the water by which the bottles have been conveyed along. A bottle of this kind, I am informed, was found on the north-west coast of Ireland, which had been thrown overboard in the former voyage to Baffin's Bay. It had been ten months in the sea, and must have been carried by the currents upwards of a thousand miles in that time. The chance of conveying, by the same means, to all concerned, intelligence of the state of a ship, is, of itself, sufficient to engage those on board to its adoption.

Monday 24th. -- This day we came in sight of Rockall, a single mass of rock springing up in the midst of the ocean about fifty leagues, that is, one hundred and fifty marine or geographical miles, equal to a hundred and seventy-two English miles from the nearest land, the western isles of Scotland. It is situated in north latitude 57° 39'1/2, and west longitude 13° 31' from Greenwich. Imagine to yourself the perfection to which instruments for the use of seamen must be now brought, when the position of an object so diminutive can be ascertained with such accuracy, that they can navigate the surrounding seas without fear of running against Rockall at any hour, day or night. At a distance it might, from its shape or colour, be mistaken for a ship under sail. When we had got about thirty miles west from Rockall, we found the depth of water to be only one hundred and forty fathoms. The temperature of the air, in the evening, was 50°, while that of the sea, at the surface was 49 1/2°, and, at the bottom 47 3/4°.

Before we left England I had, as you know, taken some pains to collect the most authentic notices relative to the history of the regions we were destined to explore. The result of my inquiries I had no time to communicate to you; but, having employed some spare time in committing it to paper since we have been at sea, it shall be the subject of my next letter.


Your, &c. &c.

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