Defining the Wind
by Scott Huler
Chapter 1: Beaufort of the Admiralty
The worst thing about the ferry that runs between Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, is that it's a hydrofoil. On the one hand this makes for a fast trip--kicking up twin spumes of seawater, the hydrofoil takes only two and a half hours to go 137 miles across the Rio de la Plata, the world's widest river. But on the other hand, the speed of the boat means they won't let you outdoors. A boat going fifty-five miles per hour kicks up quite a wind (it's Beaufort force 10, if you're wondering: "trees uprooted; considerable structural damage occurs" if you're on land, to say nothing of the terror it would inflict on a straw hat and sunglasses), so the speed prevents you from doing what you naturally want to do on a boat in summer, which is stand on the deck and watch the world go by.
Or, in my case, watch the world come toward you. What I specifically wanted to see was Montevideo, and I wanted to watch it emerge from the vastness of the Rio de la Plata and assert itself on my eye as we approached it from the west, exactly as Sir Francis Beaufort had in 1807. It shouldn't have been hard to see what he wanted me to see--he actually left me directions, and I boarded the boat with a sheaf of maps under my arm and high hopes.
But no soap. The ferry Juan Patricio doesn't even have a deck open to the weather, so the tourist-class passengers are left squinting out of windows with an aerodynamic slant seemingly designed to maximize the reflection of interior seats, carpeting, and the knees and feet of passengers. The window ledge itself reflected a sharp line at almost exactly horizon height as you gazed out the window, and trying to keep the two lines separate, in a boat skipping over water at 55 mph, can actually leave one rather queasy.
I initially envied the first-class passengers, whom I imagined strolling in front of huge banks of flat windows as the broad Rio de la Plata sped regally by beneath the boat, but an earnest look at the attendant, a flourished sketchbook, and a few words of stammered Spanish got me, an accomplice, and my maps upstairs, where I found the passengers had a better snack bar and much wider seats--but no view out the front of the boat at all. So it was back down to steerage and more attempts to find an angle at which I could peer through the windows and see something other than my own annoyed expression reflected back at me.
I ended up traversing the Rio de la Plata solely because Sir Francis Beaufort had been there before me--he was there in 1807, I in 2002--and I yearned to go where he had been, to see what he had seen.
This wasn't what I had expected. From the scale that bears his name I had naturally presumed Sir Francis-Queen Victoria made him a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1848, hence the "Sir"--was either a writer or a meteorologist, so I was surprised to find that the standard biography called him Beaufort of the Admiralty. My girlfriend loved the stentorian sound of the title; if she saw me lying on the couch reading it she would wave her arms magisterially and intone "Beaufort...of...the Admiralty," and I would find it hard to maintain my sense of purpose. The title, though, is exactly right: It's the type of book that instead of merely introducing the first captain under whom Beaufort served--his name was Lestock Wilson--also includes information surrounding Wilson's birth. It's the type of book that has endnotes to its footnotes. If you look in its bibliography, you'll find books like Mr. Barrow of the Admiralty, so the title really just keeps up tradition. In some ways, of course, I had been right about Beaufort: he was interested in the weather, and he wrote incessantly, if not especially well, filling letters, logs, and journals--and even a book--with prose that swung from the pole of engineer-flat to the tropics of almost absurdly purple without spending much time in the temperate zones.
But above all, Beaufort was a sea captain for the Admiralty--the British Royal Navy--at a moment that put him at the center of one of the greatest cartographic enterprises the world has ever known. In the nineteenth century, while the British merchant and naval fleets were busy taking over the world, Sir Francis Beaufort was the man responsible for making sure they knew what they were getting--for creating charts of the coastlines of the world. The Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty was creating the Admiralty Chart.
An Admiralty Chart, of course, is a map of the sea, or a particular portion of the sea. If you're sailing to, say, Montevideo, you'll get yourself charts prepared by some trustworthy organization--the British Admiralty, the Argentine or United States government--and you'll start planning. The charts showing the largest areas--say, the South Atlantic Ocean--have scales up to about 1:5,000,000, at which size you can see land on both sides of the narrowest part of the Atlantic. By the time you're heading into port at Montevideo, you'll be looking at scales of 1:10,000 or even smaller--close enough to give you soundings demonstrating the best approach to the channel into the harbor, and even showing the docks in easy detail.
An Admiralty Chart, however, is a good way to find your way from Buenos Aires to Montevideo in exactly the same way that the Oxford English Dictionary is a good place to go to find out whether desperate is spelled with an e or an a: it can do that, but it can do an awful lot more. The Admiralty Chart is the gold standard, the true north, the understanding of centuries of navigational and hydrographical lore, distilled into two dimensions and six square feet. "Put your faith in God and your trust in the Admiralty Chart," nineteenth-century sailors would say, and it's worth noting that at that point the Admiralty Chart probably had better long-term prospects. Hydrography is the seagoing sibling of cartography--the cartographer maps the land, the hydrographer draws the coastlines and sounds the sea. Beaufort spent the second half of his career as hydrographer to the Admiralty, the period regarded as the high noon of hydrography. When those sailors resolved to place their trust, they were trusting Sir Francis Beaufort.
Excerpted from Defining the Wind by Scott Huler, Copyright© 2004 by Scott Huler. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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