November 28

Today in Science

Ferdinand Magellan Reaches the Pacific Ocean

On this day in 1520, famed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan entered "The Sea of the South" having sailed from the Atlantic Ocean through the passage that now bears his name, the Straits of Magellan. 

Magellan set sail under the Spanish flag in September of 1519 to find a route through the New World to the Spice Islands. Convinced that the globe could be circumnavigated, Magellan and his five ships made good time to the Americas, arriving there in late fall.

The search for a passage across the land mass proved very difficult, and after spending almost a year and losing one of his ships, Magellan and his small fleet found what would be known as the "Straits of Magellan" in October 1520. It took 38 days to sail through the passage, and on November 28, 1520, Magellan and his remaining ships passed through the mouth of the strait and sailed into the "Sea of the South," named years earlier by Balboa when he sighted it from land in Panama.

The captain and crew had no idea the sea was as large as it is, and what they surmised to be a two or three day crossing took four months. While the crossing was long, and supplies were almost exhausted, the ocean itself was so calm that the sailors renamed it the "Pacific." The ships landed in Guam in March of 1521, where they re-supplied and set sail again.

A month later, Magellan himself was killed by natives in the Philippines, but his crew weathered on, reaching the Spice Islands and eventually completing the journey (though with only one of the original five ships), returning to Spain in fall of 1522. Magellan's belief in the possibility proved true, though he did not live to see it.

Wonder what it is like to sail so long and so far? Check out these Science NetLinks resources about ships and buoyancy:

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