Oceanic navigation began when the Venetian bus, a basic Mediterranean trading vessel, sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. The vessel was a complete-bodied ship with two masters.
Gradually, there was an expansion of sea travel to cover different routes and different destinations. But how long did these sea voyages take – sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, for instance?
This article seeks to answer the question: how long did it take to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1800s? The short answer: there are a lot of variables that go into it, but generally three weeks to a month — pretty similar to what it takes modern sailors!
We’ll explain it all below.
How Long Did It Take To Sail Across The Atlantic Ocean In The 1800s?
Many people are curious about the time taken to sail from one port to the other. One such curiosity is how long it took to sail from the American coast to England in the 1800s. Though the question is straightforward, it has some complicated aspects.
The answer will vary depending on the ship size, the number, and the size of the ship’s sails, what season of the year the shop was sailing, the shape of its hull, and if the ship was a light cargo or heavy cargo or warship.
Aspects of the weather such as wind, fog, pressure, sea surface temperature, and ice also greatly influenced the sailing direction: westbound or eastbound. The sailing time also depended on the methods and techniques of navigation, the captain’s knowledge, and the instruments in use.
The first place to look when seeking to determine the sailing time is Lloyd’s List. This newspaper reports on shipping casualties and movement, maritime news, and commercial information. The list can illuminate these sailing durations from Ye Olden Days.
The earliest issues are from January 1741, published every day from 1837. Nonetheless, in most instances, the reports were on when a vessel arrived at the port without mention of the departure time.
Mail ship journeys in the 1800s from London to New York lasted for about two weeks longer than the time taken by merchant ships sailing from Falmouth to Rhode Island. But the distance sailed by the merchant ships was considerably shorter.
There is a detailed explanation of sailing distances and times across the globe in the Ocean Passages for the World book – Great Britain: Hydrographic Department, 1895.
The Caird Library contains a series of five editions, the publication of the third coming in 1973. The edition describes that common passage times between New York and the English Channel for a sailing vessel weighing 2000 tons was approximately 30 days, with an average log of 100-150 miles per day.
The distance between the American coast and the English Channel is about 3000 nautical miles. Remember that a standard nautical mile is 6080 feet (1853 meters). Sea speed measurement is taken in knots, with one knot equal to one nautical mile per hour.
An average rate of approximately 4 knots went into completing Nelson’s passage to and from the West Indies. Square Riggers on Schedule is another important account and provides information about the following passage times between New York and Liverpool in the times between 1818 and 1832 for North Atlantic sailing vessels:
- Quickest crossing: 21 days
- Slowest crossing: 29 days
The average distance between the two points is about 3,000 miles. Given that, this duration is equal to speeds ranging between 100 and 140 miles per day. Over the ground, this is approximately an average speed of between 4 and 6 knots.
The Traveling by Ship Experience of the 1800s
Sea travel during the early 19th and late 18th centuries was uncomfortable, challening, and extremely risky at times.
Women, children, and men had to endure months of deprivation and uncertainty in constricted quarters, with a high risk of disease, piracy, and shipwreck.
Presently, are there passenger ships crossing the Atlantic?
Yes, there are still many ships crossing the Atlantic even nowadays! Though it might not be as fast as flying when it comes to transportation, cross-Atlantic sailing is a significant accomplishment, and part of the dream of sailing around the world.
What is the current state of affairs?
Naturally, most of us would assume that with improvements in technology, weather identification, navigation, materials, etc. that it would take a lot less time to sail across the Atlantic now than it used to! But that’s not really the case.
To cross the Atlantic, you will need approximately 3 to 4 weeks, depending on the route and other factors. If the ship is fast, takes advantage of route shortcuts, and is sufficiently lucky, it can complete the journey in two weeks. However, if unlucky and without winds for about a week, a slow ship can take up to a month to navigate the same distance.
This will vary according to the travel plans, the type of ship being used to sail, its size, speed, and the skills of the ship’s captain.
So it is all there. You will need an average time of three weeks — pretty similar to what it was in the 1700s.
Why is that the case, though? A curious person is bound to want to know more about why the duration is an average of three weeks. Read along to find a detailed explanation of this duration.
Why the Voyage Takes an average of Three Weeks
There are a variety of possible routes one can follow crossing the Atlantic. However, when sailing, the recommendation is to follow the direction of the trade winds. The easiest East to West route is from Portugal to The Canary Islands to Cape Verde and then to the Windward Islands. On a map, this is a total distance of approximately 6,800 kilometers.
The easiest East to West route is from Portugal to The Canary Islands to Cape Verde and then to the Windward Islands.
However, a boat will rarely sail following a straight path. It will probably cover a longer distance due to an S-shaped or curved journey. A great rule of thumb is to include between 15 and 20% in addition to the on-map distance.
In actual life, the journey will be approximately 8,000 kilometers. This will come down to approximately 20 sailing days in excellent weather conditions.
However, one should note that a sailor will prefer to take the distance in nautical miles instead of time. It is uncertain what the weather conditions will be. One nautical mile is equal to 1852 meters.
In the 18th Century, it would take a sailing ship somewhere in the range of 3 weeks to a month to cross the Atlantic, but as mentioned above, a lot of variables go into it. For example, many ships took infinite time: they didn’t make it across at all!
This time is heavily dependent on wind speeds, and even with all the modern technology of a 21st century sailing ship, the time to cross the Atlantic is pretty similar.