It's a body of water with an aura that borders on the mythical, a force of nature renowned for its scope, range, and power. For sailors, crossing it for the first time is a rite of passage and a nautical milestone as significant as making a first-ever landfall or rounding a prominent cape. The Gulf Stream is a wonder of our watery world, and over the years, it's inspired great thinkers to conjure vast, inspirational thoughts. That said, as I know from experience, a transit of it?depending on the weather and the ever-changing conditions?can be a glimpse of heaven. Or, of course, a side trip to hell.
"There is a river in the ocean," wrote American oceanographer Matthew Maury in 1855. "In the severest droughts it never fails, and in the mightiest floods it never overflows; its banks and its bottom are of cold water, while its current is of warm; the Gulf of Mexico is its fountain, and its mouth is the Arctic Sea. It is the Gulf Stream. There is in the world no other such majestic flow of waters."
Nearly 150 years later, North Carolina journalist Thomas Yocum put Maury's Civil War-era observations into a modern perspective: "For centuries, men have struggled to learn more about the Gulf Stream. Each generation seems sure it has figured it out. Maury's The Physical Geography of the Sea and Its Meteorology sought to explain the Gulf Stream and the many faces of the North Atlantic. Nineteenth-century oceanographers saw the changeable nature of the North Atlantic as a jumbled array with many parts. Today's scientists see the parts as pieces of a larger system they are still trying to understand."
Indeed, these days we know that the Gulf Stream is but one element in a gyre of wind-driven currents spinning clockwise around the North Atlantic. From Africa, the North Equatorial Current flows westward before splitting in two off the coast of South America, flowing northward both through and around the Caribbean Sea before rejoining off Florida as the Gulf Stream. After continuing its journey up the Eastern Seaboard, off Newfoundland the Stream yet again branches into two separate entities, the North Atlantic and Azores currents, before closing the circle back off the African coast.
Today, we also realize that the Gulf Stream isn't a unique phenomenon. As Yocum writes, "Along the western edge of the Pacific Ocean and the coast of Japan, the Kuroshio Current rivals the Gulf Stream in force and magnitude. Similar to the Gulf Stream, the Kuroshio Current is part of a transpacific system that spins in the same wheel-like [manner as the] North Atlantic, connecting the North Pacific, California, and North Equatorial currents."
Still, for U.S. sailors, the Gulf Stream's status has been elevated over the years, in no small part due to its historical status. Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to undertake a scientific study of the Stream. American whaling captains knew that the Stream's plankton-rich boundaries would lure their prey and that its northbound flow could hasten their return to their New England ports. Later, Maury enlisted other sea captains to supply him with data on the Stream, and he rewarded them with current charts that could cut weeks off their passages.
Before heading to sea, contemporary cruising and racing sailors consult satellite images of the Stream and employ its eddies and meanders to shorten passages and garner silverware. Indeed, the Gulf Stream plays a prominent role in this month's feature story, "Two Ships Passing in the Stream," about a pair of last summer's classic U.S. East Coast sailing events, which begins on page 46.
When all is said and done, however, for sailors the Gulf Stream transcends history and science. It's a mystical waypoint not only on the chart but also along our own personal journeys on this planet and across its oceans. Simply put, it's out there, and yet another reason why we hoist sail and go to sea.