The English Channel

From London, the ships’ first voyages were down the River Thames. It was about 65 kilometres from London Docks to the Nore Light where the Thames meets the sea. Some ships were towed by steamers. Others sailed and, in the narrow river, they depended on finding the right winds. It was hard and tedious work and many captains left their first mates to take their ships down river. They chose instead to stay in London to complete business and travelled by road to meet the ships on the coast.

It was difficult to find favourable winds from the mouth of the Thames through the English Channel, the stretch of water that separates England from France. The prevailing winds in that part of the world come from the west and south west, the direction in which ships bound for Australia needed to sail. Many ships anchored and waited for wind changes in the Downs which are sheltered waters off the English coast, south of the Thames River. Their name comes from the white hills or rolling downs that can be seen onshore.

The slow start to the voyage did mean that passengers could post mail before they left Britain and adjust to shipboard life before they hit the open sea.

Most of the emigrant ships bound for South Australia entered the English Channel travelling against the wind and the crew had to work hard to tack the ship. Some ships were forced back to port. Gales were common. They rocked ships and forced passengers to spend their first days in the open ocean crowded below decks. Their accommodation might be ankle deep in sea water, the cabins dimly lit by oil lamps and the air could be thick with the smells of a crowd locked in small, damp quarters. For many, the first voyage into the open ocean brought seasickness.

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One Response to “The English Channel”

  1. Julie Peak March 4, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    Hi Kirsty,
    yes, that’s our Henry Alford 🙂

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