Skip to main content

Darwin's voyage; 21st century eyes

The great-great granddaughter of the famous naturalist re-creates the voyage of the Beagle

Charles Darwin was born Feb. 12, 1809, the same day as Abraham Lincoln. With all due respect to one of America's great leaders and his achievements, Darwin is a better story for a sailing column.

Sarah Darwin's voyage highlighted just how much has changed since Darwin first set foot aboard the HMS Beagle.

While 2009 marked both men's 200th birthday, it also was the sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin's "The Origin of Species," which formulated the theory of evolution. Darwin conducted much of his research during a voyage around the world aboard the 10-gun brig Beagle from 1831 to 1836. The journey by itself - against prevailing winds and currents, around the three major capes and with stops on four continents and the Galapagos Islands - was a remarkable nautical achievement, especially because the Beagle, which belonged to the Royal Navy's Cherokee Class, didn't possess great seakeeping abilities. Around 100 of theses brigs were put into service, but nearly a quarter of them foundered, hence their nickname "coffin brigs."

The credit for the successful completion of the Beagle's voyage goes to Robert Fitzroy, her commander. In an ironic twist Fitzroy, a devout Catholic, thus became a catalyst for the theory of evolution, which some believe debunks the creationist teachings of the church.

Following Darwin's voyage

One of the activities of the celebratory Darwin Year was the re-creation of his journey for a Dutch TV series ( The producers chartered the luxurious 250-foot three-mast clipper Stad Amsterdam - a far cry from the 98-foot Beagle - and hired Sarah Darwin, the great-great granddaughter of Charles, to anchor portions of the show. I had a chance to catch up with Sarah, a trained botanist who lives in London and recently received her doctorate. She is married to German scientist Dr. Johannes Vogel, the keeper and head of the Department of Botany at the Natural History Museum in London. Together they are rearing two young sons. She calls the TV program and the trip "the most dramatically exciting experience of my life, a tribute to his work and a dedication to the privilege of living on this planet."

Time is tight, however. Charles' voyage took five years; Sarah's will last only nine months, ending in May 2010. "Usually I fly from London to do the segments on location where I also meet the boat," she says. "That's remarkable, because they seem to be able to sail it to schedule." She and her sons, Leo and Josiah, were guests aboard the Stad Amsterdam on the first leg from Plymouth, United Kingdom, to the Canary Islands and later with her husband from Peru to the Galapagos Islands.

Darwin in 1869

Parallels and differences

"Poor Charles would have envied me. While he was holed up in the cramped aft cabin of the Beagle and got seasick often, we had a stateroom near the main mast where you feel the pitching much less. To say nothing of the en-suite lavatory and air conditioning." She regrets not having spent more time on board. "But there's a good side to it," she says. "It saved me from rounding Cape Horn 'backwards.' " As a longtime sailor herself, Sarah can imagine what it means to take on that treacherous cape from east to west. For her own outings she is content to putter about in a small CP 14 dinghy with her family near the salt marshes and seal colonies on England's east coast.

A century and a half after the historic voyage, the made-for-TV trip confronts her with the evidence of environmental degradation. When Charles went ashore in Salvador, Brazil, he stepped off the boat and right into the rain forest. "Now only 7 percent of that same forest still exists," Sarah says. "We had to drive three hours inland from that same beach to see the remains of it."

An unsung hero

But Charles Darwin wouldn't be Darwin without Fitzroy, who kept the blunt-bowed Beagle right side up. In January 1833, the ship was knocked down several times during a gale at Cape Horn. After a prolonged and futile upwind battle, Fitzroy decided to bail and dropped anchor behind the Hardy Peninsula, only 12 miles from the spot they had left 24 days earlier.

Fitzroy was given the command at age 23 after Beagle's previous commander had taken his life during a charting mission. Fitzroy was sent back to Terra del Fuego to continue the ship's mission and produced hydrographic data that was accurate and well-presented. The Royal Navy's hydrographer, Francis Beaufort, put Fitzroy's skills to good use and ordered him to extend his surveys into the Pacific and beyond.

Darwin was invited to join this extended voyage as a naturalist. When he wasn't ashore for his research, Darwin and Fitzroy saw a lot of each other, sharing the cramped quarters of the Beagle's aft cabin. They might have found mutual respect for each other, but did not see eye to eye ideologically.

As the Admiralty's chief meteorologist, however, Fitzroy was far ahead of his time. He put weather-observing equipment on ships and instructed the crews to take standardized measurements on their voyages. Land-based observations were relayed by telegraph. This data was statistically compiled and helped Fitzroy develop the first scientific weather maps and forecasts. In 1862 he published the "Weather Book," but remained the target of criticism whenever his predictions were inaccurate. On April 30, 1865, Fitzroy crumbled under the expectations and took his own life. It took decades before his groundbreaking work was acknowledged.

Darwin's remedies

Forecasting the future of climate change remains a difficult proposition as well. But Sarah Darwin remains upbeat, because during her voyage she noticed signs that portend a shift in attitude. "The penny is beginning to drop, no matter the reason," she says. "Continuing on our current trajectory, we are likely to create conditions that won't support the same number of people on Earth.

"Never have humans existed so far from nature. We teach kids to recycle, but fail to introduce them to nature, so they might learn and understand how we depend on biodiversity." One of the most pressing issues, she says, is deforestation, which contributes as much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere as the entire transportation sector.

Other items on her fix-it list include the preservation of pristine areas and getting children out into nature, so they get a sense of where they live.

And, of course, you can keep an eye peeled for marine wildlife while you sail and ask yourself how you relate to these creatures, because humans are a part of the bio web where every creature depends on the existence of other species. In the words of Sarah Darwin: "Charles would have approved of that."

This article originally appeared in the Home Waters Section of the March 2010 issue.