The Mysterious Life of the Sargasso Sea

When the customs officer in Bermuda asked for our next destination, I replied “the Azores,” just to keep things simple.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

When the customs officer in Bermuda asked for our next destination, I replied “the Azores,” just to keep things simple.

But what we really did was head southeast to the weirdest sea on Earth: the Sargasso.

Occupying the vast central eye of the North Atlantic, the Sargasso is the world’s only sea with no shore and no fixed boundaries. I guess what I should have told the officer was something like, “We’re going to nowhere.” Literally.

Yachts leaving Bermuda typically head as quickly as possible to 40 degrees north to make their way into the westerlies. But we made a perverse diversion, meandering slowly south and east to spend a week in this wonder world of floating weed islands and bizarre creatures.

Historically, skippers kept well clear of the Sargasso. Colonial Spanish ships referred to these parts as the “Horse Latitudes,” because there, they would often find themselves becalmed, running out of water and needing to jettison livestock over the side to keep sailing.

The floating sargassum weed that grows all across the Sargasso had a malevolent reputation. In 1492, Christopher Columbus was the first to record finding the stuff, a bright gold plant that resembles ordinary seaweed, but remarkably, has no need of roots, simply floating over the nearly 3,000 fathoms of ocean separating it from the abyssal plain below. Columbus and his frightened men were tricked by the weed into thinking they must be near land, when in fact, they were still in the mid-Atlantic. In the years that followed, stories grew of weed thick enough to trap ships, a legend whose modern successor was the Bermuda Triangle.

Of course, the weed, which grows in clumps arranged in surprisingly tidy windows, is never thick enough to impede a boat. Nonetheless, the reality of this unique ecosystem is at least as marvelous as the myth.

Strange as it sounds, the water in the Sargasso is different than the surrounding Atlantic. It is much warmer, saltier and startlingly clear. Even more remarkable are the creatures inhabiting those miniature floating islands. Many of them are camouflaged in the same golden hue and nearly impossible to see, unless you give the weed a good shake.

One day, for example, we saw a crab colored blue on the bottom and white on the top, apparently to make fish think it’s part of the sky and birds mistake it as a piece of foam. There were also shrimp in all different sizes, and the tiny but ferocious-looking histrio-histrio fish, whose fins have evolved into special webbed “hands” for climbing through the weed’s thick fronds.

The Sargasso weed also serves as a nursery for young loggerhead sea turtles, swordfish and other pelagic beasts; reef fish that come here as larvae on the currents; and both the European eel and the American eel, which travel to opposite shores during their lifetimes and then return to the Sargasso to lay their eggs and later, to die.

The reputation for maddening sailing conditions in the Sargasso is richly deserved. Calms became squalls, and hot days turned into wild, rain-filled nights. Several times we were able to stop to swim in water so transparent I found it hard to gauge how far under I’d gone.

Less welcome was the constant discovery of plastic junk. Because the Sargasso, like the rest of the North Atlantic Gyre, is enclosed within the enormous whirlpool created by the Gulf Stream to the west, the North Atlantic Current to the north, the Canary Current to the east and the North Atlantic Equatorial Current to the south, debris that gets in is unlikely to get out.

There’s growing pressure from the Sargasso Sea Alliance and others to clean up what has been dubbed “the Atlantic Garbage Patch.” But because the entire Sargasso, save its Bermudian waters, is on the lawless high seas, campaigners face an uphill fight.

We did eventually sail to the Azores, but will never forget our visit to that lost world.

Photos by Sebastian Smith

Related

02-'17-Trans-Atlantic_Downwind-Schralpin

At The Helm: Man Overboard!

Imagine this simple scenario: the boat’s powered up, sailing close-hauled in a building breeze under full sail. I come on deck as the skipper during the watch change to make sure the new crew is comfortable and the boat is properly set up for both the current conditions and ...read more

Promo-01-LEAD-MGR00321

Contrasting X-Yachts & Moody Cruisers

One of the most fascinating things about sailboats is the different ways that sailors, naval architects and builders will approach a single design problem. The result has been a bewildering array of rigs and hull forms over the years, and in the case of the two boats we’ll be ...read more

04-Yacht-anchored-in-front-of-one-of-Lastovo's-gunboat-tunnels-(3)

Cruising Charter to Croatia

As is the case with so much of the Mediterranean, to sail in Croatia is to take a journey through time. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Greeks traded amphoras of oil, wine and grain across these waters. During the first millennium, the Romans built lavish palaces and ...read more

m123728_13_01_171012_PMA_02901_9999

Alicante Announced as an Ocean Race Europe Stop

The Ocean Race Europe, a new event in offshore sailing, will include Alicante as one of four stopover cities. This European offshoot of the former Volvo Ocean Race will include the biggest change to the racing rules under the new title—fully crewed IMOCA 60s will join the ...read more

01-LEAD-doublehanded2

Preparing for a Doublehanded Race

A few months ago we took a look at the development and attraction of doublehanded racing (Two to Tango, June/July 2020). Hopefully, that served to whet your appetite. If so, the question becomes: “How do I get started? The good news, as we explained in Part 1, is that if you are ...read more

01-LEAD-Day-three---dolphins.-300-dpi

A Key Approach to Passagemaking

How you approach offshore sailing is key to the success of each passage. In addition, some of the most valuable, even crucial attitudes and skills may not be either learned or valued in everyday life on shore and may even fly in the face of talents that are greatly admired and ...read more

OceanVoyagesInstitute-2048

Point of SAIL: Mary Crowley of the Ocean Voyages Institute

In this episode of Point of SAIL, Principal Editor Adam Cort talks with Mary Crowley, founder and executive director of the Ocean Voyages Institute, a not-for-profit based in California that has been both educating sailors and working to preserve the health of the world’s ocean ...read more

01-Ocean-Voyages-Institute_PHOTO-READY_1_pg

Tracking and Catching Plastic Waste

Plastic waste—in the form of everything from plastic soda bottles to abandoned fishing nets—constitutes a major threat to the health of the world’s oceans. Giving the immense size of an ocean, though, actually finding all the plastic floating around out there in a time-efficient ...read more