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A large, high-lying land

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On December 5th 1642 Tasman and his Council decided that since the wind direction would no longer allow them to follow the coast of Tasmania, they should turn East.

“we could no longer steer near the coast here, seeing that the wind was almost ahead. We therefore convened the Council and the second mates, with whom after due deliberation we resolved, and subsequently called out to the officers of the Zeehaan that, pursuant to the resolution of the 11th ultimo we should direct our course due east…

… we then shaped our course due east for the purpose of making further discoveries”

Abel Tasman's path across the Tasman Sea

Abel Tasman’s path to December 13th

For the next seven days Tasman sailed east, and his journal includes only the day’s weather and his routine report of; position, course kept and distance sailed. On Dec 12th he recorded that he was not expecting to find land as he was experiencing open ocean swells.

“The heavy swells continuing from the south-west, there is no mainland to be expected here to southward”

In this, he was wrong. There isn’t land to the South-west of his position on that day, but there is land to the South, and he was much closer to it than he suspected.

Abel Tasman's path across the Tasman Sea

Abel Tasman’s path to December 13th

His journal for the following day began routinely, reporting his observed latitude, estimated longitude, and the weather. However, it continued…

“Towards noon we saw a large, high-lying land, bearing south-east of us at about 15 myles distance”

On December 13th, 1642 Abel Tasman and his crews saw New Zealand, and Tasman wrote the words “Groot in hooch verheven Landt’… ‘a large, high-lying land’ in his journal. Abel Tasman, his journal, both vessels and most of the crew survived the voyage. Copies of journal still exist, making theirs the earliest validated European discovery of New Zealand.

This is the complete Journal entry for December 13th, 1642.

The page from Abel Tasman's journal including the entry for December 13th

The page from Abel Tasman’s journal including the entry for December 13th

“13th December”

Latitude observed 42° 10′, Longitude 188° 28′; course kept east by north, sailed 36 myles in a south-south-westerly wind with a top-gallant gale. Towards noon we saw a large, high-lying land, bearing south-east of us at about 15 myles distance; we turned our course to the south-east, making straight for this land, fired a gun and in the afternoon hoisted the white flag, upon which the officers of the Zeehaan came on board of us, with whom we resolved to touch at the said land as quickly as at all possible, for such reasons as are more amply set forth in this day’s resolution. In the evening we deemed it best and gave orders accordingly to our steersmen to stick to the south-east course while the weather keeps quiet but, should the breeze freshen, to steer due east in order to avoid running on shore, and to preclude accidents as much as in us lies; since we opine that the land should not be touched at from this side on account of the high open sea running there in huge hollow waves and heavy swells, unless there should happen to be safe land-locked bays on this side. At the expiration of four glasses of the first watch we shaped our course due east. Variation 7° 30′ North-East.”

Just before noon they saw land, and immediately turned towards it. They were travelling east, and they turned to the south-east. After noon the council was convened and it was decided to continue south-east and reach the land ‘as soon as possible’.

Tasman’s position at anchor in Marion Bay, Tasmania was -42° 50′s, 147° 57′e (relative to Greenwich). By noon on Dec 13th he estimated his position to be 20° 58′ further East, and he measured his latitude at noon as -42° 10′s.

Correcting his longitude error, based on his actual position at anchor in Tasmania, gives us an adjusted Dec 13th position of -42° 10′s 168° 55′e.

Tasman reported seeing land to the south-east; not south-east by east, or south-east by south… he uses a 32 point compass. When he wrote ‘south-east’, this means that the land he saw lay between south-east by east, and south-east by south… or Bearing 123° to 147°.

Land to the South East

Land to the South East

So what was this land they saw to the south east? … bearing between 123° and 147°, from -42° 10′s 168° 55′e.

The Southern Alps from Gillespies Beach on the West Coast

The Southern Alps from Gillespies Beach on the West Coast

If you look south-east from this location, in the direction 123° to 147° (South-east by South to South-east by East), you see the Southern Alps. Mount Cook would be on the right hand edge of your view, with Mt Tasman slightly to its left.

This picture is taken on Gillespies Beach, on the West Coast. It is 7 ‘myles’ to the peaks. Mt Tasman is on left, and Mt Cook is centre-right.

However, there’s a problem with this.

From his December 13th estimated location, whilst the highest peaks of the Southern Alps are roughly in the direction Tasman gave, they are too far away.

From that location those peaks are 26 ‘myles’ away (194 km), and although it’s obviously difficult to judge ‘line of sight’ distance, this is almost double the 15 ‘myles’ recorded by Tasman. Also, whilst these mountains are high enough to be above the horizon at this distance; at 194 km, they’re a long, long way off. It is sometimes possible to see this distance, from sea level, in New Zealand… but it is quite unusual.

The next morning Abel Tasman saw the land clearly, and made a note in his journal that allows us calculate precisely where he was at noon on Dec 13th… and it’s not where he thought he was.

Abel Tasman had sighted New Zealand but he did not see Mt Cook, or Mt Tasman.

His estimated longitude, even after adjustment relative to his Tasmanian anchorage, was wrong by 116 km.

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