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Claude Hulet, Spanish & Portuguese

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Aug 1, 2004 8:00 AM

Since retiring from UCLA’s College in 1991, Claude Hulet has been trying to get his bearings.

It doesn’t help that the professor emeritus of Spanish and Portuguese relies only on dead reckoning, the height and angle of the sun to determine latitude and other 16th-century Portuguese navigational approaches and implements.

But the experienced sailor who fell in love with Portuguese culture as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1930s wouldn’t have it any other way.

By using period navigational systems to plot the course around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope first blazed by Bartholomeu Dias in 1488 and refined in 1497 by compatriot Vasco da Gama, Hulet hopes to demonstrate once and for all the genius of the feat.

“Given the risk and the technological challenge, discovering a sea route to Asia through the South Atlantic from Europe was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon in 1969,” Hulet said.

Yet, Christopher Columbus’ culturally portentous — if less technically advanced — escapades have consistently overshadowed Portugal’s giant leap for mankind, Hulet contends.

“What most people don’t realize is the Portuguese had an enormous influence on Columbus, the sailor,” Hulet said.

Historians have long maintained that Dias and Gama hugged the western coast of Africa as they sailed south, an approach that would have been a breeze — if it were possible. But Hulet points out that once the Portuguese passed Cape Verde, they did not have the winds at their backs, as the theory requires. Thanks to prevailing winds from the south and east, or southeasterlies, as they are known, the exploradores had to sail mostly into the wind for the length of Africa, a little-appreciated fact that enormously complicated their task.

“Historians — they’re landlubbers,” scoffed Hulet, who took up sailing at 62. Navigating the old-fashioned way, Hulet’s only concession to modernity is the use of state-of-the-art sailing charts that show winds and currents for every 300 square nautical miles of sea.

Dias’ small but nimble exploratory vessel must have tacked down the southwestern edge of Africa in a tight zigzag pattern, Hulet concluded.

As he approached the cape, Dias determined the coastline’s latitudes using the Arabian astrolabe, the azimuth device that the Portuguese had adapted for the sea.

Gama’s lumbering, square-rigged vessel would have sailed in a big arc that came within 150 miles of Brazil before heading south and east. Approaching the Cape of Good Hope near the 30th parallel, Gama almost ran aground.

“He must’ve had the fright of his life,” Hulet said.

But thanks to Dias’ legwork, Gama was able to recalculate his course. After two failed attempts, Gama then cleared the cape, thanks to a freak westerly wind reflected on contemporary maritime charts.

“You have to remember,” Hulet said, “that prevailing does not mean constant.”

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