Volta do mar

Volta do mar is a navigational technique perfected by Portuguese navigators in the late 1400s during the Age of Discovery. The technique is also known as volta do mar largo and volta do largo.

In Portuguese, volta do mar means both “turn of the sea” and “return from the sea”, and the technique is based on utilizing the North Atlantic Gyre – a very dependable permanent wind circle in the Atlantic.

The volta do mar technique was extremely important for the Age of Discovery, and understanding the North Atlantic Gyre paved the way for understanding and utilizing similar phenomenons in other parts of the world. If European seafarers had not learned how to make use of the trade winds – prevailing patterns of easterly surface winds in the tropics – world history would most likely have turned very differently. As an example, Christopher Columbus used volta do mar to return to Europe after reaching the Americas. Instead of trying to head straight eastwards, he sailed northwards from the Caribbean through the Horse Latitudes to catch the prevailing mid-latitude westerlies that would bring him home.

volta do mar

Portuguese travel in the Atlantic Ocean

Volta do mar made it possible for Portuguese sailors to reliable return to the Portuguese mainland from the archipelagos located off the western coasts of continental (southern) Europe and (northern) Africa. The captain would first sail westwards to catch usable winds, and then use them to get back to Portugal. Going west to end up east was of course counter-intuitive and required the pilot to steer in a direction that was perpendicular to the ports of Portugal. Without help from the trade winds, it is very difficult for sail-ships to conquer the upwind to the Strait of Gibraltar.

Portuguese sailors also learned that in order to reach the southern tip of the African continent, they needed to head for South America (Brazil) rather than try to sail directly south along Africa’s western coast. They would head out in the direction of northern South America and not go east until roughly 30°S.

Volta do mar was instrumental in the creation of the Portuguese Empire, one of the largest and longest-lived empires in world history and the first colonial empire of the Renaissance. It existed from the Conquest of Ceuta in 1415 to the handover of Portuguese Macau to China in 1999.

Areas of the world that have at some point been a part of the Portuguese Empire: