Science: The Helpful Wind

If Columbus had sailed due west, the "prevailing westerlies" of the North Atlantic might have battered his caravels back to Europe. But by luck, sailor's hunch, or a simple desire to sail in warm weather, he detoured south to the Canary Islands, picked up favorable winds. Since then, transatlantic sailing ships have used the Columbus system, often sweeping miles out of their straight-line courses to take advantage of friendly winds.

To steamships, the winds are nothing but a nuisance. Steamers go out of their way to dodge a hurricane, but in normal weather they stick to a "great-circle course"—the shortest path between...

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