The Vendée Globe is the world's toughest solo sailing race, and Cape Leeuwin is an iconic point on the radar of Pieter Heerema during that race. Accidentally discovered by the Dutch centuries ago, this was the 'Southern land' that had been sought for so long. Who discovered Australia? And was it really the fabled 'Southern land'?

Searching for the ‘Southern land’

Circa 1600, the 'Southern land' had a mythical ring to it and for good reason. No one had any idea where it was or even what it was. The 'Southern land' was the as yet undiscovered land somewhere in the southern hemisphere. At that time, the lands and seas in the northern hemisphere were well documented and mapped, but nothing was known about lands and seas south of Africa, Asia, and South America. In the sixteenth century, Mercator believed that there would need to be just as much land in the southern hemisphere as in the northern one to keep the Earth 'balanced'. People thought that the 'Southern land' could be as large as Asia and Europe combined! 

Sailing to Australia with a favourable wind

Many Dutch ships set sail for Asia in the period 1616-1621. The 'Eendracht,' captained by Dirck Hartog, was the first European ship to accidentally end up on the west coast of Australia while heading for Asia. For a long time, this western coast was named Eendrachtsland. So how did they end up there? Let's look at the map. In the early days, voyages to Asia rounded the Cape of Good Hope and then continued northeast, sailing until they reached the islands of Indonesia. However, the Dutch discovered a strong westerly wind blowing across the Indian Ocean south of the Cape of Good Hope. That wind brought them to the east much faster. With this strong wind behind them, the ships first set a long course due east before finally turning northwards to reach Indonesia. At that time, captains had no instruments to determine longitude at sea, so they didn't know how far west or east they were. Ships frequently sailed too far to the east before turning north. This was why one day the coast of present-day Australia appeared on the horizon. The Dutch sailors thought this could be part of the 'Southern land'…

No money to be made

A few years after Hartog, the pinas (a type of ship) called 'De Leeuwin' sailed a long way south from the Cape of Good Hope and discovered the southwest coast of Australia at a latitude of 35 degrees south. This cape was named 'Cape Leeuwin' after the ship; a name it still bears today. The Dutch didn't stay on Australian soil for long as the land was barren and dry, and - compared with the fertile soils of Asia - of little commercial interest. 

Should Antarctica have been called Australia instead? 

It would take a long time - until the voyage of Abel Tasman in 1642 - before the discovery was made that Australia was a separate continent, not attached to the rest of the 'Southern land'. Tasman sailed right along the south of the continent and headed north again via the Pacific Ocean. The Southern Ocean (also known as the Antarctic Ocean or Austral Ocean) was much larger than anyone could ever have imagined! Tasman renamed the new country New Holland (Nieuw Holland), or Nova Hollandia. It still bore that name when the English arrived. This explains its later name, Australia; derived from Terra Australis, Latin for 'The Southern Land'. With today's knowledge, Antarctica should actually have been given the name 'Australia'.

Expect the unexpected 

Sailing remains a sport in which physical and theoretical aspects go hand in hand. It's tough and demanding, and it's a battle with the elements. On the other hand, it's also a mental sport. Calculating the currents and the wind on a route is an important part of an ocean race. Fortunately, Pieter has a whole range of modern navigation technology at his disposal. However, an incident in November 2014 during the most recent Volvo Ocean Race is a reminder that technology can still let you down and send you headlong into rocks and reefs in unfamiliar territory... 

Pieter, we wish you all the best on your journey to the final cape: Cape Horn!

Author: Marleen Stavenuiter | Het Scheepvaartmuseum
Source: Nederlanders ontdekken Australië, scheepsarcheologische vondsten op het Zuidland. J.P. Sigmond and L.H. Zuiderbaan. 1988. The Library of Het Scheepvaartmuseum