How Long Did It Take To Sail Across The Atlantic In 1600?

In the age of exploration during the 16th and 17th centuries, daring voyages were made across treacherous oceans in search of new lands, resources, and trade routes. For those wondering, if you were an explorer setting sail in 1600, how long would it take you to cross the Atlantic?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: In 1600, a typical sailing ship would take 4-8 weeks to cross the Atlantic from Europe to the Americas, depending on weather and currents. Read on below for more details.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the typical sailing speeds, popular routes, weather factors, current knowledge and navigation abilities in 1600 that impacted Atlantic crossing times from west to east and vice versa.

We’ll also highlight some key historical crossings and estimates from maritime historians.

Sailing Speeds and Ship Types in the 1600s

Square Rigged Carracks and Galleons

In the 1600s, sailors crossed the Atlantic Ocean using square rigged carracks and galleons. These were the most common ship types during that time period. The square rigging allowed the ships to harness the power of the wind efficiently, making them ideal for long-distance voyages.

The carracks were large, sturdy vessels that could carry a significant amount of cargo. On the other hand, galleons were highly maneuverable and often used for military purposes.

These ships were not known for their speed. In fact, their average sailing speed was around 4 to 5 knots (4.6 to 5.8 mph). This may seem slow by today’s standards, but it was considered quite impressive during that time.

It’s important to remember that these ships relied solely on wind power and did not have the advanced propulsion systems we have today.

Advances in Navigational Tools

Navigating across the Atlantic in the 1600s was no easy task. Sailors relied on a combination of navigational tools and techniques to plot their course. One significant advancement during this time was the use of the astrolabe, a device that allowed sailors to measure the angle between the horizon and celestial bodies such as the sun or stars.

This information helped them determine their latitude.

Another important tool was the quadrant, which was used to measure the angle between a celestial body and the horizon. This information, combined with precise timekeeping using hourglasses or sandglasses, allowed sailors to calculate their longitude.

While these tools were not as accurate as modern GPS systems, they provided sailors with a reasonably reliable means of navigation.

Furthermore, maps and charts became increasingly detailed and accurate during the 1600s. Cartographers gathered information from explorers and sailors and used it to create more precise maps of the Atlantic Ocean. This helped sailors plan their routes more effectively and avoid potential dangers.

While there are no specific records of how long it took to sail across the Atlantic in 1600, we can estimate based on historical accounts. On average, a voyage from Europe to the Americas could take anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks, depending on various factors such as weather conditions, ship speed, and navigational skills.

Common Routes Across the Atlantic

During the 1600s, there were several common routes used by sailors to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Two of the most important routes were from Spain to Mexico and Panama, and from England to North America and the West Indies.

Spain to Mexico and Panama

One of the main routes across the Atlantic during this time period was from Spain to Mexico and Panama. Spanish ships would depart from ports such as Cadiz or Seville and sail westward, following the prevailing winds and currents.

This route was known as the Spanish Main and was used by Spanish conquistadors and traders to transport goods, such as silver and gold, from the New World back to Europe.

The journey from Spain to Mexico or Panama typically took several months, depending on the weather conditions and the size of the ship. The ships used during this period were often slow and vulnerable to storms and pirates, which added to the length of the voyage.

It was not uncommon for the journey to take anywhere from three to six months or even longer.

Once the Spanish ships reached Mexico or Panama, they would unload their cargo and resupply before returning to Spain. The return journey was usually faster, as the prevailing winds and currents would be more favorable for sailing eastward.

England to North America and West Indies

Another common route across the Atlantic in the 1600s was from England to North America and the West Indies. English ships, such as those belonging to the Virginia Company or the East India Company, would depart from ports like Plymouth or London and sail westward.

The journey from England to North America or the West Indies typically took around two to three months, depending on the weather conditions and the size of the ship. Unlike the Spanish ships, English ships were often faster and more seaworthy, which allowed for quicker voyages.

Once the English ships reached their destinations, they would trade goods such as tobacco, sugar, and spices with the colonies or local populations. The ships would then load up with valuable commodities and return to England.

It’s important to note that these were just two of the many routes used to cross the Atlantic during this time period. Other countries, such as Portugal, France, and the Netherlands, also had their own established routes and trade networks.

Weather and Ocean Currents

When it comes to sailing across the Atlantic in 1600, understanding the weather patterns and ocean currents was crucial for a successful voyage. Sailors had to rely on their knowledge of prevailing winds and currents to navigate their way across the vast expanse of the ocean.

Prevailing Westerlies

One of the key factors that influenced the duration of a transatlantic voyage in 1600 was the prevailing westerlies. These are the dominant winds that blow from west to east in the middle latitudes of both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Sailors traveling from Europe to the Americas would have taken advantage of these winds to make their journey faster and more efficient. The prevailing westerlies would have pushed their sails and helped propel their ships across the Atlantic.

The speed of the prevailing westerlies in 1600 can vary depending on the time of year and the specific location. According to historical records, the average speed of the prevailing westerlies during the 17th century was around 20 to 30 knots (23 to 35 miles per hour).

However, it’s important to note that these are just estimates and the actual speeds experienced by sailors could have been influenced by various factors such as storms or calm periods.

Gulf Stream Current

Another important factor to consider when discussing transatlantic voyages in 1600 is the Gulf Stream current. The Gulf Stream is a powerful warm ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and flows along the eastern coast of North America before turning eastward towards Europe.

It is one of the most significant ocean currents in the world and can greatly impact the speed and direction of a ship’s journey.

The Gulf Stream acts like a river within the ocean, with its own distinct flow and temperature. In the 17th century, sailors would have been aware of the Gulf Stream’s presence and would have used it to their advantage when sailing across the Atlantic.

By strategically navigating within the Gulf Stream, sailors could harness its powerful current and reduce their travel time.

It’s important to note that the Gulf Stream can be quite unpredictable, with its speed and location varying throughout the year. Sailors in 1600 would have relied on their experience and knowledge of the Gulf Stream to make the most efficient use of this ocean current.

Notable Early Crossings and Duration

When it comes to early transatlantic voyages, there were several notable explorers who braved the vast ocean to reach the New World. These early crossings played a significant role in shaping the course of history and expanding our knowledge of the world.

Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy journeys and the duration it took to complete them.

Columbus (1492)

Christopher Columbus is perhaps the most famous explorer associated with the transatlantic crossing. In 1492, he set sail from Spain with his crew, aiming to find a western route to Asia. After a long and treacherous journey, Columbus finally reached land on what is now known as the Bahamas.

The duration of Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic was approximately 33 days. It is important to note that this duration can vary depending on factors such as weather conditions and the specific route taken.

John Cabot (1497)

John Cabot, an Italian explorer sailing under the English flag, embarked on his own transatlantic journey in 1497. His objective was to find a direct route to Asia by sailing westward. Cabot’s voyage took him to the coast of North America, specifically Newfoundland or Labrador.

While the exact duration of his crossing is not known, it is believed to have taken around 50 days. Cabot’s expedition paved the way for future English exploration and colonization in the New World.

Ponce de Leon (1513)

Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish conquistador, set sail in 1513 with the intention of discovering new lands. His journey led him to what is now known as Florida. While the exact duration of his crossing is uncertain, it is estimated that it took him somewhere between 21 and 39 days to complete the voyage.

Ponce de Leon’s exploration of Florida marked the first recorded European contact with this region.

These early transatlantic crossings demonstrate the incredible courage and determination of these explorers. They faced numerous challenges, including harsh weather conditions, limited navigational tools, and unknown territories.

Despite these obstacles, their voyages opened up new horizons and paved the way for future exploration and colonization. To learn more about these explorers and their journeys, you can visit authoritative websites such as National Geographic or

Estimates for 1600s Atlantic Crossings

During the 1600s, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean was no small feat. Explorers, traders, and settlers embarked on dangerous journeys that tested their courage, skill, and endurance. The time it took to sail across the Atlantic during this period varied depending on several factors such as weather conditions, the type of ship used, and the route taken.

The Average Duration

While it is difficult to provide an exact estimate for how long it took to sail across the Atlantic in the 1600s, historical records suggest that the average duration of a crossing was around 6 to 8 weeks.

This estimate is based on accounts from various voyages and takes into consideration the prevailing winds and currents of the time.

The Factors Influencing the Journey

Several factors influenced the duration of a transatlantic crossing in the 1600s. One of the most significant factors was the prevailing winds, known as the trade winds, which affected the speed and direction of the ships.

Sailors would often plan their routes to take advantage of these winds, which could either speed up or slow down their journey.

The type of ship used also played a crucial role in determining the duration of the crossing. In the 1600s, most ships were wooden sailing vessels, which were not as fast or maneuverable as the ships we have today.

The size, condition, and design of the ship could all impact the speed and efficiency of the journey.

Another factor was the experience and skill of the crew. A well-trained and experienced crew could navigate the challenging waters more effectively and optimize the ship’s performance. Additionally, the availability of provisions, such as food and water, could also affect the duration of the voyage.

Comparisons to Modern Crossings

It is interesting to compare the duration of 1600s Atlantic crossings to modern-day voyages. Today, with advanced technology and faster ships, crossing the Atlantic can take as little as a week or even less.

The introduction of steamships in the 19th century revolutionized transatlantic travel, significantly reducing the time required to complete the journey.

For those interested in further exploring the topic of 1600s Atlantic crossings, provides a wealth of information on the subject. It offers detailed accounts of famous voyages, the challenges faced by sailors, and the impact of these journeys on world history.


To conclude, even with primitive navigation tools by today’s standards, Atlantic crossings from Europe westwards often took between 4-8 weeks in the early 17th century aboard square rigged ships favored by explorers like the Spanish galleons.

The duration varied based on weather, currents and exact route. We’ve uncovered how developments in navigational tools gradually reduced durations towards the mid 1600s. Hope you enjoyed this deep dive into maritime history!

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