Sailing Routes

Navigational chart c. 1873
Navigational chart c. 1873.
Source: Museum Victoria

In their dash to reach the Victorian goldfields in the quickest possible time, many ship's captains adopted the new 'Great Circle' route in the 1850s. Passing far south of the Cape of Good Hope, they sought the 'Roaring Forties'—the strong prevailing winds that blew from the west to the east between 40 and 50 degrees south.

This route involved enormous risks from drifting icebergs and the wild seas generated by frequent storms. It required exceptional navigational skills, as even the slightest error could lead to disaster. The large number of ships that were lost when navigating the narrow path between King Island and southern Victoria led to the West Coast of Victoria becoming known as the Shipwreck Coast.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 gave ships coming from Europe an alternative route to Australia. However, as early steamers still partially relied on wind power, most shipping lines continued to use the 'Great Circle' route. It was several decades before steam engines were reliable and efficient enough to enable ships to complete the entire journey to Australia under steam.

Initially, it was only mail steamers from the P & O and Orient lines that travelled to Australia using the Suez Canal. Government contracts made the route profitable for these companies.


  • Google 'Great Circle Routes'.
    What are these routes? Why did sailing ships use them when crossing the Southern Ocean? Why do aircraft still use them today?

  • Write a short story about a storm at sea in the days of sailing ships. Read the Heathcote diary extract for ideas and search the National Library of Australia picture catalogue for suitable images of 'sailing ships':

  • Make a list of ships that have been lost on Victoria's Shipwreck Coast or other parts of the Australian coastline. The website of the Maritime Heritage Unit of the Victorian Government's Department of Planning and Community Development is a good place to start:

  • Research one of the following Australian shipwrecks: The barque India (1841), the Schomberg (1855), the Dunbar (1858), the Loch Ard (1878).

Image Gallery

Wreck of the Loch Ard