Ferdinand Magellan and me (29)

Ferdinand Magellan

Modern ships and ancient ships

ancient Egyptian ship replica

I was not a stranger in the Red Sea. One of my jobs during our time in Singapore was skipper of a seismic survey ship prospecting for oil in these parts. I was bemused then by glimpses of Egypt’s antiquities from the deck of a vessel in search of black gold where Moses had parted the waters. We sailed back and forth over a grid drawn on the chart by a couple of oil company geologists. We towed a cable that periodically sent out a burst of pneumatic noise. An instrument on board recorded echoes from the bottom and the geologists pored over a print-out seeking evidence of cavities that might hold petroleum. I regarded myself in the same role as the Portuguese explorers like Magellan, Serrano, Abreu and others in search of cloves and cinnamon. The quest for trade and commerce continued. Only the commodities had changed.
I’d had some dealings with a freelance shipping agent known as the Prince of the Red Sea but he didn’t recognise me a year or so later arriving in Suez by yacht. The Prince was everyone’s fixit man. For anything you wanted around Suez, you asked the Prince. Within an hour after we secured to a jetty in the non-commercial part of the port he arrived wearing a white suit, a gold bangle on his wrist and a huge smile.
“If I’d known you were coming, lovely lady,” he said to Robin, “I would have brought you a bunch of roses.”
If we needed groceries the Prince could get us a discount. If we needed help with Customs and Immigration he had an uncle who was well-placed in that department.
“Fuel? No problem at all. I can get it delivered right here to the dock.”
And of course a visit to Luxor and a ride on a camel was absolutely essential. He was the most exhausting man I ever met, including Don Windsor in Galle, and also one of the most amusing.
The Prince organised the mandatory canal pilot, a very different personality. He sat in the cockpit and took no interest in the navigation, which was straight-forward under motor in calm weather. We had to anchor a few times to allow convoys of ships to pass, alternately north-bound and south-bound.
At the end of the transit, in Port Said Yacht Club, we met up with old friends Samba, Magdalena and L’Affaire, which had been suffering engine trouble every time we met them. Tom, the skipper, bewailed his fate as owner of a fancy $300,000 boat filled with space age electronics that were useless without a reliable engine to charge the batteries. I consoled him with a picture of a replica of a style of boat that used to ply Egyptian waters about 3,000 years ago.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (27)

Ferdinand Magellan
Whisky Tango Foxtrot
Egyptian boats of ancient design

The shipwreck fundamentally changed Robin. Once she would sing to herself on watch at the wheel and laugh out loud at Bucko’s antics defending Wathara from dolphins. Now when we continued on our way in perfect weather she took no joy in it. Even Bucko noticed. She used to nurse him in her lap while steering but he was no longer welcome. She never bothered putting out a fishing line.
“Are you okay?” I asked one day.
“Of course,” she said unconvincingly.
We entered the Red Sea through the narrow Bab al Mandab, a funnel for all the seaborne traffic between Europe and Asia. The Suez Canal dramatically changed the economics of global trade in the middle of the 19th century. A continuous two-way stream of tankers and freighters were now rearranging the world’s commodities in a way that Magellan could not have dreamed of. Iron ore, coal and oil have replaced cloves and cinnamon as the basis of the wealth of nations and catalysts for war. Fossil fuels power this activity, not wind. A few local boats – feluccas of ancient design – still ply the Red Sea but the Pinnis Proas of Makassar are the only surviving mercantile fleet under sail.
We had rarely encountered ships in our journey across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea but now they posed a real threat. It was like sailing up the middle of a freeway. I remembered being told a story about a ship that arrived in Singapore with the wreckage of a yacht hooked up in the anchor in their hawse pipe. They hadn’t even noticed the bump when the ship ran over it. I had sailed in such big ships and understood the danger, which I impressed upon Robin.

“Keep your eyes open,” I said, “and if any ship looks like coming anywhere near us, call me.”
Upon which, she burst into tears.
“You blame me, don’t you? I was steering two four zero. I was. God’s honest, I was.”
I have to admit I may have been a little terse when we hit the rocks that night. I may even have used a phrase like, “You stupid bitch, what have you done?” If so, I now repented but an arm around her shoulder was not enough to console her.
Keeping a lookout is the simplest and most important duty a sailor has to perform. That’s why I disapprove of single-handed yacht races. Boats have been sailing the Red Sea since antiquity but the dangers have never been greater than in the era of giant ships running on autopilot and other electronic gadgets that encourage complacency and negligence. Shipwreck these days is likely to claim fewer human lives than in years gone by but much greater damage to the environment from devastating oil leaks. The Mark 1 eyeball is still the most important navigation instrument, although there will probably come a time when it is replaced by robots, taking all the fun out of sailing.
Fun? Driven out of an anchorage behind Ras Bab al Mandeb by an Arab firing a pistol, we headed into strong northerly winds and choppy seas that persisted for more than a week. Arriving exhausted in Port Sudan we found old acquaintances: Chenoa, ( Karen and Peter), Ladina, (Jan and Harry), and new friends Bill and Mona sailing Cézanne out of New Zealand – the cruising village. That was kind of nice.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (26)

a dubious picture of magellan's chronicler


ferdinand magellan
whisky tango foxtrot

The most serious casualty of our shipwreck at Nishtun was the loss of my facsimile copy of Pigafetta’s journal. Along with several charts it had turned to sludge in the panic of trying to refloat Wathara. Pigafetta’s account of the voyage is a unique piece of world literature. It has survived the original that he presented to Don Carlos, King of Spain, with the immortal words ‘That the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time.’ And indeed Magellan’s fame has not perished and never will.
I am very fond of Pigafetta, having studied him for years although not much is known about him. He came from a well-to-do family in Vicenza, Italy and was clearly well educated. He served as part of a diplomatic mission from Pope Leo X to the court of imperial Spain under a new king, Holy Roman Emperor-elect Don Carlos, who received the first written account of the voyage from Pigafetta’s hand.
Among the audience at Pigafetta’s presentation was young Maximilian of Transylvania, bastard son of the Cardinal Archbishop of Salzberg. Maximilian wrote an alternative account of the dramatic story in Latin, which was published by his proud father the archbishop. We don’t know Pigafetta’s response to this plagiarism but he edited and expanded his diary and published a version in French, which forms the basis of every edition since. It has been translated into several languages. The facsimile in my possession reproduced Pigafetta’s water- colour illustrations of anything that struck his fancy and was accompanied by an English translation. The document is remarkable in its own right, not just as a record of one of the most important events in history. Insatiably curious, Pigafetta was the world’s first anthropologist. At a time when the militant Catholic Church saw the inhabitants of the New World as fodder for conversion and Conquistadors slaughtered them by thousands, Pigafetta took a genuine interest in native people, their customs, beliefs and especially their languages. He gathered new words as if they were butterflies and pressed them between the pages of his journal.
In Patagonia, Magellan captured three native men planning to baptise them as Christians and take them back to Spain as a present for the king. None survived but one of them lived long enough for Pigafetta to compile a modest dictionary of the language now known as Tehuelche. His technique was to touch or point to a body part such as head or arm or ear and record the native’s response. Extending the vocabulary, he recorded more abstract concepts such as Setebos, the Patagonian god or perhaps one of them. Setebos is the first Tehuelche word to enter the English language. It appears in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest as the god worshipped by the witch Sycorax.
Pigafetta presented copies of his manuscript to the kings of Portugal and France. Papal business took him to Monterosi, Italy, where he met Philippe de Villiers l’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St John. The order had originally administered a hospital for Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. It was expelled after the second Crusade in 1310 and shifted headquarters to Rhodes. A couple of centuries later, Rhodes was captured by the Turks and de Villiers appealed to the Holy Roman Emperor, Don Carlos of Spain, for a sanctuary for the Knights. Don Carlos gave them Malta.
As a former papal diplomat, Pigafetta may have taken part in these negotiations but anyway he joined the order and dedicated a version of his book to the Grand Master. He died in Malta in 1534.

Ferdinand Magellan’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta


Ferdinand Magellan and me (25)

Ferdinand Magellan

yacht Wathara finally salvagedHaving stripped the sails and boom off the boat there was little we could do until the earth dried out to enable the low loader to negotiate the track from Nishtun. We began to look around and saw signs of life in the desert. In a nearby salt-water lagoon flamingos stood one- legged all through the day waiting for fish. We followed the tracks of turtles and dug for eggs without success. There were said to be snakes, scorpions and rabbits here but we saw none. When the sun went down behind the stony hills the harsh light of day became a golden glow and coolness crept over the land. We were beginning to feel at home here.
Sigfus came and informed us that the low loader was probably not suitable for the job and there was a change of plan. What they were going to do now was bring down an excavator and dig a channel out to the sea. Next day a yellow machine like a giant crab began shifting tons of rock until Wathara perched on top of a cliff. A truck took the weight while the excavator dug the sand out from under her. We jiggled her bow and stern but she refused to budge. Then they rigged a sling around her keel and pulled it out from under her until she slid down the bank and into the water and sat there bobbing like a duck. I nearly wept for joy.
We motored around to the little harbour of Nishtun and tied up at the jetty. That night we were treated to a celebration. Everyone involved in the rescue was there. Champagne, whisky and Irish coffee appeared and there was a deal of head-shaking over our extraordinary luck or cunning in choosing this spot on which to wreck our boat.
Next day, a crane lifted Wathara out of the water, a hole in the keel was welded up, new anodes were fitted and Robin and I painted her bottom with anti-foul supplied by Dandar. She went back into the water almost as good as new, although with some underwater war wounds bearing testimony to her grit.
Gifts of food, wine and even clothes were showered upon us not only by the Dandar people but also their Arab employees and the crew of the monthly supply ship, which had now docked. We were ready to leave but decided to wait for the holiday weekend to take everyone out for a sail; little enough repayment for these wonderfully generous people.We caught two big fish and barbecued them that night.