Ferdinand Magellan and me (42)

holy week in spain

Sailing without God

Helen arrived on schedule and I met her at the airport with a bunch of red carnations. Wathara was in a terrible mess with preparations for departure. I had overhauled the electrics, ripped out the old chart table and built a new one but there was still a mountain of jobs to be done and the cabin was littered with scraps of timber. She elected to go to work cleaning it up rather than sight-seeing around Gibraltar, but first I gave her a tour of the boat: how to operate the head without sinking us, how to start the engine in case of emergency, how to inflate the life raft in case we sank… just an ordinary induction of a new crew member.
“I hope you’re not planning on sinking,” she said.
“Always look on the dark side of life at sea. It’s more realistic.”
“And what exactly is my role?”
“When you’re mending sails you’re the stitch bitch. When you’re on the jib sheet you’re the winch wench and when you’re cooking dinner you’re the galley slave.”
“I see,” she said with a frosty little smile. “And what am I in bed?”
“Then you’re darling.”
I gave her a hug for reassurance.

It was nearly Easter and I wanted to get to Seville for Semana Santa, a big event now as in Magellan’s time. Being an atheist, my interest was anthropological although I have been known to take the Lord’s name in vain when kicking my toe for example. As Magellan prepared for departure from Seville the medieval church was trying to cope with a pesky trouble maker named Martin Luther. Antonio Pigafetta, the voyage’s chronicler, was an anthropologist rather than a missionary for the Catholic Church despite having been a junior diplomat for the Vatican. He took an interest in the religion of the Patagonian natives and through him the Patagonian god, Setebos, found its way into Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.
God may have frowned upon these deliberations because soon after we cleared out of Gibraltar the boat stopped moving through the water. The engine was running normally, indicating a gear box problem, and I quickly set sail muttering blasphemies. I decided to press on rather than return to Gibraltar. The weather deteriorated during the day and was blowing a gale by the time we drew abeam of Barbate harbour. Ducking inside muttering a prayer I came to anchor with barely enough room to swing in case the wind shifted. Helen was looking more or less terrified.
“Welcome to the joys of sailing,” I said.
“Oh God, should we put lifejackets on?”
“I don’t think you’ll get an answer from God but do by all means. Thank God, I’m an atheist. I will end up in purgatory when I die.”
I set the storm trysail and bent on the storm jib and we kept three-hour watches throughout the anxious night. It was a fitting initiation for Helen and she came through with flying colours.

sailing without god


Ferdinand Magellan and me (41)

falling in love again

What a fool a man is. The fortnightly grocery run to Shoreham had become a habit but I knew it had to end. From Robin’s lawyers there was silence. Was I going to be legally shackled to her forever or was I going to break free? Either way, this was the beginning of the rest of my life and I needed new crew. I don’t believe in single-handed sailing. Apart from being unsafe, it deprives one of the joy of shared experience; the icing on the cake.

I advertised in British yachting magazines but the response was nil. In Sydney I got 152 responses to my ad. No wonder the British Empire has folded, I thought. They have all gone soft. Where are the modern counterparts of those women who set out across the Atlantic in the Mayflower; the ones who tackled the Indian Ocean in Sirius and Supply? What I needed in a crew member was the moral fibre that carved nations out of the American west and the Australian wilderness. I needed a woman who was not going to be cowed by cyclones, cannibals or shipwreck. This was indeed a voyage of rediscovery 500 years after the event.

A few replies had trickled in by next trip and I interviewed one responder in the local pub, the Pilot Arms. She had done a lot of sailing, had survived numerous failed romances and was wondering whether she oughtn’t concentrate on developing a business at her stage in life. She seemed on the point of tears once or twice. She decided to drive back to Lymington to ponder her decision rather than spend the night aboard Clementine.

The second lady I met by arrangement in Brighton. On the telephone she told me I would recognise her by her red hair, and this was definitely so. She had a great bush of it; so much I thought she might risk scalping herself with a winch. Unlike the first lady, this one was full of self-confidence. With only three months’ sailing experience she was ready to tackle the Magellan Strait and planned to buy her own yacht after the voyage. She was so full of enthusiasm she exhausted me.

Arriving back aboard after the meeting with the redhead I found a note from the third prospective crew member: ‘Sorry I missed you.’ I had talked with her two nights before and thought she sounded lukewarm but apparently I had agreed to meet with her. I had no recollection of that. She had waited three hours growing more and more furious. I called her back and we agreed to meet in London on Tuesday. I travelled up by train and she met me on the platform.
Bingo. Instant chemistry. Within half an hour I knew this was the one I wanted. We had dinner and drinks in a wine bar across the road from Victoria station and by the time the place closed it was all I could do to keep my hands off her. She kept saying, “This is amazing. It can’t be happening.” Next morning I called her and she said, “Were we off our heads last night? Was it just the drink?”
No, it wasn’t the drink. Shit, fancy falling in love again at my age. Ridiculous.

falling in love again


Ferdinand Magellan and me (39)

Torrey Canyon wrecked with massive oil spill

Wreck of the Torrey Canyon

Facing destitution in a foreign land due to divorce proceedings, something that Ferdinand Magellan never had to deal with, I had to come up with a quick solution. Fortunately, I still had stores on board and some travellers’ cheques to fend off starvation for the time being, but I was going to need a job.

The British territory of Gibraltar was carved out of Spain when the British invaded it in the 16th century War of the Spanish succession. Relations with Spain have varied over the centuries and restrictions on border crossings change with different regimes. The result is that schizophrenia affects all Gibraltarians. They talk Spanish as well as English, dress Spanish, eat Spanish and play Spanish music but fly the Union Jack and sing God Save the Queen. There is some commerce across the border but much of Gibraltar’s trade comes directly from England.

Two brothers, Albert and Biaggio, owned or at least operated a couple of old rust-buckets , and as it happened they were looking for a relief master on one of their ships, Clementine. They were impressed by the fact that I was a licensed first class master mariner. They usually didn’t worry about such details since the ships flew the Panamanian flag. The phenomenon of Flag of Convenience shipping is not new although that name dates from about the 1950s. It means a ship can be registered in any of several countries that provide the service for a fee while often taking no responsibility for the seaworthiness of ships or the welfare of crews. The brothers saved money by avoiding British maritime standards. A number of disastrous shipwrecks since the loss of the Torrey Canyonin the 1960s with a devastating oil spill on the English coast demonstrate that this longstanding problem has become much more serious.

Magellan’s ships, while not strictly FOC vessels since they flew the Habsburg royal standard, showed some of their features. The Casa de Contratation was responsible for all things maritime but certain corrupt officials put their own prestige and wealth ahead of Magellan’s need for qualified and experienced officers. Bishop Fonseca, head of the Casa de Contratation, appointed his own bastard son equal in rank to Magellan despite the fact he had never been to sea. This nepotism was to have serious consequences for Cartagena later in the voyage. Magellan’s crew was a motley mix of nationalities.

Flags of convenience

Once a fortnight Clementine did Gibraltar’s grocery run to Shoreham on the south coast of England. I can testify that boating in the Bay of Biscay in the middle of winter is never likely to become a tourist attraction. I had experience of Panama flag ships and was not surprised on my first voyage to find distress flares and fire fighting equipment out of date and engine room ventilation fans not working, which caused the generators to shut down from time to time. In a Biscay gale I listened on the radio as another Panama flag ship broke up and the British Air Force and coastguard began rescue operations. They managed to save six of the 18 crew but the BBC news did not seem particularly interested. Even the insurance company, if the ship was insured at all, would have set its premiums at such a level that, on a statistical basis, they would not lose money. The only losers were the Filipino seamen and their families.

Ferdinand Magellan
Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Flags of convenience