Ferdinand Magellan and me (55)

Stormy Weather

On the way to the Cape Verde Islands we had steady NE trade winds and clear blue skies. On days like this you don’t want to be anywhere else than in a boat in the middle of the ocean, but the jib halyard had somehow got jammed at the top of the mast. We headed in to Sal, the northernmost of the islands, and anchored in relatively smooth water so I could climb the mast without getting flung overboard. Years before, I had been in Darwin when a cruising yacht arrived in harbour with a man up the mast in a bosun’s chair. He had been dead for several days. His distraught wife was unable to get him down but she managed to get the boat safely to port. I gave Helen careful instructions on how to get me down and how to reach the nearest port, Puerto de Praia, but fortunately the precautions were not needed.

There were only about ten trees visible on this barren rock and the islands looked like industrial slag heaps. I could see no reason to stay at Sal and headed south for the main island, Santiago. The wind blew up and the barometer was dropping so I looked forward to making harbour, but soon we were slammed by a violent wind and heavy rain just on nightfall. I got the yankee down before it hit but the mainsail blew out. The weather was so bad I was beginning to think we had got tangled up with a baby hurricane. According to the sailing directions, the area is a breeding ground for them in August and September. I tried to call the harbour on VHF radio but instead got in touch with a ship called Afro Star, which had just cleared out of there. ‘No shelter in that harbour,’ the skipper warned.

We hove to under storm sails and spent the night at sea in continuous heavy rain, rough sea and violent squalls. Helen had a grim look on her face but she was made of good tough stuff. I was only grateful we were in Wathara and not any one of Magellan’s ships. No ship is unsinkable despite what the captain of the Titanic claimed, but I had no fears for our safety. It was just a very miserable night. Being cold and wet for hours makes hands white and crinkly and feet almost too painful to walk.

The weather moderated a little in the morning and I mentally tossed up whether to head into San Felipe and decided bugger it. We got up a bit more sail and squared away for Brazil along the route followed by Magellan.

    storm at sea


Ferdinand Magellan and me (54)

How it beganMagellan's ship Trinidad

Bad news for Magellan

Tenerife gave both Magellan and me the opportunity to top up with water and fresh food but we avoided the villainous cactus wine said to be a feature of 16th century life. The wine nowadays is quite acceptable.
Magellan received a surprise visit here. A new ship arrived in port with disastrous news. The ship had been chartered in Seville by Diogo Barbosa, Magellan’s mentor and father-in-law. Her captain had carried every rag of sail he could manage in order to catch up with the Armada de Maluku. He presented Magellan with a letter written in Barbosa’s hand; the wax seal genuine and unbroken. Magellan’s own hand must have trembled as he read the brief, clear and devastating message.

‘It has come to my knowledge,’ Barbosa wrote, ‘that friends of our enemies have begun boasting, immediately upon departure of the fleet, that your position as captain general is forfeit to Fonseca’s men: Cartagena, Mendoza and others. The conspiracy is not known but a quarrel will be provoked, swords drawn and blood will flow, for which you will be blamed. Should this plot fail, then spies will carry news of your intended course to a Portuguese fleet that left Lisbon before you. To Duarte, salutations. Beatriz, Rodrigo and self are well.’

Never one to shrink from a challenge, Magellan wrote a note thanking Barbosa for his warning and added, ‘Whatever may befall, I shall do my duty by God and the king.’ That night, he called a conference of his captains as required under the Spanish regulations. It must have been a tight squeeze in Trinidad’s cabin but Magellan was on his guard and had Espinosa, the Master-at-Arms, standing by. Cartagena, young, handsome and arrogant, one of Fonseca’s bastards, took control of the meeting. He was operating under the claim that he was equal in authority to Magellan – Conjunta Persona and Inspector General of the fleet. Magellan rejected these claims but he seems to have kept his temper as his captains criticised him for sailing too fast or too slow and failing to signal alterations of course in a timely manner. They agreed among themselves that the course over the next leg of the voyage was to be south west. The meeting went off without the threatened attack but Magellan knew the matter was by no means finished.

    following Magellan in Tenerife


Ferdinand Magellan and me (53)

Tenerife boat harbour

Magellan and me in Tenerife.

How it began

    following Magellan to Tenerife

    Getting laid in a yacht is not as easy as you might think. Since there are only two of you and one has to be keeping a lookout at all times the opportunities are fairly restricted. Fortunately, Helen did not suffer from seasickness but she was usually too tired for it, especially after a bit of heavy weather. The honeymoon was definitely over. My advances were often met with indifference as she buried her nose in a thriller, romance novel or cryptic crossword, of which we had a fair stock. To add to my frustration she had a habit of getting around the boat wearing nothing but her knickers and a hat. The hat was quite sensible but I wondered why she bothered with the knickers.

    On arrival in Tenerife we anchored in the boat harbour and, after a wash and a meal retired to the aft cabin for rest and recreation. It had the comfortable double bunk and I thought my luck had changed when she climbed in beside me. Matters proceeded quite well for a while until Wathara suddenly lurched with grinding, scraping noises. Scrambling into a pair of shorts I rushed on deck to see a big sailing ship looming over us, her bowsprit above my head like a javelin and her martingale locked in battle with our pulpit rail. Curious tourists lined her deck, appreciating this entertainment laid on by the tour company.

    “Back off, you stupid bastards” I shouted in cultured tones, and the tourists clapped in delight.

    So then we got involved in wrangling with their insurance company and mine. A week later, workmen came aboard and removed the pulpit rail for repairs, promising to bring it back pronto.

    We made the acquaintance of an Australian couple, Chris and Sylvia in their yacht Half Pint. They spoke good Spanish, having lived in Barcelona for several years, and offered to help in the saga of the pulpit rail. We went to the office of the tourist company and Sylvia ripped into them. She informed the manager that our insurance company had instructed us to make a denunciation to the police and treat the pulpit rail as having been stolen. It was installed, fully repaired, next day. It pays to have local contacts in these places.

    Magellan had similar problems in Tenerife. He was badly cheated by the local traders selling fruit, vegetables and livestock as well as a villainous cactus wine.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (52)

Under weigh for Tenerife

Our yacht Wathara
How it began

    Magellan and me under way

    We had a great ride in Wathara from San Lucar to Madeira and Tenerife– flying fish weather. We picked them up off the deck every morning and grilled them in butter for breakfast. Delicious but bony. We also towed a trolling line but never had much luck out of sight of land.

    On the same route, Pigafetta found his sea legs after a couple of days spewing over the side. He also was entranced by flying fish and painted a water colour sketch that looks as if Trinidad is being attacked by flying fish. No doubt he was astonished by the notion that fish can fly. It was the kind of nonsense spread about by John de Mandeville, so maybe there was some truth in all those tall tales of the unknown world.

    Pigafetta was also inspired by the sight of a brave fleet under full sail in line astern with a white moustache at each bow. Flying from each masthead was the royal standard.– the Habsburg eagle. Trinidad also displayed Magellan’s coat of arms on the poop: on a field argent three bars checky, gules and argent quartered with the five wounds of Christ, crest an eagle with spread wings. It was nearly the same as the arms of the Portuguese royal family and it irritated the captains of San Antonio, Concepción and Victoria.

    Magellan had concerns not only about the loyalty of his captains but also their competence. Captains in the Spanish service had no need to understand navigation, which was left to the pilot who ranked below the master. Captains were appointed according to their political affiliation rather than their competence, and that was certainly the case in the Armada de Maluku.

    Magellan had two loyal followers: his brother-in-law, Duarte Barbosa, who was a supernumerary like Pigafetta, and Juan Serrano, captain of Santiago. No one would ever describe Magellan as a shrinking violet but he must have had moments of loneliness. His staunchest supporter was Pigafetta despite certain ideological differences. In the coming months Magellan would need all the support he could get.
    As for me, 500 years later, I was having difficulties too.