Ferdinand Magellan and me (73)

Magellan strait

Most beautiful and terrible strait

Magellan never doubted that this was El Paso. The water was deep and clear and always salty but progress was slow against the wind, almost always from the west. The strongest evidence was the twice-daily ebb and flood of the tide under the invisible force of the Moon. By the grace of God there seemed to be a safe haven every few leagues, very deep so the ships tied up to trees on shore after each day’s sailing, which left the men exhausted from frequent tacking. All experienced men agreed this was the most beautiful and terrible strait in the world and should be called Magellan’s Strait because the captain general found it when everyone said he could not. His problem was who to trust when so many had proved deceitful and once again he called on the master-at-arms for a vital duty.

“Espinosa, I believe we are approaching the end of El Paso and I want you to take the longboat and survey ahead. If you don’t find the exit in ten leagues come back and report to me.”

“It shall be done, Captain General.”

The ships lay over in a snug cove to await Espinosa’s report, which came in two days. He returned from his expedition in the longboat foaming along with flags flying and a bone in her teeth before the westerly wind. Espinosa clung to the forestay waving an arm and shouting at the top of his voice:
“We’ve found it! We’ve found it! The South Sea. The Ocean.”

Men hauling nets and coopers sealing barrels dropped their work and stared, then gave wild whoops of exultation. Only the captain general, standing like a statue on the quarterdeck, seemed unaffected by the news but Pigafetta was close enough to see the tears rolling down his cheeks and into his black beard. It was the second time he had seen Magellan cry and it moved him deeply but he dare not mention it.

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    El Paso at last


Ferdinand Magellan and me (72)

Magellan memorial in Punta Arenas


The day after Serrano discovered the narrows, the four ships weighed anchor and proceeded to explore El Paso. Beyond the narrows the channel forked into two equal arms, one trending south-east and the other south-west. Magellan sent San Antonio and Concepción into the south-eastern channel while leading Victoria into the other. The ships were to rendezvous back at the fork in three days unless the channel proved a dead-end, in which case the ship should pursue the other channel.

These were channels of extraordinary beauty where rank upon rank of rugged ranges marched away in the distance. Snowy peaks caught the pale sunlight and radiated an orange glow. Waterfalls tumbled down forested hillsides and into the sea where black and white dolphins frolicked. Tack upon tack, the bluff-bowed vessels zigzagged through black water until the bowsprit nearly grazed the bushes. Sheets let fly, braces were hauled, canvas flogged and the valiant ships squared away on the new course. The south-west channel turned nor-west but the wind still funnelled through the gorge.

After two days, Concepción joined Trinidad at anchor in a cove. Serrano reported he had explored two deep inlets that proved to be dead ends.

“And what of San Antonio?” Magellan asked.

“I thought they must have come ahead. We’ve seen nothing of them since the first day.”
It grieved the captain general to give up hard-won miles of westing but he sent Barbosa all the way back to the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins and Serrano to explore the inlets recently discovered. A week of fruitless searching brought the three remaining ships together again and the captain general announced a conference of captains aboard Trinidad. He called upon Andres San Martin, the fleet astronomer and astrologer who had survived punishment by strappado for his part in the mutiny in Port St Julian.

San Martin conducted a séance in Trinidad’s darkened cabin. He closed his eyes, pressed his fingers to his temples and swayed his upper body left and right while talking to someone invisible. He had important news for the captain general regarding the compass. Magellan had observed a big change in the variation of the magnetic compass since leaving Rio. This was a serious matter that invited shipwreck. San Martin believed the disappearance of San Antonio was related to this fact, coupled with the fact that Venus had recently been in conjunction with the Sun. Having penetrated deep into the feminine Southern Hemisphere, the armada had become exposed to an excess of feminine forces accounting for the change in compass variation.

“What does that have to do with San Antonio?” the captain general wanted to know.

San Martin explained the obvious fact that Victoria is a feminine name and Trinidad and Concepción neutral. Since San Antonio had disappeared there was a deficit of the masculine. San Martin went back into his trance and pronounced he saw San Antonio’s captain, Mesquita, who was Magellan’s kinsman, lying shackled on deck with blood on his face. He also saw pilot Gomez, Magellan’s enemy, standing over Mesquita and laughing.
“Gomez,” the captain general said. “I knew it.”

At the moment of triumph, this was the cruellest treachery yet. San Antonio was the biggest ship and held the greatest store of the fleet’s provisions. Biscuit was perilously low and the wine finished. Salted fish and seal were now almost the only source of food. Barbosa urged him to turn around and go back to Spain.

“No. I decide to go on. If we have to eat the leather off the yards we go on. If we have nothing left to drink but the urine of rats, we go on. While ever there is breath left in this body we go on.”
And so it was.



Ferdinand Magellan and Me (71)

Wathara in Punta Arenas.

No fit place for a yacht

We crossed the border between Argentina and Chile and I reported the fact to Punta Dungeness lighthouse, who asked for our ETA in Punta Arenas. I felt like saying ‘I have no idea.’ The Chilean navy monitors all traffic through the Strait and Patagonian channels and maintains several stations. The two sets of narrows discovered by Serrano about 500 years ago are tricky passages. According to modern sailing directions, tides can run up to 8 knots, which would have us going backwards. I made a guess at the ETA based on our long-term average speed.

We anchored near the first narrows around sunset to await the favourable tide. We got under way about midnight and shot through the first narrows but the tide turned against us in the second narrows. For the next five hours we made only about 1 knot, with the wind getting up and the barometer falling. By four o’clock in the morning it was blowing 50 knots and we were reefed down to storm gear. Helen, wearing a safety harness on the foredeck, struggled with flogging canvas in the howling wind and pelting sleet. And this was midsummer!

But Wathara behaves magnificently in such weather and once clear of the narrows we were making five knots on a reasonable course although a cold and wet ride. I take my hat off to those old navigators in clumsy ships with no charts, sailing directions or tide tables. We had it relatively easy. On arrival in Punta Arenas close to the ETA, we dropped anchor in the lee of a long jetty with ships of all sorts and sizes tied up to it. There is no real harbour but it is reasonably well-sheltered from the west and the Admiralty Pilot assured me that easterly gales are rare. We climbed into bed and slept for many hours.

Punta Arenas is a vibrant town with a busy port and a statue of Ferdinand Magellan on a pedestal, but it is no fit place for yachts. Tied up alongside ships at the jetty, we frequently had to shift or go back to anchor when other boats or ships arrived or departed. Westerly gales were frequent but the friendliness of the locals was well up to South American standards.

In Punta Arenas Helen announced she was pregnant. This was news to make my head spin. I couldn’t decide whether I was delighted or simply shocked.

“So, what do you want to do? Do you want to call it off and go back home?”

“No. This is my home.”

“You can’t be up on deck changing sails in a gale if you’re pregnant.”

“Who says I can’t?”

“I don’t know but you have to take it easy don’t you? I don’t want to be delivering babies. The only thing I know about babies is you have to hold them upside down by the ankles and pat them on the back to make them breathe.”

“Old wives’ tales.”

“Well, you had better go and see a doctor.”

When I joined the Navy as a callow youth I never dreamed I would have this kind of issue to deal with. Magellan avoided it by prohibiting females aboard ship. Nowadays, that doesn’t work, when females are not only mates but masters. Maritime jurisdictions are careful not to call them ship mistresses.

Helen received an all clear from her initial medical inspection. I predicted it would come to a bad end.

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    Punta Arenas


Ferdinand Magellan and Me (70)

The Dragon's Tail

The Dragon’s Tail

On the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross the armada anchored in the river that Serrano had discovered. Magellan named it Santa Cruz, not only for the date but also for the vera cruz that blazed overhead at midnight. He planned only a brief stay but once again was faced with discontent from the crew. They were led by Gomez, formerly Trinidad’s pilot, who held a grudge against Magellan because he had wished to become captain general of the armada himself.

Already more than 51 degrees of latitude and El Paso not found. Only stormy seas, stony shores, snow, sea-wolves and cannibals. Gomez proposed they take the well-known eastern route, below the Cape of Good Hope with following winds. Either that or return to Spain. How far south did Magellan propose to go, leading the fleet into greater danger?

“I propose to go on until we find it, Gomez. The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid or dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee wherever thou goest.”

With no Santiago to scout ahead, Magellan took the lead in Trinidad; southwards, ever southwards. Surely not far now. The land was barren with tall snowy mountains in the distance. A low headland backed by sandhills extended a spit to seaward and Magellan ordered a course alteration to clear the shoal. Although not remarkable, the cape was prominent enough to deserve a name. This being the feast day of St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins, that was the name he chose.

A large bay opened up beyond the cape and he decided to anchor, with San Antonio, Victoria and Concepción following suit. After dark, numerous fires were seen on the southern shore and Magellan named it Tierra del Fuego, or land of fire. He passed the word to the other ships to keep watch for cannibals.

The wind had been a fresh nor-westerly all afternoon, often the sign of a southerly buster. Just before midnight it hit with cracking thunder, pelting rain, sleet and lightning that ripped the night apart into blinding brilliance. It was all hands on deck to lift the anchor and set a rag of sail. Magellan headed offshore for the relative safety of the open sea. It was afternoon of the next day before the storm cleared and he was able to return to the anchorage. San Antonio had ridden it out at anchor but it was a few hours later before Concepcion appeared from southwards, followed shortly by Victoria.

Concepcion anchored and immediately lowered her skiff, with Serrano waving his pennant and shouting as his boat crew pulled lustily at the oars.

“We’ve found it,” he yelled. “We have found El Paso.”
He climbed aboard Trinidad and threw his arms around the captain general.

“We found it, Ferdinand. There is clear water to the south and two wide channels. El Paso!”
The men on deck gave a cheer, threw their hats into the air and some performed little two-step dances.

“El Paso!”
Later in the great cabin Serrano modified his excitement somewhat.”Clear water, deep water with a southerly set. I have to warn you we did not actually see a way through, but that water had to be going somewhere. It’s not a river.
“Yes,” Magellan said. “God has answered our prayers.” “This is El Paso, the Dragon’s Tail.”

    The Dragon’s Tale


Ferdinand Magellan and me (69)

crew problems

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Crew Problems

My chief mate, Helen, had been aboard over a year now and I had at last come to realise the occasional glaze in her eyes was not an ophthalmic condition. Cruising down the coast of South America we had many social events with other yachties, yacht club members and locals interested in our story. It was a great opportunity to practice our Spanish and hear their stories. The lubricant was usually beer or wine and occasionally gin or whisky.

I have been known to take a cool drink on a hot day but not since my foolish Navy days have I allowed it to get out of control. What puzzled me with Helen was that I never saw her drink to excess. After she’d had a couple of glasses of gin I usually had to take a firm grip of her arm and steer her in a straight line back towards home.

In Rio, where the hospitality was particular generous, she tripped on the gangway and broke her arm. I got her to hospital where they put her arm in plaster, which she wore for several weeks as we continued our voyage. It was a source of conversation in anchorages, especially after I had to repair it with fibreglass. I now began to see the glazed look while we were at sea, which had not happened before. She was a good sailor, a willing worker, good cook and not bad in bed but I was beginning to worry about her.

One day I went fossicking in the locker in the aft cabin – I was looking for the spare jib sheet or something – and what I found was half a dozen bottles of whisky. The light dawned. We had a showdown. To me it was a safety issue. I explained the danger she was putting herself in. Bodies fished out of the water after falling off boats fit two main categories: those with a high blood alcohol level and men with their flies open, pissing over the side instead of using the head. (I have to admit to this fault myself but I always pee to leeward.)

“You have to get it under control.” I told her. “It’s dangerous.”

She was contrite, even tearful, and I wondered what had happened to the calmly confident woman I had met in London. She had told me stories of her sailing experience but not much, I now realised, of her personal life. A little more delving brought mention of an abortion, and that was a sensitive topic. It was a topic way beyond my ken. I know what to do in the event of a grounding, dismasting, fire on board or a cyclone. I can even deal with Customs officials but I had no clue about abortion and didn’t want to know.

“So, where do we go from here?” I said. “You can’t sail away from it.”
She burst into tears. Magellan never had to deal with this kind of problem. He would just chop people’s heads off or cast them away among cannibals in foreign lands. Life was simpler back then.

    Crew problems