Ferdinand Magellan and me (81)

Ferdinand Magellan

Making contact

Ten days after their unfortunate experience at the Islands of Thieves, the Armada de Maluku found land again. It was the feast day of Lazaras, befitting for the recovery of sailors near death from starvation and scurvy. The captain general ordered a camp set up under palm trees on the beach as shelter for the sick. He personally distributed fruit and coconut milk, which had been found to alleviate suffering.
Victoria and Concepcion also brought their sick ashore. It was the first chance since El Paso for men to share their stories. Of the 260 who had left Seville, 160 now survived. Padre Valderrama celebrated mass and, although lacking the accoutrements of his tabernacle in Port St Julian, he made up for it with an ambitious Te Deum, the ancient chant of thanksgiving in praise of God.

The captain general named this island New Providence, which signified a new beginning. It was covered with jungle and appeared to be uninhabited. After a few days natives appeared in a canoe with nine men aboard. Besides the paddlers, it carried some kind of chief or rajah not bare chested like the others but dressed in robes and seated under a three-tiered parasol in bright colours. As it came into the shallows over the sand, the boat seemed to float into the air, so perfectly clear was the water.
Mindful of his last contact with natives, Magellan ordered those of his men who were fit to stand by with their weapons.
“Let no one speak or make any movement without my leave.” he said. He walked down the beach with a hand on the hilt of his short sword. He halted ten paces short of the waterline and the chief halted knee-deep in water, having climbed out of the boat. They stood there inspecting one another. Finally the chief said, “Selamat soré.”
Pigafetta immediately recognised this phrase. His insatiable curiosity had led him to study not only the customs and language of the Patagonians and of the Guarani in Rio but also of Henriqué, the captain general’s slave, who was a native of Malacca.
They’d had many conversations and Pigafetta learned that Henriqué had been captured when the Portuguese attacked Malacca in 1511. He had been baptised and became Magellan’s slave. He explained that his language, called Malay or Malayalam, was spoken all over the countries trading in the region from India to Cathay and was understood by every sailor. Henrique had almost returned home.

What the chief had said was, “Good afternoon.”

The captain general beckoned Henriqué, sitting on the ground behind him.

“Henrique, your services may be needed.”

Henrique stood up and joined Magellan. “He just said, ‘Good afternoon,’ captain general.”

The conversation faltered as they eyed one another, and then the chief asked, “Who are you?”

“We come as representatives of Don Carlos, the mightiest king of Europe. We come in peace and seek to trade spices and other things and also to spread the word of God.”

Although Pigafetta was by no means fluent in the language, he was astonished when Henrique translated this as something like, “Beware, O Rajah, these white devils come to steal your gold, rape your women and destroy your cities.”

“Yes, we have heard what the white devils have done in Malacca,” the rajah replied, “but they are few and we are many. We can trade if they want.”

Henrique translated this as, “News of your greatness has preceded you. If you wish to trade, we can trade.”
This was the end of the beginning.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain


Ferdinand Magellan and me (80)

Valparaiso fishing harbour

fishing harbour

Pre-natal sailing (Part 2)

The chief mate was allergic to milk products and not getting her calcium. We had been told it was a serious issue at this stage of the pregnancy but useful advice was scarce. Valparaiso is a big city with full medical facilities so that became our next target, about 500 miles away. We needed to renew our visas anyway and would also need a safe mooring or wet berth for several months until our new deck boy joined us.

It was a beautiful sight as we arrived before dawn with strings of lights seeming to reach up into the sky. Daylight revealed hillsides covered with a checker-board of multicoloured houses in all shapes and sizes. I spent a couple of hours blundering around looking for somewhere to anchor or moor but the harbour was wide open to the sea. We found the yacht club at Punta Greusa but their little harbour was full. Then the engine suddenly stopped and refused to restart. I dropped the anchor and rowed the dinghy ashore. I found someone doing an anti-fouling job on a yacht in the hardstand. I explained my problem and saw a horrified look come over his face. Winds of 40 knots or more were expected and he suggested we had better get out.

Now we were so close I was reluctant to go back to sea with a pregnant chief mate. She was due for a check-up. The yard hand took me inside the club and introduced me to the manager, who turned into a dynamo when he heard our story. He got on the telephone and carried out a shouting conversation, waving his hands in the air for emphasis. Then he grabbed me by the sleeve and dragged me outside back to a jetty at the hardstand with a business-like yellow cruiser alongside.
“Salvavidas,” he said. “You wait.”

About half an hour later the crew arrived and fired up what sounded like a Caterpillar diesel with grunt. They might have been dragged away from their breakfast for all I know. They put me back aboard Wathara. I tossed them a line and heaved up the anchor and they towed us to a crowded little fishing harbour a couple of miles away. There I put out two anchors and tied off to a dubious-looking mooring buoy. As the lifeboat departed I gave them a wave and a heart-felt “gracias.”
“De nada,” they said.

The 40 knots arrived that evening and it was one of the wildest nights in my life. Several fishing boats broke adrift and piled up on the breakwater while storm water drains poured rivers into the harbour. Neither the chief mate nor I got any sleep that night.
“You do make it hard on a girl,” she said.
“Not complaining, mind. Our deck boy is a sailor already, starting young.”
PS This is a true story. The manager and lifeboat crew became good friends.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain

    pre-natal sailing (part2


Ferdinand Magellan and me (79)

Magellan discovers Guam


At first it was a mere smudge on the horizon to which Pigafetta paid little heed. The ship kept on, propelled by a breeze that had hardly varied in nearly four months of sailing this endless sea. Magellan had torn up his charts and tossed them overboard in disgust. They were just lies. They should have reached the Spice Isles weeks ago but instead encountered only two uninhabited atolls surrounded by reefs.

The captain general called it the Pacific Ocean but he may as well have called it the Ocean of Death. Dying men lay comatose around the deck; their skin discoloured by a purple rash, their sunken eyes pleading for relief or deliverance. At least a score had been consigned to the deep blue sea and more were soon to follow.

Next time Pigafetta looked, the smudge had grown and he thought it might be a rain squall. Then the lookout in the crows nest called “Tierra. Tierra.” At first no one believed it but Pigafetta stared and began to think it might be true. The cry was taken up by others and the captain general appeared on deck and soon the healthy were slapping one another on the back and even the dying managed a kind of grimace.


Three tall and woody islands rose out of the sea but as they approached, a fleet of native canoes set out from shore sailing so fast it was almost unbelievable. These boats had two hulls and skimmed across the water with one hull up in the air. Then they stopped and reversed without turning around. They soon surrounded the three ships, climbed aboard like a plague of locusts and swept up anything they could lay their hands on: buckets, ladles, ropes, hammers, hatchets and anything not bolted down.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Magellan cried, to no avail. He called upon the master at arms and Espinosa, mustered his men at arms with crossbows. They opened fire and the natives were astonished. Shot in the chest or abdomen, they pulled out the crossbow bolt, gazed at it quizzically and fell down dead. With slashing cutlasses, the men-at-arms waded in among the thieves and forced them back overboard.
They also stole a skiff tied astern, which Magellan was determined to retrieve. He brought the ships to anchor. After clearing the deck of dead bodies, he organised a force of 40 men at arms, one boat from each ship, and led them ashore.

The village among palm trees was abandoned. Presumably the natives were hiding in the jungle. They found pigs, chickens and a variety of fruit which they stuffed into their mouths as they looted. They found wicker baskets full of rice and urns full of water. The captain general ordered the village set on fire and it was utterly destroyed.

The fleet sailed on while ravenous men gorged themselves. The captain general named these islands Ladrones, or Islands of Thieves so that others who came afterwards might beware.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain



Ferdinand Magellan and me (78)

sailing Patagonia

Pre-natal sailing

Despite bouts of morning sickness, a severe attack of chilblains on frozen feet and anxiety over the new life growing in her womb, my chief mate soldiered on as we tackled some of the worst weather I had ever encountered. It was a battle against strong tides, howling wind and freezing rain within the narrow confines of rock-strewn channels. Eventually, we escaped the clutches of the channels into the open sea where Wathara buried her nose in a big swell and green water swept down the deck. This is crazy, I thought. Still 100 miles to go to so-called civilisation and we were reefed down to triple-reefed main, staysail and storm jib.

The wind fell calm and the Sun peeped out as we motored the last 15 miles to Puerto Montt with afternoon light reflecting off the underside of low-lying clouds. We were passing through the drowned crater of a volcano with a feeling of dramatic suspense as if at any moment the world might be rent asunder by violent storms, which we had come to expect. We passed an island dotted with farm houses from which blue wood-smoke rose. We passed a native sailing craft ghosting along no doubt with produce for market. This was civilisation. The ethereal sensation persisted as we approached the town with yellow lights glimmering through smoky air on the northern rim of the crater.

We tied up alongside a crowded jetty and prepared to go ashore. The chief mate put on her best pair of jeans that she had not worn since Punta Arenas about six weeks before. She found them loose around her middle and let out a cry of dismay. By this stage of the pregnancy she should be showing it. We had come to Puerto Montt specifically to find a doctor and this was not a good omen. She blamed herself because she had been unable to follow the proper diet for a pregnant woman. She was allergic to milk products, a source of calcium, and missed her booze.

It was next day before we got ashore and found the local hospital. After a wait of about three hours we were shown into a consulting room and introduced to Doctor Manuel Vallejo, a middle aged man wearing thick horn-rim glasses. He listened to our story, took her blood pressure and then led us into another room for a scan. That was my first view of my son swimming in a sea of amniotic fluid looking like a radar picture of a storm at sea. The doctor gave the all clear but advised further consultations at least once a month.

Whew. What a relief.

To celebrate we had a drink in a bar where a TV blared out the latest football results interspersed with ads for chocolate, furniture, aspirin and cleansing powder while customers slouched in chairs at tables around a pot-belly stove. The chief mate ignored the doctor’s advice and said, “Just one glass of wine can’t hurt.”
We had battled so hard against foul weather and currents to get to this place only to find a collection of shabby houses, noisy, smoky buses and depressed-looking people on the same kind of pointless business that occupies human beings everywhere. To travel all this way and find everything the same!

I could not banish from my mind the images of snow-clad peaks of the Andes, waterfalls cascading down a rocky mountainside, tiny islands covered with a forest of miniature trees like Japanese Bon sai and asked myself ‘What business do we have that brings us to cities like this? The answer is obvious, of course.

see:A Singular Captain

    sailing Patagonia