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.


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Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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