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.