Ferdinand Magellan and me (21)

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Wathara under sail in the Arabian Sea

Ferdinand Magellan was shipwrecked on one of the Lakshadweep Islands in 1509. The circumstances are not known but navigation was a dark art in the 16th century. Some ships carried astrologers to give advice to captains and pilots. Many came to grief because they had no way to determine longitude. It was another 150 years before an English carpenter named Harrison built a chronometer suitable for use at sea and accurate enough to enable navigators to find their longitude by observation of Sun, Moon and stars. Although they knew the world was round and consisted of 360 degrees of longitude, medieval navigators had no idea how many miles or feet or yards were in a degree of longitude. Columbus and Magellan both underestimated the circumference of the Earth by a factor of about one third. Magellan was astonished by the breadth of the Pacific Ocean and lost many men to starvation and scurvy because he had underestimated the amount of victuals required..
Aground in the Lakshadweep Islands in 1509 Magellan achieved a level of fame that brought him to the favourable notice of Viceroy Almeida. He proposed to take the longboat to Cochin and bring back a ship to take off the marooned crew. Fearing abandonment, the crew revolted, or at least they exercised their right to petition the captain with their grievance. Magellan capitulated, showing a side of his nature not often revealed. He agreed to send the pilot and quartermaster for help and stayed behind to reassure the crew. He earned kudos from Almeida for that response but later evoked Albuquerque’s displeasure, both of whom reported their opinions to King Manuel. Whether he realised it or not, Magellan was being drawn into the hotbed of Portuguese politics that would later cause him grief.

Steering well clear of the islands where Magellan was wrecked, we headed out on our next leg to Djibouti in the Red Sea. It was glorious sailing with a steady nor-easter. Bucko took the opportunity to relax and mounted his lookout post dozing on the cabin top. Wathara was slicing along effortlessly at 140 or 150 miles a day. Not bad for an old cruising yacht.
Unlike Magellan, I had an accurate quartz crystal clock and a nautical almanac produced by the British Admiralty. I have always been awed by the process of celestial navigation, which is only a short step away from astrology. Indeed, we attempt to predict the future from a study of the stars and planets. Of course, electronic gadgets are available but they seem to me to defeat the whole purpose of sailing, which is to create an intimate relationship with the world we live in. As Robin now understood very well, a yacht on the ocean is the last refuge from other people controlling your life. So far, the politicians have not managed to put a tax on the wind but I believe they are working on it.
I actually enjoyed getting out of bed before dawn and climbing on deck to say good morning to my friends Sirius, Canopus, Zubenelgenubi…Don’t you just love that name? It means the southern claw of the scorpion, Scorpio. He is also in my birth sign, Libra. I call him Zoob for short. And of course there is the Southern Cross; the most beautiful of constellations and the simplest. I am by no means a religious freak but I do believe the Southern Cross, which was easily visible in Palestine 2000 years ago, had something to do with Christianity’s logo. Maybe it was the bright star followed by the Magi.
Unfortunately, you don’t need an astrologer to predict that when conditions are so perfect they can only get worse.


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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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