Ferdinand Magellan and me (39)

Torrey Canyon wrecked with massive oil spill

Wreck of the Torrey Canyon

Facing destitution in a foreign land due to divorce proceedings, something that Ferdinand Magellan never had to deal with, I had to come up with a quick solution. Fortunately, I still had stores on board and some travellers’ cheques to fend off starvation for the time being, but I was going to need a job.

The British territory of Gibraltar was carved out of Spain when the British invaded it in the 16th century War of the Spanish succession. Relations with Spain have varied over the centuries and restrictions on border crossings change with different regimes. The result is that schizophrenia affects all Gibraltarians. They talk Spanish as well as English, dress Spanish, eat Spanish and play Spanish music but fly the Union Jack and sing God Save the Queen. There is some commerce across the border but much of Gibraltar’s trade comes directly from England.

Two brothers, Albert and Biaggio, owned or at least operated a couple of old rust-buckets , and as it happened they were looking for a relief master on one of their ships, Clementine. They were impressed by the fact that I was a licensed first class master mariner. They usually didn’t worry about such details since the ships flew the Panamanian flag. The phenomenon of Flag of Convenience shipping is not new although that name dates from about the 1950s. It means a ship can be registered in any of several countries that provide the service for a fee while often taking no responsibility for the seaworthiness of ships or the welfare of crews. The brothers saved money by avoiding British maritime standards. A number of disastrous shipwrecks since the loss of the Torrey Canyonin the 1960s with a devastating oil spill on the English coast demonstrate that this longstanding problem has become much more serious.

Magellan’s ships, while not strictly FOC vessels since they flew the Habsburg royal standard, showed some of their features. The Casa de Contratation was responsible for all things maritime but certain corrupt officials put their own prestige and wealth ahead of Magellan’s need for qualified and experienced officers. Bishop Fonseca, head of the Casa de Contratation, appointed his own bastard son equal in rank to Magellan despite the fact he had never been to sea. This nepotism was to have serious consequences for Cartagena later in the voyage. Magellan’s crew was a motley mix of nationalities.

Flags of convenience

Once a fortnight Clementine did Gibraltar’s grocery run to Shoreham on the south coast of England. I can testify that boating in the Bay of Biscay in the middle of winter is never likely to become a tourist attraction. I had experience of Panama flag ships and was not surprised on my first voyage to find distress flares and fire fighting equipment out of date and engine room ventilation fans not working, which caused the generators to shut down from time to time. In a Biscay gale I listened on the radio as another Panama flag ship broke up and the British Air Force and coastguard began rescue operations. They managed to save six of the 18 crew but the BBC news did not seem particularly interested. Even the insurance company, if the ship was insured at all, would have set its premiums at such a level that, on a statistical basis, they would not lose money. The only losers were the Filipino seamen and their families.

Ferdinand Magellan
Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Flags of convenience


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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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