Sailing without God
Helen arrived on schedule and I met her at the airport with a bunch of red carnations. Wathara was in a terrible mess with preparations for departure. I had overhauled the electrics, ripped out the old chart table and built a new one but there was still a mountain of jobs to be done and the cabin was littered with scraps of timber. She elected to go to work cleaning it up rather than sight-seeing around Gibraltar, but first I gave her a tour of the boat: how to operate the head without sinking us, how to start the engine in case of emergency, how to inflate the life raft in case we sank… just an ordinary induction of a new crew member.
“I hope you’re not planning on sinking,” she said.
“Always look on the dark side of life at sea. It’s more realistic.”
“And what exactly is my role?”
“When you’re mending sails you’re the stitch bitch. When you’re on the jib sheet you’re the winch wench and when you’re cooking dinner you’re the galley slave.”
“I see,” she said with a frosty little smile. “And what am I in bed?”
“Then you’re darling.”
I gave her a hug for reassurance.
It was nearly Easter and I wanted to get to Seville for Semana Santa, a big event now as in Magellan’s time. Being an atheist, my interest was anthropological although I have been known to take the Lord’s name in vain when kicking my toe for example. As Magellan prepared for departure from Seville the medieval church was trying to cope with a pesky trouble maker named Martin Luther. Antonio Pigafetta, the voyage’s chronicler, was an anthropologist rather than a missionary for the Catholic Church despite having been a junior diplomat for the Vatican. He took an interest in the religion of the Patagonian natives and through him the Patagonian god, Setebos, found its way into Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.
God may have frowned upon these deliberations because soon after we cleared out of Gibraltar the boat stopped moving through the water. The engine was running normally, indicating a gear box problem, and I quickly set sail muttering blasphemies. I decided to press on rather than return to Gibraltar. The weather deteriorated during the day and was blowing a gale by the time we drew abeam of Barbate harbour. Ducking inside muttering a prayer I came to anchor with barely enough room to swing in case the wind shifted. Helen was looking more or less terrified.
“Welcome to the joys of sailing,” I said.
“Oh God, should we put lifejackets on?”
“I don’t think you’ll get an answer from God but do by all means. Thank God, I’m an atheist. I will end up in purgatory when I die.”
I set the storm trysail and bent on the storm jib and we kept three-hour watches throughout the anxious night. It was a fitting initiation for Helen and she came through with flying colours.