Ferdinand Magellan and me (77)

Magellan in the pacific

The mighty Pacific Ocean


With what elation had the captain general set his course nor-westerly upon achieving Balboa’s South Sea. By the Martellus map it was only a short sail from El Paso to Xanadu and as far as anyone could tell the course was roughly north west. Once clear of Patagonia the weather moderated and remained fair. It was so fair that he named this ocean Pacific. They sailed on, and on, and on with no storms and no sight of land. They sailed on, and on and he began to worry about their stock of food and water. They sailed on and on and food and water had to be rationed so they scoured the bilges for rats. They sailed on and on and men fell sick with some disease that covered their skin with a severe rash. They cut the leather from the yards and towed it astern to soften it until they could eat it. Men began to die and others ate sawdust. God did not listen to Magellan’s prayers and Pigafetta noticed him withdrawing into solitude.

Pigafetta had adopted one of the Patagonian giants that Magellan proposed to take back to Spain and convert to the faith. He named the giant after Saint Paul, who found enlightenment on the road to Damascus, and tutored him in the Spanish language and the scriptures. He also compiled a dictionary of the Patagonian language, especially in relation to Setebos, their god, and so they were able to conduct some kind of conversation.

He learned that Paul had left behind a wife and two sons but it seemed like a loose relationship. Once they reached manhood, sons became independent and food from the hunt was shared equally within the tribe. As far as Pigafetta could work out, Setebos was a combination of God and Satan, responsible for every mystery.

. When Paul fell sick Pigafetta bought a rat from a crew member and cut it in half and cut off little pieces for Paul, but the giant could not swallow. He died lying on his back gazing up at the billowing sails and the blue sky. He made the sign of the cross and said,’Setebos.’ Having been baptised, he was entitled to a Christian burial. The priest, Valderrama first had to consecrate the entire Pacific Ocean and then Paul was consigned to the sharks.

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    The mighty Pacific




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Ferdinand Magellan and me (76)

Gloomy grandeur

Gloomy Grandeur

British Admiralty sailing directions describe the Patagonian channels as gloomy grandeur. They are certainly that and much more, but in occasional snatches of sunshine the freezing rain ceases pounding the hood of your foul weather jacket and the wind might ease from storm force to a mere gale. A saving grace is the plenitude of beautiful coves offering shelter. In company with Regina Maris we hopped from one anchorage to the next and avoided sailing in the short nights.


The chief mate suffered some of the symptoms described in a book on pregnancy that we found in a book store in Punta Arenas. With the aid of our Spanish/English dictionary we came to expect stomach cramps, listlessness, hot and cold flushes. We did not have the sort of food she should be eating, such as fresh meat and vegetables, but we caught an occasional fish and did the best we could with eggs, yoghurt and canned fruit. She was allergic to milk, which became a deficiency in her diet.

The fishing village of Queilan, a lonely outpost in the wilderness of channels, gave a chance to get supplies. It was like some grim fairy tale. Paintless houses of splitting wood shingles had chimneys made of old tin cans emitting blue smoke into the dank air. Everything seemed to be rotting and going mouldy. People wearing ponchos and rubber boots shuffled along the muddy main street with expressionless faces. The only business that appeared to be doing any trade was a bar.

There was obviously no hospital here but enquiries for a doctor (medico) led us to a house distinguished by a red cross on the front door. The old woman who opened up showed no surprise when I mentioned the word ‘embarazada’ (pregnant) and explained we wanted an examination. She waved us inside and motioned Helen to lie down on a stretcher. The consultation took about 15 minutes. She asked a few questions, took a blood pressure and peered into Helen’s eyes.
“No problema,” she announced and then explained the proper diet for a pregnant woman, which included milk and no alcohol.
We nodded our heads, thanked her and paid her modest fee.

After that, I needed a drink.
“Me too,” the chief mate said.
The bar went by the name Puerto Grille Restaurant. The only item on the menu was a knuckle of boiled smoked pork and cold potato salad. We washed it down with a glass of good Chilean red wine.

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    Patagonia




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Ferdinand Magellan and me (75)

Martellus world map

How big is the world?


Having cleared the Dragon’s Tail at the bottom of South America, Magellan believed he had a relatively easy and short sail to Asia. All his maps were sketchy and speculative but one of the better ones, by Henricus Martellus, dating from 1489 or 1491, incorporated recent discoveries. It is not known for certain whether Magellan had a copy, but Columbus did and it’s reasonable to think Magellan did too.

In 1973, Argentinean scholar Paul Gallez raised the possibility that Magellan may have been better informed than previously believed. His argument helps explain Magellan’s dogged conviction of the existence of a strait through or around South America. Gallez claimed to recognise several of the rivers shown on the map indicating it was based on sound research. An ancient copy was lodged with Yale University in the USA for rehabilitation and recently they announced new information gathered though careful restoration. By examining the parchment in 12 different frequencies of light they have revealed written text underneath the grime. There may be more interesting revelations to come.

The biggest handicap facing Columbus, Magellan and all deep sea sailors of the time was that no one knew how big the world was. Magellan underestimated the circumference of the world by a factor of about one third. This would prove a greater challenge than any of the dangers he had already overcome, including mutiny. If the Magellan Strait was the most beautiful and terrible strait in the world, a similar description could be given to the Pacific Ocean. He named it Pacific for its continuous fair weather but he had no resources to save his crew from starvation and scurvy.

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    How big is the world?




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Ferdinand Magellan and me (74)

Magellan Strait

Dire straits


Before leaving Punta Arenas we had to provide the local Chilean Navy commander with our sailing plan through the Patagonian channels. He explained that if we failed to report in for 10 days they would come looking for us. Certain areas were off limits. I didn’t ask why but a fisherman later told me no one pays any attention to that. I told him my chief mate was pregnant so they had better send an obstetrician. He barely batted an eyelid. He’d heard such stories before.

The chief mate was showing mutinous tendencies.
“Will you stop treating me like an invalid?” she said one day and stamped her foot. “I am not sick, I’m just pregnant. It’s perfectly normal. Understand?’

The outburst came because I told her she had to drink milk as the doctor ordered. She didn’t like milk. Never had. Milk gave her a rash. I suspected she was still sipping away at the whisky although I could find none on board. Of course I didn’t understand. I had never been pregnant and knew nothing about the female plumbing system but it was my baby too. What I was beginning to understand was Magellan’s wisdom in banning females aboard ship.


In Punta Arenas we met up with the German ketch Regina Maris that we had sailed with in the regatta from Buenos Aires. They were heading through the channels too. We dined out together and took sundowners in one anothers’ cockpits while telling s few tall stories. Jurgen, the skipper, also had a female chief mate, Karen, and in a quiet moment I asked him if he had any advice on my predicament.

“Ah, women,” he said and waved his hand in the air. “Have another drink.”

Our first couple of days in Magellan’s Strait were an anti-climax. The wind was a light easterly, almost unheard of, and we took the opportunity to photograph the landscape and the dolphins playing in the bow wave. It didn’t take long for the strait to live up to its reputation, however, and I worried about the chief mate struggling with flogging canvas on the foredeck. I required her to wear a safety harness at all times on deck, which drew forth more moans.

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    Dire Straits




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