Ferdinand Magellan and me (80)

Valparaiso fishing harbour

fishing harbour

Pre-natal sailing (Part 2)

The chief mate was allergic to milk products and not getting her calcium. We had been told it was a serious issue at this stage of the pregnancy but useful advice was scarce. Valparaiso is a big city with full medical facilities so that became our next target, about 500 miles away. We needed to renew our visas anyway and would also need a safe mooring or wet berth for several months until our new deck boy joined us.

It was a beautiful sight as we arrived before dawn with strings of lights seeming to reach up into the sky. Daylight revealed hillsides covered with a checker-board of multicoloured houses in all shapes and sizes. I spent a couple of hours blundering around looking for somewhere to anchor or moor but the harbour was wide open to the sea. We found the yacht club at Punta Greusa but their little harbour was full. Then the engine suddenly stopped and refused to restart. I dropped the anchor and rowed the dinghy ashore. I found someone doing an anti-fouling job on a yacht in the hardstand. I explained my problem and saw a horrified look come over his face. Winds of 40 knots or more were expected and he suggested we had better get out.

Now we were so close I was reluctant to go back to sea with a pregnant chief mate. She was due for a check-up. The yard hand took me inside the club and introduced me to the manager, who turned into a dynamo when he heard our story. He got on the telephone and carried out a shouting conversation, waving his hands in the air for emphasis. Then he grabbed me by the sleeve and dragged me outside back to a jetty at the hardstand with a business-like yellow cruiser alongside.
“Salvavidas,” he said. “You wait.”

About half an hour later the crew arrived and fired up what sounded like a Caterpillar diesel with grunt. They might have been dragged away from their breakfast for all I know. They put me back aboard Wathara. I tossed them a line and heaved up the anchor and they towed us to a crowded little fishing harbour a couple of miles away. There I put out two anchors and tied off to a dubious-looking mooring buoy. As the lifeboat departed I gave them a wave and a heart-felt “gracias.”
“De nada,” they said.

The 40 knots arrived that evening and it was one of the wildest nights in my life. Several fishing boats broke adrift and piled up on the breakwater while storm water drains poured rivers into the harbour. Neither the chief mate nor I got any sleep that night.
“You do make it hard on a girl,” she said.
“Not complaining, mind. Our deck boy is a sailor already, starting young.”
PS This is a true story. The manager and lifeboat crew became good friends.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain

    pre-natal sailing (part2


Ferdinand Magellan and me (79)

Magellan discovers Guam


At first it was a mere smudge on the horizon to which Pigafetta paid little heed. The ship kept on, propelled by a breeze that had hardly varied in nearly four months of sailing this endless sea. Magellan had torn up his charts and tossed them overboard in disgust. They were just lies. They should have reached the Spice Isles weeks ago but instead encountered only two uninhabited atolls surrounded by reefs.

The captain general called it the Pacific Ocean but he may as well have called it the Ocean of Death. Dying men lay comatose around the deck; their skin discoloured by a purple rash, their sunken eyes pleading for relief or deliverance. At least a score had been consigned to the deep blue sea and more were soon to follow.

Next time Pigafetta looked, the smudge had grown and he thought it might be a rain squall. Then the lookout in the crows nest called “Tierra. Tierra.” At first no one believed it but Pigafetta stared and began to think it might be true. The cry was taken up by others and the captain general appeared on deck and soon the healthy were slapping one another on the back and even the dying managed a kind of grimace.


Three tall and woody islands rose out of the sea but as they approached, a fleet of native canoes set out from shore sailing so fast it was almost unbelievable. These boats had two hulls and skimmed across the water with one hull up in the air. Then they stopped and reversed without turning around. They soon surrounded the three ships, climbed aboard like a plague of locusts and swept up anything they could lay their hands on: buckets, ladles, ropes, hammers, hatchets and anything not bolted down.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Magellan cried, to no avail. He called upon the master at arms and Espinosa, mustered his men at arms with crossbows. They opened fire and the natives were astonished. Shot in the chest or abdomen, they pulled out the crossbow bolt, gazed at it quizzically and fell down dead. With slashing cutlasses, the men-at-arms waded in among the thieves and forced them back overboard.
They also stole a skiff tied astern, which Magellan was determined to retrieve. He brought the ships to anchor. After clearing the deck of dead bodies, he organised a force of 40 men at arms, one boat from each ship, and led them ashore.

The village among palm trees was abandoned. Presumably the natives were hiding in the jungle. They found pigs, chickens and a variety of fruit which they stuffed into their mouths as they looted. They found wicker baskets full of rice and urns full of water. The captain general ordered the village set on fire and it was utterly destroyed.

The fleet sailed on while ravenous men gorged themselves. The captain general named these islands Ladrones, or Islands of Thieves so that others who came afterwards might beware.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain



Ferdinand Magellan and me (78)

sailing Patagonia

Pre-natal sailing

Despite bouts of morning sickness, a severe attack of chilblains on frozen feet and anxiety over the new life growing in her womb, my chief mate soldiered on as we tackled some of the worst weather I had ever encountered. It was a battle against strong tides, howling wind and freezing rain within the narrow confines of rock-strewn channels. Eventually, we escaped the clutches of the channels into the open sea where Wathara buried her nose in a big swell and green water swept down the deck. This is crazy, I thought. Still 100 miles to go to so-called civilisation and we were reefed down to triple-reefed main, staysail and storm jib.

The wind fell calm and the Sun peeped out as we motored the last 15 miles to Puerto Montt with afternoon light reflecting off the underside of low-lying clouds. We were passing through the drowned crater of a volcano with a feeling of dramatic suspense as if at any moment the world might be rent asunder by violent storms, which we had come to expect. We passed an island dotted with farm houses from which blue wood-smoke rose. We passed a native sailing craft ghosting along no doubt with produce for market. This was civilisation. The ethereal sensation persisted as we approached the town with yellow lights glimmering through smoky air on the northern rim of the crater.

We tied up alongside a crowded jetty and prepared to go ashore. The chief mate put on her best pair of jeans that she had not worn since Punta Arenas about six weeks before. She found them loose around her middle and let out a cry of dismay. By this stage of the pregnancy she should be showing it. We had come to Puerto Montt specifically to find a doctor and this was not a good omen. She blamed herself because she had been unable to follow the proper diet for a pregnant woman. She was allergic to milk products, a source of calcium, and missed her booze.

It was next day before we got ashore and found the local hospital. After a wait of about three hours we were shown into a consulting room and introduced to Doctor Manuel Vallejo, a middle aged man wearing thick horn-rim glasses. He listened to our story, took her blood pressure and then led us into another room for a scan. That was my first view of my son swimming in a sea of amniotic fluid looking like a radar picture of a storm at sea. The doctor gave the all clear but advised further consultations at least once a month.

Whew. What a relief.

To celebrate we had a drink in a bar where a TV blared out the latest football results interspersed with ads for chocolate, furniture, aspirin and cleansing powder while customers slouched in chairs at tables around a pot-belly stove. The chief mate ignored the doctor’s advice and said, “Just one glass of wine can’t hurt.”
We had battled so hard against foul weather and currents to get to this place only to find a collection of shabby houses, noisy, smoky buses and depressed-looking people on the same kind of pointless business that occupies human beings everywhere. To travel all this way and find everything the same!

I could not banish from my mind the images of snow-clad peaks of the Andes, waterfalls cascading down a rocky mountainside, tiny islands covered with a forest of miniature trees like Japanese Bon sai and asked myself ‘What business do we have that brings us to cities like this? The answer is obvious, of course.

see:A Singular Captain

    sailing Patagonia


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


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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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?


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


Ferdinand Magellan and me (73)

Magellan strait

Most beautiful and terrible strait

Magellan never doubted that this was El Paso. The water was deep and clear and always salty but progress was slow against the wind, almost always from the west. The strongest evidence was the twice-daily ebb and flood of the tide under the invisible force of the Moon. By the grace of God there seemed to be a safe haven every few leagues, very deep so the ships tied up to trees on shore after each day’s sailing, which left the men exhausted from frequent tacking. All experienced men agreed this was the most beautiful and terrible strait in the world and should be called Magellan’s Strait because the captain general found it when everyone said he could not. His problem was who to trust when so many had proved deceitful and once again he called on the master-at-arms for a vital duty.

“Espinosa, I believe we are approaching the end of El Paso and I want you to take the longboat and survey ahead. If you don’t find the exit in ten leagues come back and report to me.”

“It shall be done, Captain General.”

The ships lay over in a snug cove to await Espinosa’s report, which came in two days. He returned from his expedition in the longboat foaming along with flags flying and a bone in her teeth before the westerly wind. Espinosa clung to the forestay waving an arm and shouting at the top of his voice:
“We’ve found it! We’ve found it! The South Sea. The Ocean.”

Men hauling nets and coopers sealing barrels dropped their work and stared, then gave wild whoops of exultation. Only the captain general, standing like a statue on the quarterdeck, seemed unaffected by the news but Pigafetta was close enough to see the tears rolling down his cheeks and into his black beard. It was the second time he had seen Magellan cry and it moved him deeply but he dare not mention it.

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    El Paso at last


Ferdinand Magellan and me (72)

Magellan memorial in Punta Arenas


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.



Ferdinand Magellan and Me (71)

Wathara in Punta Arenas.

No fit place for a yacht

We crossed the border between Argentina and Chile and I reported the fact to Punta Dungeness lighthouse, who asked for our ETA in Punta Arenas. I felt like saying ‘I have no idea.’ The Chilean navy monitors all traffic through the Strait and Patagonian channels and maintains several stations. The two sets of narrows discovered by Serrano about 500 years ago are tricky passages. According to modern sailing directions, tides can run up to 8 knots, which would have us going backwards. I made a guess at the ETA based on our long-term average speed.

We anchored near the first narrows around sunset to await the favourable tide. We got under way about midnight and shot through the first narrows but the tide turned against us in the second narrows. For the next five hours we made only about 1 knot, with the wind getting up and the barometer falling. By four o’clock in the morning it was blowing 50 knots and we were reefed down to storm gear. Helen, wearing a safety harness on the foredeck, struggled with flogging canvas in the howling wind and pelting sleet. And this was midsummer!

But Wathara behaves magnificently in such weather and once clear of the narrows we were making five knots on a reasonable course although a cold and wet ride. I take my hat off to those old navigators in clumsy ships with no charts, sailing directions or tide tables. We had it relatively easy. On arrival in Punta Arenas close to the ETA, we dropped anchor in the lee of a long jetty with ships of all sorts and sizes tied up to it. There is no real harbour but it is reasonably well-sheltered from the west and the Admiralty Pilot assured me that easterly gales are rare. We climbed into bed and slept for many hours.

Punta Arenas is a vibrant town with a busy port and a statue of Ferdinand Magellan on a pedestal, but it is no fit place for yachts. Tied up alongside ships at the jetty, we frequently had to shift or go back to anchor when other boats or ships arrived or departed. Westerly gales were frequent but the friendliness of the locals was well up to South American standards.

In Punta Arenas Helen announced she was pregnant. This was news to make my head spin. I couldn’t decide whether I was delighted or simply shocked.

“So, what do you want to do? Do you want to call it off and go back home?”

“No. This is my home.”

“You can’t be up on deck changing sails in a gale if you’re pregnant.”

“Who says I can’t?”

“I don’t know but you have to take it easy don’t you? I don’t want to be delivering babies. The only thing I know about babies is you have to hold them upside down by the ankles and pat them on the back to make them breathe.”

“Old wives’ tales.”

“Well, you had better go and see a doctor.”

When I joined the Navy as a callow youth I never dreamed I would have this kind of issue to deal with. Magellan avoided it by prohibiting females aboard ship. Nowadays, that doesn’t work, when females are not only mates but masters. Maritime jurisdictions are careful not to call them ship mistresses.

Helen received an all clear from her initial medical inspection. I predicted it would come to a bad end.

see:A Singular Captain

    Punta Arenas