Thursday 8 September 2016

'Only One Came Back' - by Karen Maitland

Nao Victoria circumnavigating the world
When I was child I loved to read my father's collection of books about the adventures of Thor Heyerdahl and others who recreated old ships and retraced ancient voyages. One of the exciting things for me was when the modern day adventurers discovered that some detail of the ship, for example, the tether on the Egyptian papyrus reed boat, which they had left out as unimportant, in fact served a vital function in enabling the ship's stern to remain high and flexible in rough seas.

Today, I never pass up an opportunity to explore the reconstruction of an old ship, because as a novelist simply clambering around it helps me to feel the size of the ship; see where I would have had to duck my head and how dark it must have been under the ship's castle, all of which helps me to imagine how my characters spent their days on board.

A couple of weeks ago, I went aboard the replica of the 16th century Nao Victoria, or Vittoria, when it docked at Plymouth. On 10th August 1519, five naos, crewed by 243 men, set sail from Seville, commanded by Ferdinand Megellan. Financed by the Spanish King, their mission was to discover a western route to the Moluccas in Indonesia, known as the spice islands. These brave men set sail into the unknown, at a time when sailors still brought back tales of islands where dragons fought elephants and rocks that crashed together to crush ships. 

Ferdinand Magellan
The Magellanic Penguin is named after him.
Sailing some across some of the roughest seas in the world, and despite starvation and mutiny, they travelled down the coast of south America, discovering the Strait of Magellan, then across the vast Pacific Ocean passing unknown islands until they finally reached the Moluccas. Magellan was killed during the battle of Mactan in the Philippines in 1521. Only the smallest ship, the Nao Victoria, captained by Juan Sebastian Elcano, and 18 men out of the original 243 survived. This single ship crossed the Indian Ocean, sailed round the horn of Africa and eventually reached home three years after they first set sail on the 8th September 1522. (494 years ago today.)

In 2004, the replica ship set off with a crew of 20 to circumnavigate the world, and learn a little of what that first crew endured. Although they were compelled to take radios and modern navigational aids as back-up, it was still a tough experience. 

When you climb aboard the Nao Victoria, it seems as small and fragile as an eggshell with sloping castle decks at either end, making it appear as if a giant hand had squashed it. Ocean-going naos were built according to the ratio of "one, two, three". So a nao that was 30 ft across, (1) would have keel of 60 ft (2) would be 90 ft (3) long. This strict ratio allowed the builders to vary the size of the boat, but always ensure that it didn't ride too high in the water causing it to capsize, or too low making it slow and hard to manoeuvre.
The replica of the Nao Victoria docked at Plymouth

The ship's wheel hadn't been invented then, so the rudder was moved by long beam fixed vertically into a wooden ball on the deck, which could be moved rather like the metal bar and rubber ball joint used to flush those modern chemical toilets they use at open air festivals. (Nothing new!)

I was struck by the great hole at back of the stern which the tiller poked through, which had to be wide enough to allow it to be swung from side to side. It was immensely draughty even in port, imagine how cold and wet the helmsmen and any nearby crew would have been with raging waves lashing through that day and night.
The hole in the stern for the tiller bar

The second thing I was reminded of was the nightmare of fire. The ship was wooden, coated with tar and caulked with flammable oakum and pitch. The crew slept on mattresses they'd daily rub with tallow and grease so that they would act as life rafts, so a single stray spark from the ship's cooking fire spelt danger. No wonder the cook's fire was shielded with metal sheets and stood on bricks and a tray of sand.

The third thing that struck me was that crew must have had to spent much of their scrambling around barrels of food, wine and water, for they had no idea where or when they be able to take on fresh supplies. A typical daily ration per man for a Spanish ship, while supplies lasted, was - a pound and half of bread, chick peas, cheese, 1 lb salted meat per man or 1 salted cod shared between 4 men, depending on whether or not it was Catholic Fast day. Each man also received a daily ration of 3 pints of water (two for drinking and the third for washing) and 2 pints of strong wine, which doesn't seem a lot of liquid compared to the 8 pints of beer allowed to the English sailors in 1578.
Poles were inserted in the holes
to winch up the anchor

The crows nest - not a place to
be in storm

If the Nao Victoria stops off at a port near you, do go and visit it if you get the chance. You will come away with your imagination racing. By the way, the Nao Victoria now has a woman captain - I wonder what the crew back in 1519 would have made of that!

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