February 3 – March 31, 1520

The men of the fleet were predictably dismayed when, as soon as the ships had cleared the Mar Dulce, Magellan ordered them to turn south rather than east or north. They were truly sailing into the unknown now, farther south than any European vessel had ever ventured before, their bows pointed implacably toward the very bottom of the world. These high antipodean latitudes were realms of superstition and veiled horrors. By no means did all of the sailors trust the natural philosophers and geographers who insisted that, no, it really wasn’t possible to fall right off the edge of the world by going too far in this direction.

As if to add its own note of petulance to the chorus of disgruntled sailors, the San Antonio sprang a major leak just one day out of the Mar Dulce, a chunk of its aging hull having stove in under the constant onslaught of waves and shipworms, mollusks that earned their nickname of “sea termites” by boring into wood and eating it away from the inside out. It was touch and go for some hours; the rest of the ships could only heave to and look on while the crew of the San Antonio tried to keep pace with the torrent that was rushing into the hold, bailing madly with buckets and every other receptacle to hand, while the carpenters among them tried to plug the hole through which the water poured with fresher, healthier wood. In the end, they succeeded in saving the ship. After an exhausting two days, Captain Mesquita signaled that the San Antonio was as ready as it would ever be to sail onward.

It was nerve-wracking sailing, marked by sudden, violent outbursts of wind and rain that came and went at random. Later generations of seamen would comes to know this part of the Atlantic Ocean as the most dangerous of them all, what with its notorious changeability and unpredictability. Magellan’s fleet needed to stick perilously close to the jagged shoreline of South America in order to examine it for the westward-leading strait or channel that its captain general still hoped against hope might exist there. When the fleet encountered a promising stretch of coastline during the nighttime hours, Magellan would order the ships to throw out their anchors, so that they might inspect it properly in the morning. Doing so in seas such as these was a risky proposition in itself, prompting yet more muttering among the crew about this crazed Portuguese marionette who seemed determined to get them all killed, one way or another.

Still, Magellan at least had picked up a degree of basic seagoing competence over the course of his previous adventures, and was willing to listen to the advice of the professional seamen aboard his flagship when it was called for. Captain Mendoza of the Victoria had neither of these things going for him. He persistently mishandled his charge, getting himself into scrape after scrape.

On Saint Valentine’s Day, he cut too close to the shore, so that the Victoria ran aground with a sudden, sickening bump and lurch. Every man aboard tensed up in terror as the ship heaved over to one side and remained suspended at that unnatural angle. The few swimmers among the crew dived overboard to try to loosen the grip of the seaweed and mud that held the hull in their embrace. Again and again they disappeared into the chilly water, emerging gasping and spluttering to take another plunge. It was brave of them, but also fairly futile. There was nothing that could really be done. The crew of the Victoria could only wait for the fates to decide their destiny, to find out whether the receding tide would carry the grounded ship away with it out to sea, and, if so, whether the hull would survive the strain that this put on it. Miraculously, it did, and it did. Groaning and rattling its chains like a lost soul, the Victoria bumped and slid out to deeper waters again, to rejoin its fretful siblings who were still hovering around the scene of the accident wringing their hands.

Another disaster had been narrowly averted. How many more times could they expect their luck to hold, the sailors asked one another — especially with this bunch of amateurs in charge of them. If they couldn’t go home, perhaps they could return to the Eden of Rio de Janeiro to repair and resupply their ships and plan their next step. But their captain general was implacable. The only direction he wished to sail was south — or west, of course, if he could but find a way of doing so.

As they sailed, the weather grew not just more unstable but colder and colder. This was an entirely new form of suffering for the men, who, expecting a voyage in temperate to tropical climes, had brought no warm clothing with them. They shivered in their thin rags in the face of the winds that the Argentinians of today know as the pamperos, bitter gusts that uncannily blow out to sea from land rather than the other way around. The lookouts who had to constantly be aloft to survey the coastline wrapped themselves in all of the spare canvas they could scavenge, yet still climbed down from their perches with chattering teeth, numb in mind and body. All of the fresh food was gone now, leaving the men to subsist once more on hardtack alone. Ah, well, it was better than nothing — albeit only marginally, given that it was by now contaminated with weevils, rodent droppings, and mold. The sailors choked the disgusting stuff down; the more seasoned ones among them knew that even insects and fungi could be  an ally in the never-ending battle against scurvy.

Going as he was where no European had gone before, Magellan had the privilege of naming that which he encountered. When his fleet met a wide, inviting opening in the coastline on February 24, he dubbed it the San Matías Gulf, after the saint whose feast day it was that day. Sadly, it proved to be only a gulf, not a strait. The ships sailed into it, around it, and out of it again the same day, Magellan failing to heed the pleading of his men, who craved the fresh meat and fruits that they could practically taste from their short distance offshore. He feared becoming the hunted rather than the hunter, he said, should more cannibals live in those scrubby forests. It would be better to find a more defensible spot to disembark and resupply.

The sailors grumbled, but for once they soon got their wish. Just a few days later, the fleet found a much narrower bay which sported three small islets. As the ships approached one of them, a lookout shouted that he could see dozens of upright black figures milling about on the beach. The men stared at one another in surprise. Could such a tiny, apparently barren island really support so many people? A moment later, the lookout amended his report to say that these figures were too small and strangely formed to be humans, for all that they toddled about almost like caricatures of them. Magellan’s fleet had met the odd-looking, flightless birds that we know as penguins.

They were not quite the first Europeans to do so. The Portuguese had been seeing penguins in the southern latitudes to the east ever since Vasco da Gama had led the first expedition around the bottom of Africa in 1498. “They are as big as ducks, but can’t fly because they have no feathers on their wings,” wrote a chronicler attached to that fleet. Still, Magellan’s men were the first to see the type of penguin that now bears their captain general’s name: the Magellanic penguin. Antonio Pigafetta preferred to think of the birds as geese. “These geese are black,” he wrote in his journal, “and have their feathers all over the body of the same size and shape, and live upon fish. They have beaks like that of a crow.”

But Magellan himself, lacking any other frame of reference, continued the tradition of equating them with ducks, the birds they resembled most to European eyes. Indeed, he went so far as to dub the bay in which the penguin islet lay the Bahía de los Patos: “Duck Bay.” This thoroughly unsatisfactory name would not stick; today the spot is a part of the Cabo dos Bahias (“Cape of Two Bays”), an Argentinian national park and wildlife refuge where tens of thousands of Magellanic penguins can still be seen.

The Magellanic penguin. (Sanjay Acharya)

The penguins were not the only uncanny creatures that the sailors observed around the island. They became the first Europeans ever to see sea lions — or, as Pigafetta called them, “sea wolves.” He wrote that they “are of the size and thickness of a calf, and have a head like that of a calf, and the ears are small and round. They have large teeth, and have no legs, but feet joining close onto the body, which resemble a human hand. They have small nails on the feet, and skin between their fingers like geese. If these animals could run they would be very bad and cruel, but they do not stir from the water, and swim and live upon fish.”

The South American sea lion. (Vince Smith)

The sailors undoubtedly felt some degree of awe at the variety and wonder of the natural world. How could they not? Most of all, though, they felt hungry, a state which tends to leave little space for sentimentality. For them, the penguins milling about on the beach represented first and foremost a source of nourishment. As soon as the captain general gave his approval, they piled into the launches and longboats, and the killing commenced. The penguins had no idea of the threat these foreign invaders of their remote realms posed to them, simply stood there as the men clubbed hundreds of them to death. The sailors could hardly wait long enough to cook their prey before starting the feast. (Some of them may not have waited…) They were delighted to find that the penguins were closer to European livestock than the wild birds they knew, so plump and juicy that it was easier just to skin them than to pluck their feathers. They tucked into their primal repast with blood-splattered hands and faces, eyes glinting with the savage joy of satiation after weeks on end of constant, gnawing hunger.

Meanwhile the colony of sea lions, finding their rest disturbed by the carnage among the penguins, had moved around to the other side of the islet. Six intrepid sailors asked Magellan whether they might be permitted to take muskets and try to shoot some of the beasts, which could provide not only meat but fur out of which the freezing men could make coats for themselves. Magellan agreed to allow them this indulgence, and so they crept away from the bacchanal taking place on the near side of the islet, climbing the desolate ridge that marked its middle to approach the sea lions who lounged about on the other side. They found that clubs were more effective than muskets; they were able to bludgeon to death the youngsters among the sea lions almost as easily as they had dispatched the penguins. As Pigafetta noted, the elders could have given the men all they could handle and then some if they had chosen to charge, but they were utterly nonplussed by the new arrivals, just as the penguins had been. They merely looked on dumbly while the sailors slaughtered their children.

Then the humans’ luck ran out. It was as if the god of the sea Poseidon, seeing the outrages that were being perpetrated against some of his most marvelous and favored children, decided to vent his rage on their behalf: “He rammed the clouds together,  both hands clutching his trident, churned the waves into chaos, whipping all the gales from every quarter, shrouding over in thunderheads the earth and sea at once. And night swept down from the sky, east and south winds clashed and the raging west and north, sprung from the heavens, roiled heaving breakers up.”

But unlike the storm which shipwrecked Homer’s Odysseus, this storm was bitingly, brutally cold as well as violent. Ice crystals swirled on the air, millions of tiny razors nipping and biting at exposed skin. The sailors on the penguin beach dashed for their boats and paddled madly back to the ships. Even as the capstans turned to lift the boats aboard and to raise the anchors, the vessels were already being pummeled by nature’s fury. They rode the storm all that night, letting it blow them where it would. In their extremity, no one remembered the six hunters who had been left behind on the far side of the islet.

No one, that is, except Magellan. “When Dawn with her lovely locks brought on the day,” the storm’s fury appeared to be spent. The fleet slowly reassembled, learning that all of the ships had survived. Many a commander of those times would have sailed onward without sparing another thought for the half-dozen anonymous sailors who had been left behind on that godforsaken rock of an island, where not a single tree grew to provide any sort of protection whatsoever. Surely they were dead anyway, after the night that had just been.

But Magellan was not that type of commander. He could be hard, even merciless when he felt the situation demanded it — witness the fate of Antonio Salomone! — but he was not a leader who left his men behind. The fleet returned to Bahía de los Patos and to the islet of the penguins and sea lions. Seeing no sign of their shipmates from the sea, many among the officers assumed that they would press on, but, again, Magellan wouldn’t hear of it. On his command, 30 sailors went out with a longboat to make absolutely sure that their brethren hadn’t survived the night. As they climbed the rocky ridge that ran up from the beach, a tremendous bellowing split the air, sounding like a herd of bulls and wolves running together. There poured over the rim of the ridge yet more bizarre creatures, which looked vaguely like legless elephants, what with their immense size and the large, incongruously dangling probosces some of them sported. The comparison would stick: we still know these gigantic animals today as elephant seals.

The southern elephant seal. (Antoine Lamielle)

As had been the case with all of the other creatures of the islet, the elephant seals didn’t know what to make of men, didn’t know enough to be afraid of them. As soon as the beasts’ obliviousness became obvious, the landing party suspended their search for the stranded hunters momentarily to do a little hunting of their own. Once more the clubs whirred and thumped, the men battering the seals over the heads with a heartless determination that those of us who have never had to reckon with the prospect of hunger — real hunger — should probably not presume to judge. They didn’t stop until 50 of the animals lay dead on the slope, down which ran a river of blood and brains.

While the men were standing over the bloodbath they had wrought, six forlorn figures appeared at the top of the ridge one by one, much the worse for wear but alive. They explained that during the storm they had burrowed their way into the mass of seals, who had accepted them with bemused good grace. Only the heat and shelter provided by the giant animals had kept them alive. It was, everyone could agree, a poor recompense that the other sailors had meted out when the storm was passed. But there was no time for moral philosophizing; there was butchering to be done.

For all that they would continue to grumble about their foreign captain general, all of the sailors were well aware of the rare loyalty he had shown to those fragile, expendable six of their number. This awareness would prove vital for Magellan in the weeks to come.

Just as the last of the sea-lion and elephant-seal carcasses had been hauled aboard and the ships were about to leave the bay and sail onward, the storm returned, as suddenly as it had come the day before. A broadside gale like the hand of Poseidon himself smacked the anchored vessels from out of nowhere. All of them heeled over under the strain. The clueless and arrogant Captain Mendoza of the Victoria had  ordered that only one anchor be thrown overboard, ignoring the advice of subordinates who told him that good practice demanded at least two of them in such blustery seas as these. The single anchor cable now snapped in twain with a sound like the clap of doom. The helpless vessel was swept along on the wings of the wind and water toward the rocky coast of the bay, while its crew scrambled frantically to prepare another anchor. They threw it overboard in the nick of time, bringing the ship up as short as if it had slammed into a brick wall. For the second time that month, time stood still while the fates mulled over what was to be done with the Victoria and its crew. The deck was tilted at almost a 45-degree angle, the men aboard clinging to whatever they could find to avoid a horrifying slide into the raging sea. The second anchor cable was pulled as tight as a piano wire and, indeed, seeming to positively hum under the strain. Amazingly, the cable held together, as did the rest of the ship. Slowly, the violent gust that had seemed divinely earmarked to carry the ship to its destruction dissipated, and the Victoria eased back down into a more normal attitude. Many of the crew fell down on their knees then and there to offer their thanks to God; some went so far as to promise to become monks just as soon as their savior delivered them back to Europe from these regions of privation and inexplicable natural violence.

But Europe and safety were still a long, long way away. The storm raged on and off for three more days, tamping down to almost nothing only to spring up from its hiding place, a cat playing with five hapless mice. Magellan opted to ride it out at anchor there in the bay, with the masts pulled down completely and stowed in the holds. He feared that the storm would otherwise carry his fleet so far out to sea and scatter it so badly that the ships would never find one another again. The choice was probably the correct one under the circumstances, but it meant that the ships were battered and flogged by the full fury of the storm, stationary objects facing an irresistible force.

Finally, the gale relented and this time did not return. It was a reprieve, but nothing more than that. The summer was over, in a part of the world that had little concept of autumn or spring, only frigid winter. Soon the icebergs would begin to appear on the water — icebergs which would slice through the wooden hulls of the ships like a knife through butter. There was no longer sufficient time to escape the onset of winter by sailing back the way they had come, even had Magellan been willing to do so. The only chance now was to find someplace where they could wait out the worst of what was to come. This meant not only a place of shelter for the crews, but — and in an odd sort of way even more importantly — a sheltered anchorage for the ships, their only way of leaving this underbelly of the world after the winter was over. For Magellan, then, the search for shelter was now the first priority; his longed-for strait would have to wait. Even if they could find a spot to pass the winter in relative safety from the storms, they might very well wind up freezing to death anyway. But there was no point in thinking about that now; it was best to take one problem at a time.

So, the capstans turned, the anchors were raised, and the weary fleet straggled onward. Day after miserable day, the barren, rocky coastline passing away on the starboard side gave no prospect of shelter or succor, for either men or ships. In the middle of March, the fleet stumbled upon another bay, one which today contains the small Argentinian fishing village of Puerto Deseado and is still afflicted by “heavy gales, rising without warning,” as modern sailing atlases describe it. Charles Darwin, its most famous visitor after Magellan, pronounced it a “wretched place” after passing a lonely Christmas there aboard the Beagle in 1833. Magellan’s opinion was no higher: he named it the Bahia de los Trabajos , or “Bay of Travail.” The name would prove all too apt.

This wide bay was plainly not the sheltered anchorage the fleet was seeking. However, not having seen any sign of human habitation since leaving the Mar Dulce, Magellan agreed to allow some of his men a couple of precious days to seek provisions ashore. They found the terrain to be a happy hunting ground, if one could overlook the constant, biting cold. The undulating plains were marked by only scattered, forlorn-looking trees, and were roamed by sumptuous herds of guanacos and ostriches — not that Europeans had any names for any of these strange creatures as of yet. But the hunt had barely begun when yet another gale swept down on them all. Once again, the sailors on the ships pulled down the masts and hunkered below the gunwales, while those stranded ashore huddled together for warmth in whatever grassy hollows they could find. In this fashion, the expedition passed its six-month anniversary since leaving Spain.

This time it took almost a week for the tempest to exhaust itself and for the bedraggled landing party to effect its return. It was lost on no one that these periods of violent upheaval in the heavens were getting longer and longer, the intervals of relative calm between them becoming the exception rather than the rule. The ships and the men who sailed them couldn’t take much more of this. If they didn’t find shelter soon, they would surely perish. There was nothing for it but to continue southward, searching, searching, always searching for a place of safety.

And then came deliverance. On the last day of March, the lookouts spotted a promising crack in the sheer cliffs of the shoreline. With Magellan’s flagship in the lead as usual, the fleet turned to investigate. They found that the narrow inlet opened out to become a lovely little protected natural harbor, with fish so abundant that they could actually be seen from the decks of the ships, leaping and frolicking in the water. Even the temperature here felt warmer than that which the sailors had known over the past several weeks. Magellan named the place Puerto San Julián, after the patron saint of hospitality to weary travelers like them. The expedition had found itself a home for the winter, one that might just prove hospitable enough to see it through.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

7 Comments for "Chapter 9: Any Port in a Storm"

  • Leo Vellès

    If Magellan (or Magallanes, as we know him in spanish speaking countries) was naming all this places, he clearly wasn`t the one who named Puerto Deseado (Port Desire) seeing the awful time he and the crew spent there

  • Sirona Aldri

    Do you happen to know if Captain Mendoza is the namesake of Argentina’s Mendoza province and/or city?

    Just something I noticed, I’m going to live there for a few months soon – thank you for the post!

    • Jimmy Maher

      I highly doubt it. It’s not an uncommon Spanish surname, and, as we’ll see, this Mendoza’s tenure with the Magellan expedition did not end in any particular glory. More the opposite. 😉

  • Martin

    Have to ask this. Was the knowledge of the Southern half of the world one where they knew that the summer/winter seasons were swapped around or was this their first learning of it?

    Going around the South of Africa seems much less obvious.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, this had been broadly understood for some decades when Magellan sailed.

      Even in ancient times, people had known that, the further south you traveled, the less extreme the seasonal differences between daytime and nighttime hours, the less seasonal variation generally, and the hotter the average temperature. They just didn’t know what happened when you reached the line where the differences became nonexistent. Some believed that the ocean would be literally boiling at the Equator. This was a real fear of the Portuguese as they began to venture further and further south along the coast of Africa.

      Once the Portuguese actually crossed the Equator and found that the difference between the length of the day and night began to increase again, only in reverse, it wasn’t hard to extrapolate the rest. By 1527 — eight years after Magellan sailed — it was broadly understood that perpetual day or night became the norm for periods of the year at the extreme latitudes. A proposal put before King Henry VIII of England that year suggested trying to reach Asia by sailing at the right time of year up and over the North Pole, where there would be “perpetual clearness of the day without darkness of the night.” Unfortunately, the author neglected to consider the problem of ice. 😉

      • Martin

        So why didn’t they prepare for colder weather as they headed South? Was it just a belief that there would be a western passage before it got too cold? Certainly your prior chapter implied this mission was only a search for a route to India/China not to find the southern extent of South America.

        • Jimmy Maher

          Prepared during the expedition? How would they have done that? Or, if you mean before the expedition, the answer is that they hoped and planned to find a route through rather than around South America, in more equatorial climes. It was only Magellan’s stubbornness that led him to continue the expedition after those hopes fell through. Even if he found a route this far south, it would be of limited practical utility anyway in comparison to the existing path to Asia around the bottom of Africa. No, it certainly wasn’t planning for every eventuality, but these were different times, and space on these little ships was at a premium.


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