Land Ahoy!

I spent the week on a boat—a truly responsible vacation in these virus-ridden times—a couple of anchor lengths from the nearest vessel, no strangers around, about as self-isolated as you can get.

The boat was moored five hundred feet from shore, in about three fathoms of water, on the lee of a barrier island in southeast Portugal.

Around me, a number of Spanish yachts, escaping the confusion in their own country, and a few charter craft. At sea, your neighbors change all the time—some folks were day trippers from nearby marinas, others settled in for a few days.

The view from the top, taken with a drone hovering over the mooring area. The beach is just visible on the windward side of the barrier island.

Near my thirty-six footer, small bream meandered, and a dozen grey mullet appeared to live under the hull. Mullet have a varied diet: they’re very fond of detritus and thrive in pretty disgusting conditions—not my cup of tea—but they’re certainly popular in parts of North America.

Years ago, I used to sail every few weeks in a small, open fishing boat on the great estuary of the Tagus—going out in the early morning, with the beautiful city of Lisbon to the northwest, and watching the sun rise over the water.

I’d head out to the tidal flats—about one third of the one hundred-twenty square miles of estuary are dry at low water—that once housed one of Europe’s most important oyster grounds; as we passed the main outlet ditch of the local brewery the smell of hops and malt was thick in the air—back in the day, the effluent went straight into the water.

When we had visitors on board—particularly women—the skipper would pound the hull with his boot and the mullet would start jumping. Invariably, a couple of large fish would leap into the boat, and someone would reach over and tip them back into the water.

The little fish that wandered around my houseboat prompted me to buy a rod—while I was at it, I bought a lure to try and jig some cuttlefish. I had a lot of fun messing around with both, but the fish managed to eat the bait rather than the hook—apparently mullet are particularly good at delicately removing worms or mussels from the line without touching the hook at all.

The boat had a rubber dinghy with an electric motor—barely powerful enough to oppose the current, but very ecological. The wealthy folks on the yachts were content to sunbathe on deck and occasionally lower a jet ski and shatter the calm—no one seemed keen on going ashore.

A COVID dream come true—empty beach for miles and miles.

The outer rim of the island never had anyone on it—you could close your eyes and imagine yourself cast away by pirates. One morning, far away to the west, a small group appeared, bent double near the waterline, picking surf clams. Near them, a fishing rod was buried into the sand, the line extending way out into the Atlantic.

On my last evening, the boat ran out of water—it was more of a nuisance than a problem, but it reminded me that the Portuguese sailors of The India Road were constantly faced with the challenge of shipping enough fresh water for the next leg of their journey.

The all-important refilling of the water barrels was known as the aguada—after Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, he dropped anchor at what is now Mossel Bay—the bay of mussels.

It was the third day of February, and the bay became known as Aguada de São Braz—the Portuguese sailors regularly named bays, capes, and rivers after saints, whereas the Spanish often used royalty.

The coastline therefore became a litany of holy men and women, all of whom had their own assigned day.

São Brás (Saint Blaise), in a painting from the Basilica of San Giulio, Italy.  This saint is particularly good for throat ailments—he might come in handy during these troubled times.

Today is Saint Theresa‘s day, so a Portuguese mariner during the XVth or XVIth centuries might well have named an African Cape or a Malayan island in her honor if the occasion arose.

A nautical chart from that period—and the Portuguese were renowned for their cartography at the time—presented a verifiable timeline that could be cross-checked against a ship’s log. These maps are therefore special, since they contain information about both time and space—and since points of interest were named by different expeditions, we can use the dates to validate the various journeys.

That’s why we’re certain that the first white man to set foot in South Africa, on February 3rd,1488, was Captain Bartolomeu Dias, the sailor who opened up the India Road.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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