31 May 1498
Thank God I am still alive to write these words. I have never seen such a storm, and I hope to never see its like again.
I wonder if Ludovico still lives. I fear for him, and for all those on the other ships. There is no sign of any of them on this rolling sea.
The sky is only now beginning to clear, after five days of hell, during which the only difference between night and day was that in the day you could see the angry gray-green waves a moment before they pounded the ship. Father has ordered sail rigged on our two remaining masts. The mainmast snapped like a toothpick on the third day of the storm.
You have never seen such waves, Sebastian. Walls of green water half the height of the mast that is now gone! Many of the men were praying. Others cursed Father for bringing them on this voyage. Never mind that they owe him their lives. For three days and nights he remained on deck, without food or sleep, keeping our stern to the tremendous seas. At the height of the tempest, he lashed himself to the tiller, and even as I huddled below, expecting each wave to crack our ship open like an egg, I could hear him shouting defiant curses into the wind. One man was lost, swept overboard with the mainmast and rigging while cutting it away. But it was Father, and only Father, who saved the rest of us. He is a great man, Sebastian.
We do not know where we are. Father thinks we must be closer to the New Found Land than to England, for the storm came out of the northeast, and we have been driven before it for many days. With only the two smaller masts remaining, there is little we can do but remain before the wind, which continues from the northeast, though it is diminishing. At midday the sun was but a bright fuzzy spot behind the gray, and Father said it would be impossible to take a sight. "Perhaps tonight we will see the Pole Star," he said. "The sky is clearing in the west."
I know you are angry, Sebastian, at being left behind. I know you resent me. It pains you that Ludovico stands third-in-command on Father's old ship, and that I am crew on his new one, while you, the middle son, must remain behind and not see the New Found Land, nor, perhaps, the riches of Asia beyond. But I tell you honestly that we are lucky to have survived. During the storm, I would have traded places with you in a heartbeat.
And that is why I am writing this, though your eyes may never see it -- because every day on this vast and uncharted ocean is a day spent face-to-face with Death. When we return, these letters will serve as a record of our voyage, and I will hand them to you when next we meet. It is a comfort to know that you and Mother are safe and well in England.
Your loving brother,
4 June 1498
We continue to the west in rolling seas churned up by the storm. No sign of Ludovico and the Matthew, or the other ships. Of course, it is hard to see any distance, because when the mainmast was swept away we lost our crow's nest and our highest vantage point. Father has sent me and some of the smaller men into the rigging on the forward mast, but there has been no sight of land, or any other vessel. Nothing but green waves.
Today we passed through a school of fish so thick that men were lowering baskets over the side and hauling them up full, one after the other. They are the same stockfish we see piled high on the docks in Bristol. Surely Bristol is home to the greatest and most daring sailors in the world. Father has done well to pick a crew from among such men. Most Englishmen think the bounty of fish from the Bristol fleet comes from Icelandic waters, and the fishermen have been happy to have them think so. But one of the older men told me that the Bristol fleet has been gathering its catch from waters to the south and west of Iceland, and that Father's New Found Land has been known to them for some time.
The cow and the pigs and all but three of our chickens were lost to the storm, but our supply of dry food is intact. So long as the sea remains abundant with fish we will not starve. But we do need to make repairs. We must reach a shore soon. We cannot sail to Asia without our mainmast and its sails and rigging. Sails we can construct from canvas we carry on board, but we must find a landfall where there is timber.
Sebastian, our father knows he did not reach the tip of Asia last summer, in spite of all the speeches and prizes. But he knows also that Columbus has not seen Asia either, nor come near it. Father told King Henry exactly what he wanted to hear: that the New Found Land was the northeast promontory of the Asian mainland, and that to reach the riches of Cathay and the court of the Great Khan, his fleet need only follow the land as it falls away to the southwest. "Because I am sailing across the shoulder of the world, my route will be shorter than the route of Columbus, who is sailing across its belly," he said.
My brother, I have tried to forget the look of bitterness on your face, or the last words you spoke to me. I knew you wished to be in my place. We must return, if for no other reason than for you and I to put things right between us.
Your loving brother,
7 June 1498
Two nights ago the seas were finally calm enough and the sky clear enough for Father to take a fix on Polaris. He placed it forty-five degrees above the horizon, which means that we are already south of Bristol's latitude, and south of last year's landfall on the New Found Land.
From Dursey Head, Father set a course to the northwest, explaining to the crew that it would save both time and distance over the usual method of following the parallel. Farther north we were more likely to find easterly winds, he said -- a prediction that came terribly true. By sailing first north and then south of true west, we would describe a course closer to a "great circle," which is the shortest path across any section of the surface of a sphere. Many of the men looked at one another and frowned when Father said this, for surely such a concept is beyond the understanding of most seamen. I am not sure I understand it myself.
There is still a great abundance of fish, indicating, Father says, that we are near land. Yesterday, the lead line found bottom at just over sixty fathoms. This caused great excitement among the crew, and Father ordered me to the top of the foremast, but there was no land in sight. We stood off during the night, lest we come upon a shore in the dark, but in the morning there was still no land to be seen, and no bottom under the lead. Father seemed puzzled, saying we must have passed over some underwater bank, and he ordered a course set due west, and sent me into the rigging twice more, but there was still nothing to see but ocean.
No ship broke the horizon either. Father has not spoken Ludovico's name. He is not a man to voice his troubles to others, as you well know, and his immediate attention is to this ship and her crew, but I can tell you that it is a comfort to him that you, at least, are on terra firma.
The abatement of the storm has returned things more or less to normal aboard ship; we are back on regular watches and regular meal times. Last night I had the evening watch and the morning dogwatch; the weather has been fair and movements of the ship steady and predictable, so as to lull one to sleep on the forward boards, with the sound of the sea on the other side of the hull. Tonight I must be on deck at midnight. The spirits of the men are much improved with hot stew in their bellies and the day's ration of beer. Father Cartwright has resumed the morning and evening prayers and the recitation of psalms, and although Father has little use for these rituals, most of the men observe them. I have found most sailors to be religious men, though to me it seems their faith is as one with their superstition -- that is, they do not want to risk offending anything, real or not, that might influence their safe return to port.
At fourteen, I am the youngest of the thirty-five (now thirty-four) men aboard, though Peter Firstbrook and William Hennessey are your age, Sebastian, and have become my best friends among the crew. I am often teased and made the butt of jokes for being the captain's son. Some of the men look at me strangely when they see me writing these letters or reading from one of my books, for most of them have never learned to read or write. At times I read aloud to William and Peter from The Travels of Marco Polo, and we whisper among ourselves of what it will be like to arrive in Asia.
It is nearly time for my watch. I remain, as always,
Your loving brother,
11 June 1498
These past three days and nights found us surrounded by a thick, moist fog. Father dares not simply plow westward, for fear of running into an unseen shore. So we jog on and off, throwing the lead, hour after hour. The men are in a sour mood. There is no horizon and no sky. It is like sailing on the surface of an immense bowl of broth with the steam rising off of it, only this steam is cold and clammy and offers no comfort.
Father said the fog was a sure indication that land was close, for such fogs do not form in mid-ocean. And still the lead came back without finding bottom, and the men grumbled all the more.
We are now thirty-one days out of Bristol -- nearly the time it took Father to reach the New Found Land last summer. He thinks we have sailed a greater distance, for the storm pushed us south of our intended path, and the land tends to the southwest. Soon, God and wind willing, we will stand upon it.
Your loving brother,
12 June 1498
Land! Glorious, solid, unmoving land! We have done it, Sebastian. Battered, dismasted, separated from the other ships in the fleet -- we have nonetheless crossed the Western Ocean and come to safe harbor.
William saw it first, near the end of the morning watch. Within minutes the green outline of the hills was visible to every man on deck, and a great cheer went up. Father ordered sail shortened, and we began a series of tacks, for the wind, what there was of it, came very nearly from the direction of the land, and we were many hours working toward it. As we approached we could see that we had closed with a rocky shore, replete with small islands and half-submerged ledges. Father proceeded with caution, standing off and ordering frequent soundings, so that it was nearly dusk when the anchor was cast over the side for the first time since we left Bristol.
We lie in a small bay with trees all around and low hills behind. There is protection from every wind direction but southeast. The trees are tall and straight, and one among them is sure to be perfect for fashioning a new mainmast. The shoreline is rock, with the exception of a flat landing area near the innermost part of the bay. As it was nearly dark, only Father and the priest and two of the sailors went ashore, the sailors armed with crossbows. Father planted the flags and erected a cross and claimed the land in the name of King Henry VII of England, and then, as dark was drawing on, the men returned to the ship. They saw no natives. Tomorrow we shall all go ashore and scout the area.
Tonight, pairs of guards will watch the shore for fires or other signs of human company. It looks like a good land, and Father cannot imagine its being uninhabited. It is possible, he said, that this is an extension of the New Found Land he coasted last summer.
Father ordered an extra ration of beer, and there is much merriment. We must make repairs, and the fleet is scattered, our older brother out there somewhere, if he is not at the bottom of the sea. Tomorrow we will face these things. But tonight, all that matters is that we are here.
Your loving brother,
Copyright © 2004 by Henry Garfield