Magellan’s Magenta Line

By Tom Neale, 2/6/2014


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Magellan didn't need a Magenta Line. He accomplished some of the toughest boating and seamanship imaginable. It ended for him with a bloody battle, not a shipwreck. But even though he didn't make it around himself, he was responsible for the first circumnavigation in a boat.

NAO Victoria
NAO Victoria.

A few days ago I stood on a dock in St. Augustine, Florida and looked across the water at the Nao Victoria. She's a very close replica of a 16th century Spanish carrack. The original Nao Victoria, just over 85 feet long, was the first ship to successfully circumnavigate the world. The voyage lasted from 1519 to 1522. The ship left Spain as part of a fleet of five under the command of Ferdinand Magellan. Approximately 270 men were aboard the fleet. It was the only vessel to complete the circumnavigation. Problems plagued the voyage from the beginning as financers backed and filled and, at one point, as Portugal set out ships in chase of the Spanish expedition. One of the more tragic developments was that Magellan wasn't aboard when the little ship returned to Spain on September 6, 1522. He was killed in a skirmish, which needn't have occurred, with islanders in the Philippines. He was reportedly first wounded by a bamboo spear and then essentially beaten to death, with various weapons, by the islanders. This fleet was also plagued with mutinies, loss by storm, irreparable damages necessitating a ship's abandonment and damage requiring one ship to hold over for repairs. In command when the circumnavigation was completed was Juan Sebastian Elcano, with only around 18 men.

NAO Victoria
NAO Victoria under sail.

This ship was rough and crude and cumbersome looking beyond description. It was built to tough standards by tough seamen and shipwrights at the time, but that time was long ago. I couldn't help but compare it with the sleek fiberglass sailing yachts around the harbor, many with the best gear that modern civilization has to offer. And I couldn't help but imagine living aboard her, in the conditions she encountered, for that long a period of time. Those conditions included equatorial heat, tropical jungle humidity, freezing cold, poor provisions and months at sea, with no sight of land, hoping the navigator knew where they were going.

Strait of Magellan
Strait of Magellan.

It's too easy to say that the ship sailed around the world without thinking of what this meant at the time. Without going into all the seemingly impossible navigation accomplishments, by modern standards, it's telling enough to remember just one relatively short passage. This was when the ship, guided by its officers and crew, found its way around the bottom of the continent of South America. Without really knowing whether they were "right" that this was a passage to the Pacific, they proceeded on guided by instinct, old fashioned seamen's sixth sense and astute navigational common sense. They proceeded through a passage beset by conflicting torrents of current, unpredictable seas, tortuous curvatures in the route, unpredictable killer winds racing down from surrounding high cliffs and a hopeless jumble of unmarked rocks and reef. To get a space eye view of this route, check out the accompanying picture. This passage is around 310 nautical miles long and only 1.1 nautical miles wide at its narrowest point. It was aptly named the Strait of Magellan.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Common Sense Navigation

1. Always study your chart, in whatever form you have it, before you start out the trip and then the day and then the tricky passage ahead. There may not be time to figure things out when you're in the crunch.

2. Have more than one chart source and more than one guide. Study and compare them. Resolve questions you have before, not during your passage.

3. Never hesitate to ask for advice from the skipper of the boat which went through a difficult area before you. Don't assume that he figured it out correctly, but at least give some consideration to his observations.

4. Look well ahead, with good binoculars if needed, for aids to navigation. If they appear to be different than what the chart shows, it's usually prudent to follow the aids rather than the chart. Aids are often updated more frequently than your chart. But be sure you're observing carefully and not being confused by what you're seeing.

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And, oh by the way, we need to keep reminding ourselves of things that they didn't have…things that we take for granted. They didn't have a motor, not even to keep them off the rocks of that passage if wind and current drove them in that direction. And they had no GPS or chart plotter or radar or satellite weather or EPIRBs or social media contact communication or single sideband or any communication at all with the folks back home. They were totally on their own at sea and in other areas near very dangerous land such as the Strait of Magellan. And there was no help for ship or crew if they hit a reef. We can go on for pages and pages thinking about what these people did NOT have. But the men pressed on and found their way.

Oh, and, yes, there's one more thing they didn't have: a magenta line. Magellan's Magenta Line was in his head and in the body of his experience and seamanship.

There hasn't been much said about Magellan's voyage lately, but much has been said about the magenta line. Before I say more I should admit that I love the magenta line, it's been of immeasurable help to me for years, and I'm glad the government is going to keep it and update it on ICW charts. But it always helps to keep things in perspective.

The magenta line that's received so much play in the boating press and among boating groups has never really been very reliable in the sense that it has given precise routes along which you'll never run aground. Those that think it has, or that it should, had best do their cruising along the interstate. But the magenta line has helped to quickly figure out which of many possible turns or creeks or rivers, so frequently branching off the main track, are the correct ones. Sure, you can figure it out with a little bit of studying of the chart and common seaman's sense, which we should do anyway. But when you're, for example, in the labyrinth of channels and marshes of parts of Georgia or South Carolina, it helps to have that magenta aid and it's save my backside many times.

I could never come close to doing what Magellan and his men did, but I like to remember. Because sometimes this makes my dragons a little less fierce.



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