The Impossible Voyage

Some remarkable adventurers have fallen under the radar. Take Lope Martín, for example.

Though the name may not be familiar, this formerly enslaved Afro-Portuguese navigator became the first person to find the critical route from the Americas to Asia and back. Imagine a 17,000-mile voyage at about 4 miles an hour. This was three months over and eight months back at the best of times in a large well equipped galleon. But Lope Martín made the trip in a rowboat. 

Between 1500 and the 1550s the Spanish and the Portuguese made repeated voyages to the New World from Europe across the Atlantic and to East Asia coming around Africa and past India. But no one had successfully transited the Pacific and back. It is the longest open ocean distance at 7,000 miles and was the final link in the Age of Discovery. The three thousand extra miles was due to it being a loop.

Columbus came to the Bahamas in 1492 as every school child knows. On three more voyages he came close to the mainland—but no cigar. This is funny because the Indians did give him actual cigars.

“Thanks for the cigars. Now hop aboard my ship; I have a summer job back in Spain for you.”

His outbound trip took 31 days and was 3,700 miles. He was short of India by 9,300 miles. Columbus was a notable explorer but as a navigator he was a bit of a wanker. Isn’t it weird that in the U.S. today we now have Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day on the-same-day. This is like celebrating Sharon Tate Day along with Charles Manson Day.

By 1494 the Portuguese and the Spanish were at each other’s necks as to who owned the world. Since they both had a common faith they appealed to the Pope and all parties signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. This divided the earth along a longitude shown on this map.

The Spanish thought they had pulled a fast one getting all of South America. But Brazil hadn’t been discovered yet and the best part of that area became Portuguese and that’s why they speak Portuguese today. The Pope was Alexander VI who was from Spain so  he was inclined to tilt the line in Spain’s favor (funny he was named for another explorer who wanted to own the world; give the man a cigar!)

The larger problem arose on the other side of the world and for many reasons that line was much more difficult to draw and it involved the Spice Islands and other groovy places. Imagine a time when you could just draw a line around the earth and yell MINE! The folks living in those areas were not consulted. Nor were the English and the Dutch. But everyone settled down and negotiated reasonably and had a great feast and lived in peace and harmony. Oh sorry, I feel asleep for a minute. No, everyone involved hated the each other and killed one another with abandon. At least now we have come to our senses and don’t do stupid thongs now.

Well maybe a few stupid things now and then.

A critical aspect to nailing down which country would end up with what territory was to nail down a maritime trade route from the Americas to Asia. But nails are hard to pound into the ocean and no less than five attempts by the Spanish were made to sail from Mexico and back. Most of the ships disappeared or the voyagers ended up in Portuguese prisons in the Philippines.

But in 1556 four ships were constructed in the secret ship yard at Navidad south of Puerto Vallarta. (I once saw Elizabeth Taylor getting out of her car in Puerto Vallarta in 1971). The flagship called the San Pedro was about 550 tons. The term ‘tons’ is the weight of the water displaced by the ship and is the traditional way to illustrate the vessel’s size. The second-largest ship, the San Pablo, was about 400 tons. The third, the San Juan, was just 80 tons. The smallest ship in the fleet, piloted by Lope Martín and called the San Lucas, was a mear 40 tons, basically a souped-up boat with merely eight barrels of water to cross the immense Pacific. It was 29 feet long, 11 feet wide and held a crew of 20. It was so small it could be rowed.

To give you a broader context, Columbus’s largest vessel during his 1492 voyage was about 100 tons and Magellan’s largest circumnavigation vessel was about 120 tons.

It was expected that the fleet would stay together and the San Lucas would be supplied from the larger ships but in the first two weeks the San Lucas lost the fleet in a storm and managed to sail to the Philippines solo. They stopped at islands for food and water but as they had little to trade they were not welcomed. One day a party went ashore to wash the crew’s cloths and the locals descended on them and they had hot-foot it and they lost most of their clothing. The made it to the Philippines and ended up sailing all the way up to Japan and crossing back to just below Alaska to North America with almost no food, little fresh water and nearly naked. They had no spare sails or spare anything and had to patch the sails with their few remaining clothes. Somehow they made it along the west coast but could not stop because the ships of the day could not sail against the onshore winds so they made it all the way back to Navidad with gums so swollen from scurvy that their teeth were useless to chew the few garbanzo beans they had left. This makes even a Carnival Covid Cruise look good.

You would think that sailors back them would eat a lot of fish but they were typically not fishermen plus they could have avoided scurvy by eating seaweed. And amazingly, few sailors could swim so if you went over that was it; and try turning a galleon around anyway. 

With this new understanding of the winds, the Pacific gyre, the Spanish were able to build huge galleons and send one each year from Mexico to the Orient trading gold and sliver (the Chinese valued silver over gold) for china, silks and spices.

Then they made the loop up north then south and finally unloaded in Mexico. There they piled the goods onto creaky oxcarts with solid wooden wheels and crossed the 600 miles to Veracruz, loaded the valuables on ships and sent them to Spain. It was wildly profitable and this trade route was maintained uninterrupted for 250 years.

People were tougher back then but most everyone died doing stuff like this so there’s that.

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3 Comments

  • “Isn’t it weird that in the U.S. today we now have Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day on the-same-day. This is like celebrating Sharon Tate Day along with Charles Manson Day.”

    With great insights like this above, Captain Jamis, you are developing a large and loyal fan base!

    WAG

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