The two ships on the left are caravels, the one on the right is a nau. Image credit: “Ships from da Gama’s 2th voyage 1502″ by D. Jorge de Sousa (?) – Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
We visited Lisbon for a week this summer. I loved it. The bright southern Iberian light, the azulejos (blue tiles) on the buildings, the clattering trams and winding streets. But of all the things that captured my imagination, the one that surprised me the most was the Museu de Marinha, the Museum of Maritime History. In particular, I became fascinated with the caravel, a Portuguese sailing boat, developed in the 15th century.
Caravel. It’s a gem of a word. To me it suggests grace and elegance. These small, lightweight boats were prized for their speed and manoeuvrability. Galleons were fighters and naus were cargo ships, but caravels were explorers and scouts. The Portuguese mastered the art of sailing caravels into the wind so that even with opposing gusts, they could still make headway in their chosen direction.
And how did they choose their directions? What did those sailors, those first adventurers use for guidance? I’m pretty sure they didn’t have GPS. Reliable measurements of longitude were still a few centuries way. Maps? Not really. They were the mapmakers, defining and drawing the boundaries of a world that had only recently ceased being flat. What did they have? Stars, wind, each other, faith and courage.
Look what they did: On Vasco da Gama’s 1497-1499 voyage from Lisbon around the horn of Africa to Calcutta and back, they established the first sea-route to India, destabilizing the old world order. They started the ‘Age of Discovery,’ whose spirit still propels many of our innovations and global connections. With ports along the African coast, in India, and deeper into Asia and South America on further voyages, Portugal became a world power. Granted, these explorations were also fuelled by greed and ambition, rival monarchies grasping after spices and slaves. As well, there remain legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and other ‘ism’s that haven’t always showcased the best possible behaviour of humans towards one another.
Still, I’m drawn to those who actually boarded and sailed the boats. Despite the harsh conditions and vast unknown, there must have been moments when the sheer thrill of the possible made those sailors whoop with joy. I’d like to think so. Adventure bewitches me. This is probably why I live in a different country from where I grew up and why I have a habit of turning pay-checks into plane-tickets faster than I can pack my bags. The desire to see more of this world than a known set of boundaries has always been a driving force behind so many of my own decisions.
Yesterday was the initial meeting of Writing Circles, a writing programme I’ve spent the last year dreaming into existence and the last few months getting ready to set sail.
After we settled in with teas and coffees and introductions, we got busy with the first burst of free-writing. I looked up and saw 8 open notebooks, being filled with possibilities as I filled the middle of the writing table with prompts. A little later, we went outside to collect sounds with our pens. I recorded footsteps tapping on cement, shuffling through fallen leaves, crunching across gravel. The footsteps faded as the writers wandered through the glebe towards the church. I waited on a wooden bench in the company of a drunken bumblebee, who buzzed the praises of late summer blooms. Footsteps and voices grew louder again as they returned. Back in the hall, the community room rang with people speaking and listening as they gave voice to some of their fledgling writing ideas.
Watching the group come together, I thought again of Vasco da Gama’s crew and fleet. We, too, are sailing forth. We are on a six-week journey to lands unknown, charting and mapping the paths of stories as yet untold, weathering the storms that toss our caravel or taking refuge in the calms that lull it. With the wind and high spirits to guide us, we have begun our own voyages of discovery.
‘We will sail pathless and wild seas
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.
Allons! With power, liberty, the earth, the elements!
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
– Walt Whitman, from Song of the Open Road