May 1865: The voyage to Brazil
(An excerpt from Dear Dairy)
Part 1 of 2
The shriek of splintering wood shattered the afternoon stillness. The passengers and crew of the Bella Flor felt the deck shudder momentarily under their feet before the vessel settled back to a passive rolling with the Atlantic’s swells. Smoke continued to pour from the steamship’s stacks, but the paddle wheels were motionless and so essentially was the Bella Flor. Passengers were making the sign of the cross and some of the women began to weep.
António Gabriel “Mestre” Francisco turned to his wife Diolinda.
“Now they’ll have to listen to me,” he told her.
Diolinda squeezed his hand.
“I pray that they will,” she said. “The children and I will go below and say the rosary.”
“Mãe!” protested ten-year-old Candido Paulo, their eldest child. He didn’t want to squeeze back into their lower-deck cabin with his mother and his three siblings, but his mother was firm as she herded her brood toward the narrow stairs that would take them below decks.
António went looking for a crew member.
The captain and the executive officer of the Bella Flor were conferring on the bridge when a deckhand appeared.
“Message for the captain, sir!” he said.
“Yes?” said the captain.
“It’s another message from the passenger named Francisco, sir. He’s volunteering his services again, sir.”
“‘Again’?” echoed the captain. “He’s done this before?”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” said the executive officer. “This passenger claims to be a skilled craftsman and has been putting himself forward since the initial incident. He’s just an islander we picked up during our stop in the Azores. I informed him that the crew would handle the matter and thanked him for his concern. It didn’t seem necessary to bring it to your attention, sir.”
“Ordinarily I would say you did the right thing, Number One,” said the captain. “Unfortunately, however, it appears that the crew is not handling the matter.”
The captain turned back to the deckhand.
“Please fetch this man-did you say ‘Francisco’?-fetch Senhor Francisco to the bridge. I wish to confer with our soi-disant skilled craftsman. Let’s see if he is what he says. The Lord knows we need one right now.”
The crewman led António Francisco onto the bridge.
“Sir! Here is Senhor Francisco.”
“Thank you,” said the captain. “You may go.”
He regarded his passenger, a wiry man in his mid-thirties with dark wavy hair and dark eyes. The executive officer had said that Francisco was an Azorean, and he looked the part.
António Francisco looked back at the captain, bemused by the uniform that sported as much elaborate tailoring as would suit the admiral of a fleet. He kept his face expressionless. Perhaps the outfit was not the captain’s fault. Perhaps the shipping company that owned the Bella Flor thought to impress their passengers with comic-opera uniforms for their senior officers.
“Senhor Francisco,” said the captain, “I regret to share with you the information that our vessel is in difficulty. Since you have repeatedly volunteered to help us resolve the problem, I presume you have discerned the difficulty for yourself.”
“Yes, capitão,” António replied. “We have been adrift for ten days now. All of us heard the noise of the accident. The same noise followed the repairs. We heard much splintering of wood, no? I think maybe you have wooden gears with many broken teeth in your drive train, yes?”
“You judge correctly, Senhor Francisco. Furthermore, ship’s stores are able to supply material sufficient for only one more repair effort. As you may appreciate, splintered wood is impossible to salvage and the next attempt must succeed. Either that, or we are adrift until good fortune miraculously brings another vessel alongside to rescue us. We are already overdue at Rio de Janeiro, but we cannot expect anyone to be actively looking for us yet. What gives you the confidence to put yourself forward as someone who can repair our vessel? Are you some kind of nautical engineer?”
“No, sir,” replied António, “but I know materials and machinery-especially wood. I am known on Terceira as ‘mestre‘ or ‘master’ for my skills, which I am putting at your service.”
“Very well, Mestre Francisco,” said the captain. “I will have you shown to the paddle wheels, where you will have full access to their enclosure, including the gears, drive train, and the paddle wheels themselves. My executive officer will escort you. The XO will report back to me with your plans, however, before you are to do anything, which is contingent on my prior approval. Is that understood?”
António gave the captain a small bow.
“Yes, capitão. You are most generous, senhor. I will discuss matters with your executive officer and will wait for your command.”
The captain turned to his executive officer.
“Take him below, Number One.”