September 7, 1969.
An overcast afternoon with choppy seas. It’s Steamer Day and an intense tidal smell fills the air.
The wharf is packed with people embarking or disembarking, and expecting something to happen… And
there are also many cattle awaiting their turn to be loaded onto the Lima, bound for slaughterhouses
This young and free-spirited boy is going on a trip for the first time. I’m leaving my childhood
home and, clutching my mother’s hand, I head for the departures pier. With trepidation I descend the
green stairs and jump across onto gangway of the Espírito Santo, a double-masted ferry with white-
painted hull and superstructure. Hampers and baskets covered with white towels emit the perfume of ripe
fruit: plums, grapes, pears and figs… After loading the cargo-hold with roofing tiles they batten down the
hatches, and then a piano is hoisted on board, perking up the curiosity of those on the dock.
Seagulls fly overhead and I see the thunderous crash of waves against the rocks… I feel the cold
in my face and the damp taste of salt spray in my mouth.
“We’re going to have high waves… Waves demanding respected,” an old salt decrees.
With a bang the engine starts and the Espírito Santo shudders… On the bridge Captain Ezequiel,
a tough and experienced sailor from Pico island, studies the rhythms of the sea, mentally counting large
and small waves while ordering the sailor on the dock:
“Ready the stern line!”
Captain Ezequiel decides: taking advantage of a spell of small waves, he begins maneuvers. He
shouts to his bosun and engineer:
“Cast off forward! Slow astern! Stop engine! Let go aft! Slow ahead! To the bow!”
And off we go, rocking in the choppy water. A whiff of diesel fuel starts to turn my stomach…
The Espírito Santo blasts her horn three times and heads toward waves that roll up in close
succession. The boat scarily pitches fore and aft, and rolls from port to starboard and starboard to port. An
abyss opens at her bow and the Espírito Santo plunges in, then quickly rises.
We pass the Lima, beside which the Espírito Santo is a veritable walnut shell… The squat and
heavily-laden ship is there, dressed with bunting on the port side. I look at the shadow of her hull
phantasmagorically reflected in the sea. I’m frightened by the spurts of foamy ballast and cooling water
that pour out of several pipes on her black-sided hull… I admire the back of the smokestack and observe
that the steamer is far taller than the church bell tower in the village where I was born…
My island is slipping farther and farther away, until it disappears in the distance…
On board accommodations are more than rudimentary. There is a communal salon that seats
most of the passengers on transverse, sticky, wood benches… Aft, more rows of benches, occupied only
when the sea is calm; fore, a snack bar where sandwiches, crackers, lollipops and beer can be bought…
There are square windows in a row on each side of the communal room, with shriveled and
shivering passengers overwhelmed by the journey. Some pretend to be unconcerned. But not my mother,
who hugs me and prays softly… We’re lying on the hard benches… There’s a suffocating warmth, a warm
breath, a smell of sweat and paint that make my stomach churn… I glance impatiently at the lookouts and
see massive foaming waves crashing on the boat. And I feel the beating of the waves on the side, and the
creaking of the hull… Beside me a soldier curses a plague on every jostle of the boat. In front of me an old
woman with a shawl over her head moans “Oh Jesus” from time to time. Beside her a young girl
nervously bites her fingernails. There’s one woman eating oranges, another cursing her luck. There’s a
priest struggling to read a newspaper, and alongside him a public official suffering the agonies of nausea.
(He threw up into some hourglass-shaped tin cans).
The wind has shifted to the northwest and a rough storm batters us. The waves roll against the
side of the boat, the bow, the top rail… A high ome tosses the Espírito Santo’s bow into the air, then dips
it into large holes of water dug by the pounding wind. The engine loses power and idles in the larger
waves. I see only sheets of foam, drops of foam. We are in Captain Ezekiel’s experienced and expert
hands. The propeller’s deafening motion shakes the windows. I don’t take my eyes off the sea. The waves
wash past the stern and everything seems terrifying and enervating!
The crew have no hands available to help individual people: they are continually and
continuously pouring the contents of the aluminum cans into the sea… At the railing they pour, wash, then
bring back the cursed cans. A sour, nauseating smell hovers here… I’m turning green, but don’t throw
Outside, the rain falls thick as mooring lines and we hear the rush of wind whistling on the masts
A crew member comes to inform us that there are four cabins available (each with two bunk
beds). I tell my mother I want to go lie down there. My head is dizzy and my body disoriented from the
boat’s risings and fallings… I can’t fall asleep. (The bunks were made of padded boards that smelled of
grime and vomit…).
…Time passes at a snail’s pace…
And we continue, wobbly, facing the fury of the waves.
After seven hours of torment we reach Angra Bay’s calm waters. During mooring maneuvers at
Porto das Pipas I can’t contain so much emotion: I lean over the rail and vomit…
“There you go, baiting the sea,” Captain Ezekiel quips.
The translator gratefully acknowledges the review of her translation of this crónica by J. Dabney Jordan
of Maine and retired salvage ship Captain Mike Smith of Wales.
Originally published as “O Espírito Santo ou as agonias do enjoo” at: