'Our Lady, Protectress of Sailors.'
by Joe Aston
Nuestra Sra da Nazare
Did Nossa Senhora da Nazaré save me and my crew, Anna and Ger, from drowning in the Bay of Biscay?
One cannot know these things, but it feels to me that she may well have done so!
In 1998, after 26 years as a fisherman on the west coast of Ireland, I turned into a whale-watching sailing skipper, having exchanged my fishing boat for a wooden schooner, the 'Anna M'. By 2011, it was time for both the boat and myself to take our retirement. My wife, Fiona, and I made a sailing pilgrimage to Rome, and then tried to sell the boat in the south of Portugal.
A leaky 50 year-old wooden boat is hard to sell! Fortunately, we found a safe spot on the Río Guadiana, which is the frontier between the Algarve and Andalucía, where we could keep the boat cheaply for the winter. Twice I sailed the boat home to Horseshoe Bay on Sherkin Island for the summer, but the third time last spring was different. I call that run Sailing the ‘Gannetsway’.
Sailing north up the Portuguese coast, things were going well as I followed my desire, sailing happily homewards, but I was worried. The electric bilge pump had too much work to do, although I had made three attempts to cure the leaks by caulking from the outside. I do make a few prayers to Our Lady for guidance on such occasions!
Finally, as we passed the Ilhas Berlingas, I made the decision to put her on the concrete in Nazaré in order to thoroughly investigate the leaks.
This involved, as a start, taking the engine out. I had to get help, and found it, from an Englishman named Alec Lammas, who sailed there four years ago and has been working away at boats there ever since. The more we delved, the more damage we found. Although the mahogany planks were in the main very good, the moulded oak ribs that held them together had sustained many cracks and fractures. Alec, joined by Stephan from Germany, ripped out the panelling and cabin furniture. More and more fractured ribs were revealed. We all agreed that one more Biscay gale would have almost certainly sent her to the bottom.
Under those circumstances, I had a choice of letting that beautiful 50 year-old boat die, or of setting about restoring her. This we are doing.
I had no idea of the story of the Madonna on the Hill in Nazaré until I went there. Attending Sunday Mass in her Sanctuario has been a great consolation. The liturgy is done beautifully and when the sun shines in on the all the gilt of the sanctuary, the effect is stunning, although one wonders if she would not be more at home in a simpler setting. It would indeed be interesting to see the statue without all the finery. It would also be good to see a model of Vasco da Gama’s ship hanging there, but therein of course lies a problem. All that gold did not come to Portugal in an entirely innocent manner! We can nonetheless assert the human achievement of those sailors who laid the foundations of the modern world, our world itself, for all its faults. With due humility and repentance for our sins, let us re-assert the greatness of our European legacy!
Perched above the extraordinary Atlantic breakers that roll in about the base of the cliffs, ‘Our Lady Protectress of Sailors’ could not have a more appropriate berth! If the sensational story outlined above, about the Madonna’s journey from Nazareth, is true, the world should hear a lot more about it. Personally, I feel sure that she had my safety in hand, just as she had that of Dom Fuas Roupinho; perhaps this is the only kind of proof we need!