The Juan Sebastián de Elcano holds a special place in my heart. I’d encountered it on two special ocasions in my youth, so when I heard it would be in town for OpSail 2012, the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, I knew I had to visit it. It was the first time I ever boarded it, and I made careful note of the fact that, although I have not yet been to Spain this year, once aboard it I was on ¨Spanish soil¨.
The first time I saw the Elcano was during the first OpSail – Operation Sail 1976 – for the Bicentennial of the United States. I was in grammar school at the time, but I will never forget seeing the ships from the terrace of our 16th floor apartment in Riverdale. We had a completely unobstructed view of the Hudson and some form of a guide to the order of the sailing ships coming up the river. I think it was a newspaper. It was a beautiful and hot day, and although I don’t remember what food my parents served our friends who had come to see the flotilla, I’m sure it was my mother’s best attempt as something “American”. When the Elcano came into view my mother was beaming with pride, talking a mile a minute and proud of the fact that she could see it from her new home in America. That day the Elcano became a mystic and majestic creature to me.
The second time I encountered the Elcano was as a teenager in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had gone on vacation to visit the family there, and while on the beach saw some sailors approaching. Although most were in their bathing suits, a couple still had their hats on. As they walked in our direction we heard clearly from their accents that they were Spaniards. And as they got closer the word “Elcano” show on the ribbon on their little white caps. My mother, of course, struck up a conversation with them commenting that they were so far from home. The sailors laughed and moved on to another spot on the sand. I spent much of the afternoon watching them (I was a teenager after all) and caught a funny exchange between them and a couple of local boys. A few of the sailors, who were quite fit, had spotted some coconuts on a palm tree a few feet away and decided to try to reach them. One after another they tried to climb the “palmera” but did not get far enough to reach a “coco“. Then a few of the local boys, roughly around the same age, took on the challenge and showed them up. Despite climbing the tree well, the Spanish boys never quite got there. But the Puerto Rican boys who probably grew up on the beach easily and quickly climbed the “palmera” and knocked off some coconuts for the sailors. It started and ended amicably. I filed that memory away until now.
It was a wonderful experience being able to finally board the ship on Memorial Day. From July 4, 1976 until Memorial Day 2012… 36 years had passed since I first saw or heard of the vessel. But I finally got to see it first hand, and reflected on the history of the man after whom it was named. Juan Sebastián de Elcano was one of Fernando Magallenes´ (that’s Ferdinand Magellan to those of us who studied history in the USA) officers on the voyage in which Magallanes has set out to circumnavigate the globe at the behest of the Emperador Carlos I (or Charles V depending on your perspective). Magallanes never made it, but Elcano was able to sail back to España on the Victoria, the one remaining ship of the five that had first set out. He was awarded a noble title and a coat of arms bearing the globe and the words Primus circumdedisti me, or ¨you were the first to circumnavigate me¨. These same words are found in several places on the ship.
It is worth noting that in addition to seeing the Juan Sebastián de Elcano, we were able to see several other ships at the Brooklyn Piers, including the Shirane of Japan, the Belle Poule and Étoile of France, and my favorite (other than the Elcano) the Cuauhtémoc of México. My oldest daughter had the added good fortune of boarding the Guayas of Ecuador while attending an event at the Intrepid in Manhattan, as a guest of some really special and wonderful friends. If you are ever fortunate enough to be able to attend or view an OpSail event, it is really worth doing it. It is a wonderful learning opportunity for the whole family, and seeing and especially visiting a ship, particularly a foreign ship, will put a lot of what your children learn in school into perspective.
I am happy and proud to have been able to take my daughters to see the Elcano, and am pleased to be able to share my memories with them now.