The Youngest Navigator

In 1446 a 14-year-old page from the court of Prince Henry the Navigator was sent as purser on a caravel to explore the African coast. Airas Tinoco shadowed the navigator on the voyage south. When they reached the Gambia River, the officers and crew went exploring in longboats. They were arracked by Africans shooting poisoned arrows, which killed them all. Only four teen-age boys were left on the caravel. Airas took charge and safely navigated the caravel back to Portugal. The story is based on an actual incident from the Portuguese Chronicles.

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Chapter 1: Lagos, Portugal

Live in a palace? Me?

Airas’s thoughts tumbled around in his head, as muddled as the crowd of jubilant men milling around him. He had just watched Prince Henry reward his father with a small leather pouch that clinked as it changed hands. Airas knew the sound of coins, and surely his father deserved them. After all, hadn’t he designed and supervised the building of the splendid new caravel now anchored just offshore? Airas had watched for weeks as the ship took shape on the stocks in their patron’s shipyard.

Prince Henry, usually so serious, came ashore beaming after the first trial run. “This vessel is faster than any I have ever seen,” he told Airas’s father—no small boast, for Lagos on the south coast of Portugal was a supply stop for all ships of every nation that traveled to and from the Mediterranean.

“This is exactly what I wanted, Tinoco. Shallow draft that can pass over reefs and shoals. The lateen rigging is perfect—I’ve never seen a vessel run so close-hauled into the wind. A proper exploring ship. You’ve done a splendid job!”

The carpenters and cord-makers and metal-workers in the shipyard cheered. Airas too yelled with joy at his father’s success. Later Airas saw the Prince pause, before he finally left the yard, looking around as though there was something more he should do to reward the ingenious shipwright. Suddenly he felt the prince’s eyes on him. He heard him say, “Who is this lad whom I have seen shadowing the carpenters, eagerly handing them their tools?”

“That’s my youngest son, Airas,” his father answered.

The Prince’s next words were a thunderbolt. “Why don’t I take this bright lad back to Sagres with me? He can serve me as a page—be instructed in the manly arts. Learn to read, if he wishes.”

Luis Tinoco didn’t hesitate an instant. “Run home quickly,” he told his son. “Tell your mother to make a bundle of your clothes. Tell her you are going with Prince Henry to Sagres to live in his palace.”

Airas obeyed his father, as he always did, but his mind was racing as he ran. Leave his family? Live in a palace? He had never even seen a palace. What would it be like?

When her husband’s instruction was repeated to Airas’s mother, her mouth opened in dismay. “Go to Sagres with Prince Henry? But Airas, you are only nine years old,” she protested.

The boy hunched his shoulders and shook his head, as astonished as she. “Prince Henry says I can be a page,” he answered, although he didn’t have any idea what a page was. “Father thinks it a splendid opportunity. Hurry, Mother. The Prince is waiting.”

He ran back to the shipyard with his small bundle, and before he knew it, was swung up onto the rump of a horse by Prince Henry’s equerry. He had never been on a horse before, and slid tight against the rider’s back, grasping his belt. The man’s back was too broad to see around, and even if it weren’t, they rode directly into a blinding sun, slowly descending toward the western horizon. So as they trotted off, Airas turned his head to watch his father’s shipyard recede behind him.