The Venetian nobleman Pietro Querini decided to travel to the Low Countries in search of honour and richness. He prepared the “Cocca Veneziana”, a ship with a tonnage of 700 tons made of cypress and, after loading it with Malvasia wine, spices, cotton and other valuable goods, he departed from Candia (Crete) with a 68-man crew on 25 April 1431.
The journey was marked by an occurrence even before it started, and many misadventures took place afterwards, too. Five days before the departure, Querini’s oldest son died suddenly. As soon as the ship left the port it was blown by contrasting winds and had to travel round most of the North African coast. On 2 June the ship crashed against some hidden rocks near Cadiz port, breaking the rudder. The crew had to wait 25 days for it to be repaired.
The whole journey was devastated by various accidents caused by stormy seas and strong winds: firstly the caravel, blown by the north-east wind, travelled for 45 days around the Canary Islands, then the strength of the wind again broke the rudder bolts, which had to be repaired as best as possible until Lisbon was reached.
The ship left for Mores (today called Muros) and arrived on 26 October. From there it continued towards Cape Finisterre where, blown by a favourable south-western wind, it navigated for 200 miles to starboard. On 5 February, however, a strong sirocco took the ship and its crew off course until they reached Las Sorlingas (the Scilly Isles). The strength of the wind and the stormy sea broke the rudder again, and the sails too. The caravel, which had become uncontrollable, kept moving further from land.
The power of the sea also destroyed two emergency rudders made by on-board carpenters, and the extra sail. The caravel, with no rudder and no sails, began drifting as commanded by the stormy sea. On 7 December, the waves overwhelmed the boat, taking away its framework and the essential steering equipment. The captain therefore decided to use the lifeboats, even if the closest piece of land (Ireland) was 700 miles away.
Twenty-one sailors boarded the smaller lifeboat, while another 47 sailors and Querini boarded the bigger one.
Nothing more is known about the 21 sailors in the small boat, but after many adventures at the hands of a rough sea the big lifeboat reached a deserted island. Many of the crew had died during the journey because of lack of water and food. During the night the lifeboat, pushed by the waves, crashed against the rocks. The survivors, exhausted, could quench their thirst with the abundant snow that covered the island, but in spite of this another five died during the night. The remaining crew ate the few molluscs and limpets that they found on the beach, being too weak to even try and fish. The next morning they were given new hope: while inspecting the island (with great difficulty), they found a wooden hut where they could shelter. The hut was proof that there were other inhabitants nearby. They also found a large fish that had been washed up on the shore, so they used it to keep their hunger at bay for a period.
A few days later they were found by three fishermen (a father and his two sons) from the nearby island of Rost, who saw smoke coming from the hut while they were close to the area in their boat.
This is how the remaining survivors (nine with Querini) were saved.
The Italians stayed on the island for three and a half months as guests of the families.
Querini tells us that 120 people lived on the island, and that the men fished. No fruits grew there, so fishing was their only sustenance. He indicated that for three months a year (summer) it is always day while during the winter months it is always dark. “Two types of fish are caught in big quantities: stockfish (cod) and dabs or very big soles. The stockfish are dried in the wind and sun, and they become hard as wood. When it is time to eat them, they are hit with the back of an axe until they become so thin that they seem to be gristle. The people then prepare them with butter and spices.”
That sad adventure (but with its happy ending for the survivors), was a useful experience for Querini, who came to know stockfish and introduced it to Venice (it could be conserved, therefore it was ideal for long sea voyages), and also for the inhabitants of Rost, who increased their business.
The descendents of those fishermen learned about the story of the island and the inhabitants of that period, as well as their customs and habits, thanks to the Venetian nobleman’s diary.
Querini has become a personality, so much so that a remembrance stone has been erected on the island of Sandoya, where it is presumed he landed, and the Rost school carries his name.
Rumours have it that the Italians left a lot of “reminders” behind while they remained on the island. Maybe it’s pure fantasy…but a lot of people from Rost have black hair!