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Speckled about the steep slopes are clumps of small, fieldstone cottages. Their crumbling mortar and aging stones are victim to the ravages of time. Sprawling green meadows, vivid and fertile lay terraced and latticed-worked with pastel pinks and blues of the prolific hydrangeas which form hedgerows and borders.

Throughout the town streets are narrow, they dart willy-nilly between tall houses.  The hooves of a horse resound as it gently picks its way over dark cobblestones  polished to a sheen by countless feet before. Upon its weary back and mounted side-saddle an old man journeys.

Although late summer the air is already crisp as it transports and mingles the salty tang of sea and other heady aromas that give a hint to the freshly made cheese and bread still browning in the ovens. This, somehow, remains commonplace to the people of the Azores.

Huddled together in the Atlantic Ocean, isolated, some seven-hundred and sixty nautical miles south-west of Lisbon lies Portugal’s fascinating volcanic island group. 

These nine islands are believed by some to be the remains of the legendary Atlantis.

 

This archipelago is, however, a veritable bastion of old-world European-style architecture, customs and charm. As though time has passed them by, the Azoreans maintain a lifestyle similar to that of their ancestors in centuries bygone.

Because of its geographic location, the island of Faial is a popular crossroads for Atlantic voyagers; a place to rest, undertake repairs and provision with food, fuel,  wine and water.

The colourful and bustling port of Horta was a welcome landfall on my first trans-Atlantic crossing by sailboat. It was there where I first came to hear of Orthon Silviera.

The neat little row-house where Orthon lived is near a mile from town. The main entrance to his workshop is down through a small trapdoor in the middle of the hallway floor. The place is a jumble of tools, books, whalebone and ham radio equipment. Standing room is limited to maybe three people—small people, although it’s common to see a dozen or more shoehorned in together.

Orthon obviously loves having people around him, the very nature of the artist graces him with a keen insight into people and he is more than astute at judging their character.

Hunched over a scarred wooden desk in a corner, cramped and cluttered, sits Orthon.  The mute glow of a sole, dusty lamp causes one to squint. I watched silently as he plied his talent.The rare and almost extinct art of scrimshaw.

The Art of Scrimshaw Scrimshaw Etching scaled

Image for illustrative purposes only

Hardened and weather-beaten men with their hands tough and split, match the long, wooden shafts of their lethal harpoons. Almost forgotten now are those whalers of yore who, sometimes at sea for years at a stretch, brought scrimshawing into an art form. Those cheery huntsmen whilst in search of the whale   would scrape, sand, scribe and polish an ivory whale tooth into a masterpiece.

scrimshaw

Scrimshaw from Chaucer's Collection

I watched Orthon with great fascination. In an area before him among the clutter sat an ivory tooth, already buffed with sandpaper; about six inches in length, this curved cuspid had once belonged to the now protected great sperm whale.

Orthon’s working tool, a needle-like instrument of scalpel keenness, began deftly scribing. The white tooth was first blackened with India ink. Minute scratches from the tool begin to appear; depicted is a mast, some rigging and then a hull. Details of sails, waves and whales are born in a myriad of tiny white etches. Blackened once more, the tooth is then polished, leaving behind a work of scrimshaw art.

 

Video from David Adams Artworks

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. his doorbell rings, people arrive. ”Be careful of the hole!” he warns as his head pops up through the middle of the hallway floor. Some folk will simply visit and pay their respects, while others mill around waiting to buy a carving or to ask questions. Patiently the man tends to all as he continues to etch his work onto an ivory medallion or tooth.

 

Horta is a busied little port with various sized fishing craft, ferries and island traders coming and going. They refuel, load and unload. Often, it is safe refuge for those needing urgent repairs.

Horta sights 525x295

Many of the working craft look rather dubious as they are badly scraped and chafed.  By way of design they are completely open to the ravages of nature. One such trader rides ominously low in the water. Oddly perched atop sacks of grain is its cargo; an automobile awaiting its new destination.

Overlooking the harbour, enjoying a commanding view of Mt. Pico’s 5000 foot peak, is Peter’s Cafe Sport. Peter’s is where all visiting sailors meet, they exchange stories,  drink beer and eat sandwiches. It is also where one must obtain a permit to purchase fuel. Known as the ”sailors friend”, Peter, a rather slightly-proportioned man in his mid-fifties, sports a smooth and youthful face, with eyes that radiate enthusiasm.

 
Peter holds forwarded mail for the yachtsman, acts as banker with a good rate of exchange and sells various souvenirs and fine scrimshaw. Above the cafe Peter has built a private museum which displays, rather elegantly, his collection of magnificent carvings and scrimshaw art. These artefacts have been fashioned and worked into masterpieces by inhabitants from local and surrounding islands. A visit to Faial would be wasted without seeing the museum. It may well be the largest of its kind; it is said to have a value in excess of one million dollars, much more in today’s money.
A short stroll around the harbour is guaranteed to stir an interest in anyone. Depending upon the time of day or night, one can watch the fishermen preparing their nets, nimbly baiting thousands of hooks or hoisting ashore their hard earned catch. 
Further on, tied to dock walls and anchored off, are the boats of visiting sailors.   Some of those splendid craft are a hundred feet long, with teak decks, brass fittings and lavish interiors fit for royalty. The full-time crew members of those yachts can be seen in their personalised uniforms, obediently scrubbing teak, buffing the brass-work and otherwise catering to their often seen to be demanding owners. 

 
Conversely, only a few feet away and beyond, hitched to the same dock, will be at least one and often more seemingly untidy-looking craft.  A closer inspection reveals broken rigging, split masts and shredded sailcloth; the debilitating wounds of Neptune's wrath. 
It is here on this side of the harbour in particular, where Orthon is well-known.  To the yachtsmen of the larger, and well-fitted vessels, Orthon is renowned for his fine scrimshaw. This artist, for a reasonable price, will carve and etch a facsimile of your yacht onto a whale’s tooth. Often these artefacts end up as curios adorning some mantelpiece in a far-off land. 

 
 
Travelling our vast oceans are many small craft carrying a lone mariner or two. These brave adventurers sail great distances on their boats; their affinity for this kind of lifestyle, all too often, is rarely based upon solid financial planning. Diet for these folk largely depends on fish caught and all boat repairs are effected with materials on hand, which of course, is rather limited far out at sea. Those dedicated souls frequently arrive in port with no working motor,  broken masts and twisted rigging, little food and usually fund-less.   
Should the harbour be Horta and their plight genuine, they are fortunate, because sooner or later they will come to know Orthon. 
 
 
Already I had knowledge from personal observation of the assistance Orthon had made available to an older Swedish sailor. The Swede’s battered yacht was found early one morning, wallowing helplessly, not far off the harbour entrance, all sails were tattered and hanging limp; he was  becalmed.  A fishing boat returning to port took a line and delivered him to safety.  A seized engine, shattered mast, the rudder gone and no money placed this poor fellow in dire straits indeed. A good  Samaritan provided for the essential repairs; the Swede will make it home.    

photo for illustrative purposes  only

That good Samaritan was Orthon. 
I read a few letters at random from the reams he has tucked away in folders. Each of them was of a very personal  nature,  mailed  from all corners of the world. Most  letters  proclaimed  their author’s heart-felt thanks for aid received  from Orthon.   Many a yachtsman, down on his luck, owes the homeward  passage to Orthon Silviera. 
 
Portugal’s entrance to the European common market was drawing near and as  whaling is now prohibited  amongst members, the  once-small whaling industry  of the Azores has, over recent decades, ceased to exist and the previously ample source of whales’ teeth has all but vanished. Currently, the only supply comes from local  fishermen who, on occasion, encounter dead whales, either beached or floating at sea. Orthon has already begun  transferring  his  talents towards jewellery making.  Having met the man and watched him work, I  suspect his craftsmanship in that field will be commensurate to his scrimshawing expertise. 
 
Not often enough in this turbulent world do we find people of Mr. Silviera’s calibre.   Whether a yachtsman or not,  if you are planning a trip to the Azores, be sure to include Faial. However, Orthon Silviera is no longer. Perhaps his little house will have a plaque on the front door. As my sailing adventures of grand calibre are now over I will never know how he has been remembered.
 

RIP Orthon.
Chaucer
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