Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Falkland Islands

I remember when we were living in Brooklyn and planning our trip. We bought a dry erase world map and mounted it on the wall of our room. We spent evenings on the couch opposite with all our sailing books and mapped out the routes we would take, and in which months, to make it around South America in one year. As a joke, after Cape Horn, I drew a squiggly line and wrote, who cares? We were leaving the second half open to possibility. Would we want to go back to NY at that point or would we be game for more? On to Europe? The Cape of Good Hope? Would we be ruined for normal life, or would we miss it?

All of the sudden we found ourselves there. At the squiggly line, but without a hint of the joke's intended nonchalance. We certainly did care. We wanted to get back to New York before the hurricane season hit the Caribbean. We did miss normal life, our friends, families, even our careers. I started to realize that in order to make it to NYC by August 1, we had to cover the amount of miles in four months that we had covered in 6 on the way down. We would have to do longer passages- The Falklands to Brazil 1900nm, Recife, Brazil to The Barbados 2000nm. As we waited in Puerto Williams, checking the wind for our passage to The Falklands and debating all the intricacies involved, I wondered if we had the endurance for such offshore passages in quick succession. It became clear to me that circumnavigating South America in one year is a matter of keeping pace and having the endurance for the constant work it is to maintain the boat, be aware of the weather, not make mistakes anchoring or choosing a window wherein to leave, and accruing knowledge about new areas just as quickly as your mind was packing away the knowledge of whatever geography was fading astern. All of the South American coast- the weather patterns, the high and low systems, the anchorages, yacht clubs, where to get fuel/water, the dramatic tides and currents, the endless provisioning in remote places. All in one year. Were we crazy? Were we missing out on what happens when you slow down?

These were the topics of our conversations in Puerto Williams. We had to come to terms with what such a commitment required from us in the coming months. We reminded ourselves that we could always return to this life in the future if we wanted, or never sail again. If we did decide to cruise again, we would know so much, be so informed in our decision making. However, as much as Cape Horn felt like an end to something, we were still 7000nm from NY and had to get moving. It was time to focus on intricacies of The Falklands passage.

What we learned was that the weather is fickle and changes quickly. Though it is a mere 400nm passage, it requires patience and planning. The low pressure systems that ravage Cape Horn, tend to turn the corner and work their way to The Falklands, making it a notoriously windy place. Sometimes these systems die down considerably, or move out to sea. When they hit, however, they are serious. These systems shift, intensify or diminish with such speed that it is hard to find a perfect window. After a few days of watching, we noticed a large system develop on Windy TV, coming up from the horn with winds of 50-60, and then saw that there were moderate SW winds forecast for 2-3 days after it passed. These winds would help us make swift progress to The Falklands. We decided to leave Puerto Williams and move east towards the exit to the Beagle Channel and wait out the weather in an anchorage on Isla Picton called Caleta Banner. This would get us 25nm closer which felt advantageous. With the Beagle Channel visible from our anchorage, we could watch the system die down and leave right after. We dropped anchor in front of an Armada station and let them know our plans. For 36hrs we hung out inside the boat cleaning, working on projects, playing cards, and listening to the wind outside, which tore across the bay with intensifying force shaking our boat to her core. The local fishermen brought over some delicious crab, the barnacle encrusted Centollita, and we had a great dinner. In the morning it looked like the weather had cleared and we moved into the Beagle Channel to begin our passage.

One difficulty of the passage to The Falklands from the Beagle Channel is deciding what to do about the Lemaire straits, a narrow passage between the eastern tip of the South American continent and a craggy island called Staten Island, or Isla de los Estados. We decided not to go through the Lemaire Straits, and to go around Isla de los Estados. To time the straits correctly would have meant waiting for most of the day, and losing the SW wind for the offshore passage. We also read in Jimmy Cornell's book that it was fine to go outside Staten Island. The other sailors in Puerto Williams offered differing opinions, suggesting that the seas outside can build to considerable heights and that strange currents affect the island. To go through the Straits means that, with perfect timing, one can escape the standing waves that build up during the ebb tide. So we went outside, and in the end, I think it was a mistake.

The first day went well and we made exceptional time in the SW winds. They were sustained at 20-30 and we kept very little sail up. We were sure the weather would subside by the next morning and that we were experiencing the worst of it. The opposite happened, and the next morning found us totally worn out, cold, and facing building seas, intensifying wind gusts, and strange currents. We had given Staten Island a 50 mile berth, so I can not say with any certainty that that was the cause of the trouble, but whatever it was, we were pretty uncomfortable. By afternoon we were surrounded by the infamous graybeards of the southern ocean, waves crashing in long rolls of bubbling foam. The sounds of the wind, the crashing waves, and exertion of the boat combined to a terrifying orchestra that became our soundtrack. We had been hand-steering down the waves, but after several hours, we decided to heave to, a heavy weather sailing technique we had read about and practiced, but never had to use. We back-winded the storm staysail, center-lined the mainsail, and tied the tiller to windward.

It feels strange to let the boat drift through such a scene unaided, to have empty hands and nothing to do in the midst of the worst weather we had ever seen, to go below and shut up the hatches, to not even look. For two hours it gave us enough relief to sleep, the importance of which cannot be understated, and we were able to quickly nod off. We were awoken by a large wave crashing on deck and the sounds of things falling, crashing, breaking. We though we had lost our hard dodger and rushed to see. What we discovered was an even larger sea state with high waves stretching out into troughs as wide and deep as valleys. Our boat raced down the face of each wave, half out of water. A relentless wind kept us heeled over. The crashing sound we though was the dodger was only the crate of potatoes flying across the cabin and emptying into the head, which would've been pretty funny under normal circumstances.

Above deck life was pretty miserable and it was obvious that we would have to steer ourselves downwind while looking back at the breaking waves, handling each one in turn. So we sat outside in the 35 degree weather, taking turns at the helm, looking back as each wave rose to its height and turning Tortuga's stern so that the waves hit a touch astern of the quarter, and then the wild sleigh ride down the face. As with all relentlessly shitty days as sea, we spoke encouragingly to each other and reminded ourselves that the sea never stays one way for too long, and we knew from our forecast that this wasn't going to get much worse. The weather lost its ferocity very slowly throughout the day. The waves smoothed out, the gusts shortened in duration, lost their determination, and the clouds slowly departed from their crowded muster. By evening we were in a reasonable sea state, not calm by any means, but reasonable. The system had exhausted itself and by morning the seas were so calm we had to motor. There was even a pale sun. We were utterly joyful and couldn't stop expressing our gratitude that it was over, that we were fine, and that nothing on us or the boat was broken.

The next day we arrived in Port Stanley just after nightfall. The wind turned in the morning, coming from the north to harass us every last mile. The whole day we motor-sailed at 4 knots against headwinds. We banged up and down over the swell. I was miserable, cursing the sea, so tired of being cold and wet. All I could do was complain. To make the experience even more frustrating, there are swaths of kelp behind every wave and one has to keep a vigilant eye on the coming waves to avoid them. On our boat this means being out in the weather. After 12 hours of kelp watch in 40 degrees and rain, you feel pretty sick of it all, especially since we still hit a lot of kelp. The miles seemed to go so slowly as we rounded the point into Port Stanley harbor, squinting or eyes to make out the curling waves crashing on rocks to port and more rocks to starboard in the dim light. And then we were there, next to the lights of the city, anchor dropped and caught, exhausted, tired, cold, and in a rather wet boat.

We decided that no matter how we felt, we would make a good dinner, heat water for showers, and put new linens on the bet. So, I made fajitas while Max showered. We ate our fill and drank a few beers while reliving our miserable adventure. I kept repeating, man, that passage was horrible! I am so glad we never have to do that again! I could see in Max's eyes that he wasn't entirely in agreement; there was value in that storm for him. He felt like he understood every piece of maritime literature he had ever read a little more, learned that our boat can handle so much and with such grace, and that now we know what a Force 9 gale in the southern ocean looks and feels like. I still struggle to totally agree, because I was quite scared, though deep down I share all those sentiments.

We awoke to sun and wind our first morning in Port Stanley. It was a much warmer day than we were used to, and the absence of the stress that had been with us for days was invigorating. The bay was wide and the land beyond swept away from the water with a gradual slope ending in distant, dusty mountains studded with granite formations. The coast opposite town had the names of famous ships spelled out in white stones. The Endurance, The Beagle...We were among the greats. Around us were a few Asian fishing boats anchored. They were rusty and worn looking, with long steel arms folded up along the sides, black nets hanging down. They looked like ships that had been abandoned or
recently rediscovered after a long absence. We could hear directions broadcast over the loudspeakers in Chinese. The town is rife with rumors about these boats. They are just squid fishing boats from China, but the people in town whisper that the workers are slaves, desperate to escape. We found out that the previous season two workers jumped ship and swam to shore in freezing water. The Falklands government got after them to improve the working conditions aboard. They decided to anchor farther offshore instead.

A Customs boat came early and told us to meet them on a floating dock at noon. We arrived early and began inspecting the life beneath the customs dock. We saw schools of lobster krill shooting themselves backwards, iridescent jellyfish, and the usual abundance of kelp. An inflatable dingy full of sailors approached. Their outboard died and the captain had to do the familiar routine of yanking on the pull cord repeatedly while drifting away. They handled it with a sense of humor and soon they were on the dock and we were all chatting away. The captain was a charismatic Belgian merchant
marine sailing his own boat, a remake of Bernard Moitessier's Joshua, with a slapdash crew of willing adventurers. They had just arrived from Brazil and were continuing on to the Horn. We asked if he had been caught in the same storm we had weathered. He put his hand on his ribs and said, in addition to a broken rib, he had lost his main genoa, broken a spinn pole somehow, and worn through two hanks on his staysail. We became fast friends, and the captain Dimitri, being an extremely gregarious character, suggested that we all barbecue in the evening and said he was on his way to buy two freshly butchered lambs. We decided to reconvene that evening to exchange stories, information, contacts, and data. Sailors crossing paths can be very useful to one another.

When the customs agent arrived, she allowed us off the dock and brought us to her office, which was the hood of a Landrover. In a heavy British accent, she exclaimed, You two are bringing the average age of cruisers down a bit, aren't you? and boomed out a hearty laugh. And you're Americans! This became a much more enjoyable customs experience than we were used to. She told us where to "get fish and chips, and get pissed," where to see the penguins, and provided us with maps of the city, a pamphlet of local minefields to beware of, and a detailed orientation packet for cruisers. So organized, so easy. No carbon copies, and endless going to and fro to have papers stamped and signed. Twenty minutes on the hood of a Landrover and we were off to get pissed over fish n chips at The Victory Pub.

Port Stanley has a particularly British aspect. There is a small stone church, monuments here and there, and even little red phone booths. The buildings and homes lack the eccentric coloring of those in southern Chile, where houses are piled against each other like worn legos, makeshift chimneys stayed to sheet metal rooves, and doors hung at a slant. The homes of Port Stanley are plain-colored and tidy. People are busy trimming their rose bushes and mowing lawns. The streets are clean, clearly marked with names of British captains, and empty of any charismatic herd of wild dogs. I missed the warm Chilean culture, my routine of greeting all the street dogs, but I enjoyed having a map to follow, the labeled streets, and the pubs with real bars.

We really took time off in The Falklands. For two days we did only basic boat work. Laundry, cleaning, and organizing. We moved to the town dock and so did Dimitri and crew. For two days we ate long lunches at Victory Pub, drank our fills of beer, and took long naps. We really needed that to recover from the passage. We barbecued lamb with the crew of Le Grand Jack en Liberte two nights in a row and exchanged everything we could. He gave us more detailed digital charts of the entire world for our Open CPN program that included tidal information. Kind of a big deal. We also traded paper charts of Chile for his of Brazil. We gave his new crew our old foulies and showed him the best anchorages for his next leg. Dimitri is one of those sailors who is the real deal. He crossed the Atlantic twice when he was 25 in a 20 footer. He told us he spent two nights hugging his life raft in a storm, sure that any minute he would deploy it. He was disheveled and unkempt in a way that suggested his only care in the world was the boat and his next passage. It was like meeting one of the great sailors as a young person. A wild, knowledgeable sailor addicted to life at sea, ready to celebrate every hardship and success equally. We were sad to see Le Grand Jack en Liberte depart.

Our third day in Port Stanley we left the boat and went to see the penguins. We rented the time of a local man who drove us two hours off road, across the fields of sheep farms, past ruins of helicopters downed in the 1983 Argentine War, and over stone runs from the ice age to a long, white beach with thousands of penguins. We were the only people there. We spent the day walking among three species of penguins who were unconcerned with our presence. The Magellanic Penguins are small and live in burrows on the upper beach where their young are protected until they reach full growth. They were reserved but curious about us, retreating into their burrows to peak out at us, twisting their heads
around like dogs do when they hear a strange sound. The King Penguins are completely unafraid of humans. They walk along the beach in groups, the iridescence of their pearly chests and the sharp delineations of the orange and black masks on their faces bright in the sun. The adults take turns fishing or pressing eggs up into fatty pouches with their toes. The adolescents enter the ocean in single file and practice surfing and sliding on their stomachs across the beach. Higher up on the beach a tightly packed circle of adults protect the young from vultures that circle. The adults swap out so that half are on the beach and half are huddled tightly squawking at the vultures that are dragging around the bloody carcass of two babies tearing off flesh just ten feet away from the penguins.

A Magallenic Penguin having an existential crisis.
On the ride back we listened to our driver's stories of growing up on he Falklands, what it means to be an islander. We asked him about the War, when Argentine troops occupied the island for a month in 1983. He was on a small island and taken prisoner for 28 days with all the people on the island. They were held in one house together and had one lamb a week to eat, as long as they slaughtered one for the troops. He laughed proudly as he recalled that the soldiers tried to steel the island's motorboat but couldn't because the engine required a one time use glow plug. They kept this a secret and the boat survived as a result. He was a proud Falklander and bragged that they have no income taxes, are rich with oil, and have only two invasive species- earwigs and Argentinians. He added that they have zero unemployment, only 29 unemployables.

The passage to The Falklands was terrifying. I hope to never see a sea state like that again. Arriving in Port Stanley was one of the more jubilant experiences of our adventure. When I recall our first morning there I can feel the crisp wind and the brilliant sun. When I recollect the storm, I ca't feel my frozen toes or the knot that lived in my stomach for three days, I just remember listening to Max tell me it was going to be okay and believing him.

I celebrated every minute we spent in The Falklands as the most gregarious, appreciative version of myself. I loved every penguin we saw, every warm pint of beer, every greasy plate of fish and chips, and wished that we could have stayed longer to see more of the wildlife and anchor in some of the remote locations there. When I think about the discomforts we bear at times, the fear that the southern ocean awakened in me, and then the landfalls in remote, wild places I never thought I would visit, it becomes obvious that the ends don't just justify the means, the means redefine the ends entirely.