Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Into the Southern Ocean

When we first motored away from Easter island, sitting in the cockpit with mugs of hot coffee, we watched the sun rise on an unpromising sea. We knew that we would not have wind for a while and had loaded up on diesel in anticipation. We could have waited, but it was time to go. On the southwest side of the island there are two exposed rocks. One is a narrow obelisk of stone and the other large enough to be its own island. The SW edge of the big island ends in a steep cliff that looks down on these two islands. From the sea it looks like an eroded cliff face but is actually the edge of a volcanic crater. The grandeur of that high place lent itself to a Rapa Nui ceremony where men entered into the annual  Birdman contest would climb down the cliff, swim to the far island, and live there until one was able to steal an egg from the cliffed nest of a seabird and swim back triumphantly. When we learned about this ceremony, reading from a pamphlet while standing on the edge of the crater, I looked down at the wild sea and imagined that swim. It seemed insane that day and every day since. Today it seems quite reasonable. In the flat water and hot sun, one could've reached the island doing the backstroke while pondering life. The water looked viscous, undulating heavily like I imagine molten silver would.

The morning of our first day out from Easter Island.

I spent the first day nesting myself into this world we have created, and preparing myself for the 2100 miles to Puerto Montt. We read, worked on sewing projects, and chatted about family and Christmas. Time slows to a creep on passages and the world transforms to something strange and magical. At times, I think that if Max weren't there to confirm things I would lose track of the line between the endless blue and the reality that there is a future where I will sip the foam from a cappuccino while admiring local art in some hip cafe. I spent a long time making our  dinner and presented it to Max- blackened string beans and make-shift paella, cold gin & tonics. The pleasures of the first days of a passage. We ate on the cabin top motoring through the flat sea. The swell rolled in from the southwest like green New England hills and we bobbed up and over it. Next to the boat the surface was flat and in the sun we could follow the shafts of lights down to where they converged. Blue light through cathedral windows. An orange bucket floated by and seemed to be suspended in the air. We saw transparent Men-of-War and could discern the full length of their tentacles. We had never seen an ocean so flat. This is the part of the road trip where you pass through Kansas. These are the cornfields of the ocean. The doldrums. The horse latitudes.

A young Yellow Fin Tuna just off the Rapa Nui coast

When we are children we trace our fingers over lines on maps, imagining what the earth looks like where it is described in craggy lines, wide-bellied bays, or knotted fingers extending deep into mountain ranges. We read books about people who paint or tattoo their bodies, wear animal skins, and live off the sea. If we are sailors, we graduate to the works of Moitessier and Shackleton and imagine 36 hours of wakefulness dragging a sea anchor through a tremendous southern ocean gale, or wonder how we would fair if faced with abandoning ship in a harsh environment. Isolated islands with vowel-choked names and foreign shores become a possibility. The coast of Chile particularly captures the imagination. Its circuitous coast, numerous islands, and proximity to the Andean peaks are hard to imagine. For sailors, a daydream of this coast interacting with the notorious southern ocean is dominated by the endless lore of Cape Horn. Between Easter Island and Puerto Montt, though we had already sailed close to 10,000 miles, I felt every daydream of my childhood and youth coming to fruition. All the information I had gathered about ocean currents, high and low pressure systems, the geography of the Chilean fjords, the migration patterns of whales and sea birds was all of the sudden something I could see in front of me, knowledge that I had to use. I no longer had to wonder at what type of sailor I would turn into. I was neither living on coffee and cigarettes and chatting excitedly with sea birds like Moitessier, or do I have the calm resolve to dive off the ship every morning for a swim like Knox Johnson. I have become a sailor who lives off books, and yes, coffee too, with a confidence in ourselves and our ship that grows in proportion to a sharp respect for the elements.

A few days out from Easter Island I became very nervous about what we were about to do. The warm, predictable trade winds were gone and we were layering our clothing. The cockpit read 70 degrees and we had much southing to do. It was going to get a lot colder. I had been reading Hal Roth's, Seafaring Trilogy, where he and his wife enter the Chilean Fjords at Canal Chacao, have difficulty in their anchorages, and ultimately run aground south of the Straits of Magellan taking to tents on shore made of their sails. I decided to stop reading this book and chose more technical reading material. His experience would not be our experience, and the secret is to become knowledgeable. With knowledge, prudence, and respect for the weather, I became convinced we would make it safely from Easter Island, through Canal Chacao, wind our way down the fjords, and round Cape Horn. I spent every nightwatch pouring over a nautical guide of the fjords titled, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, by Mariolina Rolfo and Giorgio Ardrizzi whose meticulous work exploring and detailing 400 of the infinite anchorages between Valdivia and Mar del Plata, on the Argentine coast, is humbling. I entered the details of each anchorage into the Open CPN program we use to navigate including GPS coordinates, notes on depth and holding ground. When the binding on the book broke, I sewed a canvas cover. I paired this with reading about clouds, weather prediction, and low and high pressure systems. As I read the days passed and we inched our way across the chart chipping away at the 2100 hundred miles of our longest passage. We spent more time inside and our diet changed to include hot tea and mugs of broth, thick stews and creamy soups. We pulled out the long underwear and wool sweaters packed by our mothers.

I finally pulled in a Yellow Fin
The sail plan we developed years ago in Brooklyn was to go east to Easter Island to avoid the northbound Humboldt current and the light and variable winds of coastal South America between Colombia and Valdivia. This was based largely on an article by Jimmy Cornell were he did the same. In retrospect, considering accounts I have read about others who followed the coast south, I believe we made the best decision. The coastal conditions are created by a high pressure system that remains in place as far west as Easter Island and as far south as the Roaring 40s. When we left Easter Island, our goal was to skirt the edge of the high without going too far south. We did this so effectively that it often felt as though we were beneath two skies, sailing through a weather diagram where the heavy air of a cold front is pushing up the light air of the high pressure. To the southwest the sky was dark and the waves textured by higher winds. To the east we had sun and perfectly formed high pressure clouds. Some days we traveled too far in one or the other direction and either suffered high winds or flat, hot seas. I began to relax and enjoy the weather lessons but the intimidation of the Roaring 40s always lingered in my mind. I recorded our position in the log always noting progress towards 40 degrees south. When we crossed this line, Max and I were below deck playing cards. We took a moment of silence to see if it really did roar and had to laugh when it indeed did seem to be quite loud above deck. The southern ocean was living up to its reputation. The winds  increased, the waves grew in height, and even the sky seem to grow wider and display all the cloud forms simultaneously, rolling by with a visible and steady momentum. Just like the visible bulk of the swell, the earth and all its elements took to a pendulum like predictability and I had to rely on our boat, our knowledge of the sea, as well as weather reports from home in order to trust that we were ready and prepared for all of these things. In fact, we were much more prepared than those who have come before whose stories have characterized this area of the ocean.

The coast of Chiloe Island

Our progress is described by the top line, our technical goal by the second down,
 and the suggested course by the lowest line.
It was 17 days before we discerned the coast of Chile, and a very long day before we entered Canal Chacao where the enormity of the Pacific ocean enters and exits a narrow and notorious channel. To the south is the island of Chiloe and inside is a beautiful cruising ground with the fjords of the Andes to the east and the scattered islands to the west. Once inside the canal one can sail south to Cape Horn without going into the open ocean for more than the hundred mile stretch aptly named Gulfo de Penas. If Canal Chacao is entered during the ebb tide, the quickly shoaling bottom, and the swell of the Pacific, can combine to raise very dangerous standing waves. This area is also subject to a thick fog and exposed rocks. We arrived at this entrance after 17 days because that is how long it took, not because we knew the weather and had adjusted our progress accordingly. We paid attention to the forecast as we got close and decided it was a good enough time to get in. We had a few strong things in our favor- the sky was clear with no risk of fog, the wind was so light that we had to motor, which is not ideal, but better than having too much wind and a lee shore. We realized that we would just be able to reach a safe anchorage inside the entrance where we could spend the night before continuing the 60 miles it would take to get to Puerto Montt.

We decided on an anchorage called Puerto Ingles which was accessible only if we were able to round the Punta Corona light where the outgoing tide can reach 4-5 knots, which, in combination with standing waves, is enough to cancel the forward progress of our Perkins 4.108. It took us long enough to approach that the tide switched and began to ebb. The sun was sinking fast, but we had already begun and turning around was not an attractive option. We could see a long row of crashing waves extending out into the canal. We got closer and it became very choppy. Waves were tossing us around and our speed was steadily decreasing. The Punta Corona light house was still far enough to worry us. I stood on the cabin top directing Max around large swaths of kelp that could foul the prop while holding onto the shrouds for balance. Every time I looked back I saw bigger and bigger waves coming towards us, threatening to break on the stern. Max was concerned that we were only going 2-3 knots with the engine at full power. At least we are going, I thought. At the slowest, we battled the tide with only 1 knot of progress.  Around that same time, a set of particularly steep waves began to form.  Max did not hesitate to turn the boat to expose our rear quarter, a technique intended to avoid a direct hit.  At the last minute, both waves slipped harmlessly only inches under the aft toe rail, gurgling in protest as they rolled past.

Reaching Punta Corona light just as the sun set
We made it to the anchorage by ten, just as the last hints of lavender sky disappeared. Letting out more road than ever, we anchored in 15 meters of water next to a yellow church and bucolic countryside. Black and white cormorants were the only things still at work. We were too tired to speak and anxious to tackle the additional sixty miles of the canal in the morning. Under the exhaustion, I was elated. We had arrived. We were in Patagonia. Our longest passages were over. We had been to Easter Island and made it back. The next morning we would be sailing next to volcanoes. I would learn the hills and fjords of this country, meet the people and see the architecture of this distant coast, walk the streets of tiny villages and eat the endless mariscos of Southern Chile.

Our visit from a Fin Whale.  Second biggest whale in the ocean.

After managing the entrance to Canal Chacao, and experiencing a level, anchored boat for the first time in almost three weeks, we woke early and set out for the sixty mile stretch to Puerto Montt. It was cold! We wore many layers, including hats and gloves. The morning was sharp and clean like mornings in the New York spring, or waking in the forest after a night of camping. I love this weather and did not miss the heat of the Caribbean. A good way to warm up is to raise 200 ft. of anchor chain on a manual windlass and by the time I saw our trusty Rocna anchor break the surface, I had stripped to a t-shirt. To dress for Patagonia is to dress in layers.

We left at the beginning of the flood tide with potential anchorages along the way if we failed to make Puerto Montt by sundown. The water in the canal was flat and moving fast towards Gulfo de Ancud. We glided along with just our Genoa out and a perfect west wind to sustain us. It is a glorious feeling to sail at 6-7 knots on flat water, after battling 2100 miles in the south Pacific swell. Liken it to coasting down a hill on a bicycle and being able to take your hands off the bars, sledding in the winter along an already packed path. The new landscape passed by quickly and we fell in with the traffic of fishermen who waved in orange foulies from brightly painted bows. Sometimes one would snap a picture with a smartphone. The stress of the passage had dissolved completely with the progress of the morning and the favorable conditions. We were in a mood of pure celebration as the peaks of distant volcanoes became visible with the cloud shift. Crowds of seals popped their heads above water like groups of Christmas carolers to welcome us to their chilly world. Sometimes they followed in our wake for a while; others sunned themselves on the nearby buoys that marked the borders of the salmoneras that were to become an omnipresent image of our time in Chiloe. The miles fell away and we were sure we would make the marina in Puerto Montt by sundown, free to admire the churches nestled into the passing hills, trying to identify the volcanoes on the map, and watching the current around stationary objects in the water with wonder. At our fastest, we moved through canal Chacao at 11 knots. At our slowest, we did six. It was fantastic.

To the southwest of Puerto Montt there is a narrow island named Isla Tengo that hugs the coast. Inside the island are three sheltered marinas. In order from south to north they are Club Deportes Nauticos Reloncavi, Marina Oxxean, and Marina del Sur. All three offer a wide range of amenities according to information available. We decided upon Marina del Sur. Oxxean seemed to host mostly commercial boats, and Reloncavi seemed too high brow for the likes of us. Marina del Sur has a beautiful cedar-shingled clubhouse with hot showers and laundry. We read that it also provided fuel, water, and had a bar/restaurant. Of the three, only the water was available but the staff were friendly and helpful, though the docks felt like a ghost town despite being full. We walked to Relonclavi one day and I was jealous to find a bar in operation, a pool table and common room with couches and wifi, and an enormous book exchange. We thought of switching, but they were full.

Beautiful female sea lion sunning herself on the dock at Marina del Sur

Marina's cost money.  Only way for us to justify the expense is tackle pressing boat projects. 

Marina del Sur
Marina del Sur became our home for two weeks as we worked furiously on the boat in preparation for the arrival of Max's family for New Year's. During the passage, the clew of our Genoa ripped free and we spent a hectic day repairing the sail underway by hand stitching three lengths of nylon webbing through the metal ring that holds the sheets. In the marina we took the sail off and discovered that much of the stitching along the leech had deteriorated in the sun. We spent one hour each day stitching through this tough material before our hands were too abused to continue. We also took the dockside opportunity to mark our chain with paint every 25ft to prepare for the deep anchorages we would encounter in the fjords. I scraped, sanded, and caulked the port toerail to prevent leaks while Max meticulously serviced the engine. He added respirators to the fuel tanks so that we could fill fuel more easily, changed fuel and oil filters, and replaced the oil. We haven't had a single engine problem and don't want any to start in this part of the trip when we may really need a quickly starting iron genny.

Our time in Marina del Sur was lovely and relaxing. We often took the bus to the Angelmo market to walk through the stalls of mussels, clams, various other shellfish of culinary mystery, and watch the fishermen throw fish heads to the sea lions outside. The market is stunning in its colors and smells, the exotic nature of its wares. Dried kelp is hung in bundles that look like aged surgical tubing or pressed tobacco, and sausages hang in links above wax-covered blocks of cheese. Hanging lines of dried mussels line the edges of stalls like beaded curtains. Piles of fruits we had not seen in ages were spilling from crates in the walkway were fishy waters drain down grates in the cement. Lucky street dogs, shopping along side you, trot away with a fish head to dine outside. We feasted every night on shellfish concoctions and experiments with new fishes. We ate Chilean Sea Bass, eel-like Congrio, and a Shellfish called Maca which has a thin beige shell and meat like a pointed pink tongue. We delighted in discovering that it was berry season in the south and consumed quart after quart of cherries, strawberries, and blueberries.

Dried shellfish hanging in the Angelmo market

Angelmo market
Air BnB breakfast nook

A beautiful church in Puerto Varas


A traditional Chilote sailboat at Marina del Sur

For Christmas we left Marina del Sur and took a bus to Puerto Varas where we relaxed for two days in an Air BnB by the expansive Lake Llanquihue. Puerto Varas is like the touristy ski town one might find in Colorado and we allowed ourselves to be tourists sipping mugs of beer in pubs, eating out, and walking along the lake to steal a peak at Vulcan Osorno in the distance. It felt peaceful to not be connected to the labors and tight spaces of our boat, to be properly showered with clean hair and clothing. I marveled that that is how I used to feel all the time, that sitting in a cafe with wifi that worked used to be normal, that one always reached destinations by car or bus. Quickly. While reading. I looked at the people on the streets and wanted to start randomly announcing that we had sailed there. That we had not taken a plane to Patagonia, not that it was wrong that they had. I had in the past, and if lucky, would do so again. But not this time. This time we sailed here, and it took six months. We had a lovely time in Puerto Varas. We got engaged there and spent Christmas skyping with our families. We cooked Beef Bourginon and drank too much wine. We missed home.

Fish prints help immortalize the fish we catch.