Saturday, February 25, 2017

Canal Messier to Puerto Eden

Monday, January 30th

What weather we avoided in Golfo de Penas caught up with us in Canal Messier. Of course I had imagined that once we were past the gulf, and in the canals once again, we would be sheltered. The truth is that going farther south means worse weather, period. The Arctic depressions move north during the austral summer bringing colder rain, squalls, and violent winds. In Canal Messier, which runs 70 miles north/south from Golfo de Penas, we experienced this weather for the first time. We
found ourselves in foam-streaked waves, fog-bound, and doing ten knots under bare poles. The gusts were truly exceptional and only increased. We passed the night before in Caleta Hale, a small cove in an island in the northern section of Messier, where we were tucked in close to the shore with two stern lines run to trees. We felt very secure but throughout the night the winds picked up and began screaming down the steep sides of nearby cliffs. The boat came alive with sounds. New sensations of movement came over me as the boat turned in a gust, heeled and then exhausted the elasticity of the polypropylene stern lines. I could feel the recoil as a dizzy sort of floating. We each lay awake discerning the sounds, convinced that the other was asleep. In the early morning we heard a scraping that convinced us the keel was on the rocks. We were dressed and taking in the lines and anchor chain with our teeth unbrushed, barometer unchecked, and cabin unstowed. Our brief consideration of the conditions in the canal convinced us that it was okay to go.

Out in Canal Messier, the waves were building and it was raining, however the wind was from the north and the current too would move us south. In Patagonia it is often the case that there is no wind. A 30 knot downwind sleigh ride, though seemingly chaotic, starts looking appealing after days of motoring. So we entered the downwind mania of the canal. However, it was not that type of day. Within a couple hours the weather worsened and I saw my first williwalls against the dark vegetation of the bordering cliffs. They appear as delicate wisps of smoke rising up and spinning together. From behind white walls of weather advanced over us eliminating visibility. They returned after increasingly brief breaks, bringing rain and powerful gusts of wind. We steadily reduced sail and tried to stay aware of our surroundings in the complete white out of the squalls.

During the breaks between squalls, or chubascos as they are called here, we were able to orient ourselves within the maze of islands, rocks, and cliffs that dramatize the landscape of Messier. We chose an anchorage and began advancing towards it carefully. It is not easy to see approaches to bays and inlets in clear weather. Add the influence of the storm, a speed of ten knots without motor or sails, and it becomes really hard. Add to that our failed depth sounder and compass, and you have a real navigational challenge. We stayed close enough to the shore to be able to see it and just kept talking and referencing charts and maps. As we got close, the squalls got worse. The gusts felt like sticking your head out of a car on the highway at 50 or 60 mph. At a particularity low point in the day, a seal came to the boat to show us that this weather was actually pretty awesome. It flipped out of the waves, fins tucked tightly back and nose pointed out, and entered a wave behind expertly, staying with us for a while to demonstrate its carefree acrobatics. We flashed our only smiles of the day. We had left at nine in the morning and by five we found our anchorage. We turned once into the wrong cove and had to leave and face the weather head on. Just as we turned into the correct cove, the wind become worse. A violent gust heeled us over until our rail touched the water and the motor let out an unnatural growl. Just after that we passed into the calm water of the cove and took our time anchoring and running stern lines to trees. We anchored more forward of our intended position in a nook of flat water and pulled back hard with the motor. We left more slack in our stern lines to accommodate for the tides and felt very secure. We played cards, had a few drinks, and watched the barometer rise. We began discussions of how we would avoid another day like that.

February 1

We are now in the area where the campo hielo is visible amid the high peaks. It once covered the entire area but now can only be seen deep inside fjords. This particular moment in the recession of the Ice Age. On a sunny morning we went into the 12 mile fjord, Seno Iceberg, to see a bit of this enormous ice cap up close. On the way in the water turned powdery green from the dust crushed under the weight of the ice and brought down by waterfalls, streams, and calving of the glacier. The
sides of the fjord were steep and veined with waterfalls from the morning rain. Clouds clung to the
sides. From a distance the glacier looked like a heavy blanket rumpled between the mountains. A
turquoise glow came out from under the thick white. We were able to get within a couple hundred yards of the ice face. That turquoise underbelly became deep blue where it overhung the water
pouring showers into the bay. Above the deep blue base, the ice turned lighter blue, more opaque, arranging itself into spikes and irregular chunks, until it was a snowy top whipped up into browned spikes like perfectly browned merangue. In many places where the granite base was exposed, a thick rust-colored moss covered everything, adding to the surreal chromatic of the scene. Under the sun, the proximity of the glacier, the floating icebergs, and surrounding hills and rapidly moving sky seemed so incredibly special. It reminded me so forcefully of why we had come so far south, why we dealt with days like yesterday and the general unease of our surroundings. Who had come to this spot before us? To view this glacier and the present moment in such enormous movement and time? We were there, which was strange enough and as incomprehensible as an earth covered in ice. As we began to articulate our bewilderment, I went ahead and caught some small icebergs in the fishing net to make dirty martinis. That seemed to embody what was in our hearts more than words.

From Seno Iceberg we made our way to Puerto Eden, sailing on a broad reach through the sunny canal. When the sailing is good down here, it is perfect. Flat water, broad reach and partial sun. Like riding your bike down a paved hill. It's the kind of sailing that reminds me why I fell in love with it in the first place. It can be so easy sometimes. Puerto Eden would be our last town before Ushuaia since we did not plan to stop in either Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas, two respectably sized cities along
the way. As a result, I had big hopes for Puerto Eden. When we arrived it was pretty windy and we were able to sail past town right up to the mooring available outside the Armada station there. Too windy for our dingy, the Armada sent two men on a small boat to pick us up. We went with them to complete paperwork and were welcomed wholeheartedly. They asked about our trip, drew us an informative map of town, and warned us about the red tide since a community member had to be evacuated the week before in dire condition after eating an Abalone (some kind of shellfish). They returned us to the boat and we moved to the anchorage in front of town. We dropped the hook right in front of the pier and let the wind carry us back until it caught. The town is a small crowd of boldly painted tiny homes on a hillside. Insane glacier in the background, of course, visible once in a while when it isn't raining. A boardwalk runs along the town from one end to the other and then up to the surrounding hills in several places  for great views of the area. The only other boat there was a small steel sailboat with a curious skipper who watched our approach and anchoring method. It was obvious that he embodied the greatest type of comradery among sailors in remote places, and after our boat was secure we went to meet him. He invited us aboard and promptly made some mate. I love Argentinians. They are so welcoming and excited to share a mate with strangers. He was from Ushuaia and had come north from there alone, battling the predominantly north winds. We were impressed. Through conversation we were able to discuss so many things that we had been thinking about and he knew about. Of
course, his first question was, Come fue el golfo, referring to the infamous passage of golfo de penas in our past and his future. I was proud to tell him all about how easy it was. I did shudder at the thought of moving north through Canal Messier where we had encountered those nasty squalls, and it seems that the entire universe and all its elements are driving south.

We went into town together where Coco, as our Argentine friend is called, introduced us to Jose, the owner of a hospedaje in town that sells fuel, provides water, showers, and laundry. Jose is a viejo with permanently ruddy cheeks. He wears a knit cap with ball at the top and a sleeveless knit sweater typical of this area. Jose has jokes and everyone around him is laughing. The hostel he runs is more like a community center of Puerto Eden. His living room is the town's living room. There is a big table in the center, couches around, a coffee and tea station, and a wood burning stove in the corner with clothes hung above. We immediately felt comfortable and made arrangements with Jose for laundry, showers, 100 liters of diesel. People came in and out, shedding their rain gear at the door, charging phones and computers, making coffee, napping on the couch. It was always unclear who was an actual guest. We spent a lot of time there playing Uno, watching Coco's amazing card tricks, using the wifi, filling our water up, and feeling like part of the community.

Puerto Eden has three small markets where the most basic provisioning can be done. There are onions, carrots, eggs, and potatoes. All are a bit aged but much better than nothing. A ferry brings new stuff every week or so. We stocked up for the long trip to Ushuaia with onions, green apples, a piece of a squash, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage (our flatulence inducing fjord diet). We had a quiet evening on the boat (except for aforementioned flatulence), and after our third night in Puerto Eden we left on a clear day with flat water, bright sun, and unfortunate lack of wind.

Saturday February 5

For days we have been sailing through purple mountains. The wind picks up or dies down according to how it finds its way down slopes and across open spaces. The mountaintops have a dusting of snow. It is just enough to highlight the ridges and darken the recesses. They look unlike anything I have ever seen. We are closer to the ice age as move south. Yesterday we progressed along Canal
Wide 51 miles from Puerto Eden in a perfectly clear day. Every island, hill, mountain, and distant peak was visible. Close to us the fjords led to high glaciers. There was no wind and we motored the
whole way on flat, dark water. It was a great feeling to sit in the sun and watch the most tremendous
scenery roll by. We met the gregarious Peale dolphin for the first time. They come rushing from afar as soon as they spot us and then play games with the hull, zooming underneath and then turning on
their backs to swim slowly under the bowsprit before taking off to begin a circle of the boat again. At times, there are crowds of four of five. We chose an anchorage right off the canal so that we would not have to make a detour of too many miles. Upon entering, I was shocked to see another boat anchored in a pristine and remote bay. It was a ketch with a bright yellow hull. Three dolphin were painted on each side by the waterline. We saw a dingy tied up by a waterfall where the crew had gone to hike. We anchored and, on their way back, they came to visit us in their dingy. They were British and had been slowly making their way north from Puerto Williams where they had been living for a year. We could've exchanged a lot of stories and information, but they had to be back for supper and we left early the next morning.

Wednesday, February 8th

If you were to paint the Patagonian landscape south of Puerto Eden, you would have to limit your palate to shades of grey and subtle hints of color. A pale turquoise for the glacial underbelly that is always suspended above. Faded greens for the vegetation in the distance. Pale purple for the granite faces in the mist. The mountains appear in three layers. The layer closest to our path through the canals is covered in thick growth, wet with almost constant rain. Farther north the vegetation consisted of ferns, bamboo, and heavy Oak limbs dressed in lichen. Moving south the trees become shorter, gnarled, desperate in their attempts at growth. By the time we neared the Magellan Straits, the trees had reduced themselves to silver driftwood sticking up like skeletons of once arthritic hands. The advantage of this is that we can go for walks now, whereas the northern forest was impenetrable.

The second layer of mountains is without vegetation. They are immense granite forms with tops rounded off by the compression of the once omnipresent ice. That compression has left the hills with long running cracks and a white, powdery appearance that makes them look like shapes in smoke. Up close, even the smallest rock is riddled with compression lines and cracks as if the whole thing could
crumble so easily were it not an incredibly strong stone. Up close, the ghostly white appearance turns out to be a think white lichen. A black lichen grows in the crevices making the rock look overly photo shopped. Beyond these mountains is what is left of the ice cap, sitting atop mountains or in
between peaks so high and sharp, the ice never got there. this is the Chilean Cordillera, the mountain border between Chile and Argentina. The cloud fence that rains endlessly and leaves the eastern side of the continent rolling with tumbleweed. The snowy peaks of the Andes are as white and sharp as puppy teeth, barely discernible from the clouds on a partly sunny day.

Moving south, this panorama and the weather that batters it only becomes more and more severe. We are subject to constant changes in weather. Rain is here or around the corner,  squalls are common and bring incredible gusts of wind.  At night the wind outside sounds like a chorus singing up, up, and up as it tears down the fjords and whips through the rigging. Last night we felt a few deep trembles in the earth. Another new sensation.

In many ways our experience, though completely extraordinary, has been reduced to mundane daily tasks that take us from one anchorage to the next. The cabin is about 40-45 degrees when we wake up and begin to layer our clothing for the day's sailing. We eat breakfast and get underway quickly. We move between 15-50 miles a day depending on the conditions. It is important to keep in mind the focus it takes to remain vigilant at the tiller where nothing happens most of the time. It is important to make it to the next anchorage before exhausting one's ability to patiently go about the anchoring
procedure.  We have been bewildered by the Patagonian wilderness, the strength of the elements, and the charismatic sea life. We have also grown bored of all three and admitted it to each other in whispers at the end of the day. There is only so much rain and wind one can take with patience. We all know that. But somehow there is also so much beauty one can take while retaining enthusiasm. I will never tire of being surrounded by smiling, jumping dolphin, or of eating breakfast while whales exhale in the distance. I will never fail to rush to the sides of the boat to wait for a seal to resurface, but at a certain point I'd rather have a pint with a friend at a bar.