Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Puerto Williams, Ushuaia, Cape Horn

Looking back, I can see that we were a bit cavalier when we dropped anchor in Puerto Navarino considering the abundant kelp and proximity of many rocky islets. Maybe we were tired, or even a bit lazy, when we opted out of the additional hour of work it would've taken to nest ourselves into the more sheltered anchorage and run stern lines to trees. Either way, it should not have surprised me when Max yelled from above deck, early the next morning, that he thought we were dragging towards some rocks. I had been in bed listening to the powerful gusts of wind shaking our rigging, but was quickly at the windlass pumping as stunningly powerful gusts caused the boat to heel and the rigging to bang. The gusts in Chilean Patagonia come with such force it is hard to believe, and then they increase. The motion of the boat in these gusts is humbling, one of those reminders that we are at the mercy of nature. I pumped until my lungs burned. The boat swung around so that the anchor chain bent around the bob stay, making it impossible to bring up the chain. Max was at the throttle, keeping us off the rocks with the engine. I waited until the wind swung the boat so that the anchor was clear of the bob stay and pumped like crazy before it swung again. When Max throttled up to create slack in the chain, I pumped as fast as I could until another gust halted my progress. We switched and Max was at the windlass and I was at the throttle with my eyes on the approaching rocks. The wind tore across us and I could see that Max was having trouble too. Now the anchor was engulfed in a ball of kelp the size of small couch. It had to be sawed off, which Max did. A month later I saw a boat with a pole saw attached to a stay and thought, oh! that's what that is for... Max finally got the anchor up and I was able to motor to a safer part of the bay. We dropped anchor again and I pulled back on it hard. The wind seemed to ease and Max returned to the cockpit, barefoot and cold. We went below and got under the covers, our lungs burning from the pumping, our feet cold, with the prospect of sailing to Puerto Williams ahead.

Our sail to Puerto Williams was fast, to say the least. After many changes, we settled on a sail plan that looked like a handkerchief was pulling the boat along at 6-7 knots. The wind was gusty and strong. The roofs of Ushuaia gleamed under the sun and the water of the Beagle Channel whipped itself into a following sea and sent up spray as it hit the rocky islands we passed. We quickly covered the miles enjoying a sunny, downwind sail.

To get into Puerto Williams, we had to clear a shoal that stretches into the Beagle channel and then turn into the wind and beat into the harbor. Like always, when turning into the wind after a fast downwind run, we were shocked by the power of the weather and realized that we were going to have to work a little to get in. Short white caps smacked the hull and sent an icy spray across the cockpit. A cruise ship had moored itself in the outer harbor and we beat to get between that ship and the shore, where a little protection seemed possible. Two men on a smaller launch made videos of us with their phones which always makes me wonder whether we look crazy, or like badasses. We made slow progress but the bright sun on the buildings and the numerous masts of sailboats anchored and
moored to the old, half-sunken Micalvi which makes the local yacht club, filled me with excitement. The backdrop of Puerto Williams is an arid and wind worn line of peaks appropriately named Los Dientes that brings trekkers from all over the world. When we finally made it in against the power of 30-40 knot gusts, we decided to grab the Armada dingy in the nearby anchorage and take our dingy into the Micalvi Yatch Club to see if there was room, since it looked quite full with lines of four boats rafter together to the sides. Turns out Micalvi is the type of place where there is always room for one more boat, and it is acceptable to just pull up to a boat, climb aboard and tie up to their cleats.

As we pulled our dingy onto the beach at Micalvi we saw boats from all over the world and sailors at work drying out foulies, coiling lines, and furling sails. Micalvi is a practical, busy place where everyone gets it. People have been where you are going, and you just got back from where they were
recently. A whole group of people involved with, and knowledgeable about, this remote corner of the world and all the minutia of the Patagonian experience. The first sailor we spoke with was a man named Jacques who had just returned from an expedition to Antarctica and was winterizing his boat which is a steel-hulled French model complete with every piece of equipment used for the southern latitudes- spools of polypropylene lines mounted for stern lines at the stern and mast pulpit, the classic Rocna anchor, a stainless steel chain, and every line in order. It is the kind of boat and crew that suggest such experience and knowledge that it is exciting to just watch. Jacques proceeded to tell us that going to Antarctica was "easy," which I love hearing. Something that seems so out of reach, so like a story, and then you hear that it is no big deal.

We found the man in charge of the marina, Francisco, and he asked us why we had grabbed the mooring instead of coming right in and in no time we brought the boat over and rafted up to a French boat, Nastiq. Very soon afterwards we were having beers in the main salon of an American boat, Marja and Steven's Motu, and listening to their stories of a 7 year circumnavigation in a 27' boat when they were younger than we are now. I loved seeing the interior of their boat and how they had everything set up. I thought, this is how people arrange their boats after a life time of sailing.

We went on to meet many sailors there who had tremendous knowledge to share with us and were open and welcoming. Each boat and sailor was on a different journey with a wealth of knowledge about oceans, passages, currents and tides of remote locations, and their own stories about how they came to this life of transience and adventure. We met Heinz who built his boat from scratch 30 years ago, worked at a cook in Berlin living on his boat in the canals, and took 6 months off every year to sail. Now he is retired and has single handed through two hurricanes, sailed all over the world, and is known for coming into harbor with a crew of young girls. His boat is a cozy as a country kitchen and filled with artifacts from such a life. He has perfected pressure cooker bread, somehow has a bathtub and a printer aboard, and welcomes everyone to gather around his table for a dinner in three languages.

We spent time with Margaret and Stephen aboard their comfy Septre, Heart and Soul, that they have sailed from Victoria, BC to Easter Island around the Pacific and through the canals. They welcomed us for many cocktail hours where we ate appetizers and exchanged stories about getting ashore in Easter Island, inspections in The Galapagos, adventures pulling in Tuna, and favorite anchorages in the fjords. I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Margaret when she gave me the upper jaw of a beaver with long, brown teeth still intact, and said, I thought you would like this. 

The town of Puerto Williams is understated and utterly charming. A herd of horses wander through the town, eating grass in backyards, and no one is bothered by this. Many of the mares are pregnant and a few brand new foals appeared during our stay. The grocery stores are simple but provide a good deal of variety as long as you aren't too picky. The Chilean Armada is easy to deal with and helpful. A cadet even soldered a leaky coolant pipe for us and didn't want to accept payment.

Our first days there were so relaxing and it was easy to work on the boat and even spend some time apart. I went for many long runs along the dirt roads in the bright sun and crisp weather. Max fixed the water pump on the engine, we sewed the head sail where it was pulling itself apart, and crossed off long lists of things to do.

One of the common conversations among sailors at Milcalvi is about what paperwork and permission is necessary from whom to go to each destination. We found out that Argentina prefers if sailors ask permission to go to The Falklands, which they call Las Malvinas, and await a piece of paper that can take weeks. By "prefer" I mean that if you don't ask permission, and enter an Argentinian port later, they will fine you heavily, even though The Falklands are owned and inhabited by the British. This was just the beginning of our history lesson in the tension between The Brits and the Argentinians over The Falklands. We certainly did not want to wait a month for permission to go to The Falklands, but we decided to go to Ushuaia and ask, fill out the necessary forms, and pick up provisions unavailable in Puerto Williams while we were there.

As we pulled into Ushuaia we docked at Club Nautico, which is a pier in the center of the city where many boats raft up. There is no clubhouse, but they have wifi and water available. It was disappointing to see the water turn from clear and clean, to turbid with bits of garbage here and there. I saw a Gatorade bottle float by and it seemed so odd, like I had forgotten that this is what it looks like where the people are. The smell of sewage was overwhelming at the dock and we immediately
 missed the pristine air of Puerto Williams. We started out through town to reach the Prefecture where we would begin the paperwork process. The city was celebrating carnival and we were soon engulfed in a raucous crowd. The children celebrate by spraying mystery foam from areasol cans at passersby, a charming cultural practice. We were obvious targets and took a lot of foam in the eyes. All over the street the used of cans were tossed, their multi-colored plastic caps crushed into tiny pieces. Bands made their way down the street and girls danced in elaborate costumes and thongs, their butt cheeks white from winter and chapped red by the wind.

This is how the paperwork goes: at the prefecture you fill out 4 identical forms in the old school fashion trying to align used up carbon sheets with the forms beneath. Then they stamp and sign each. You take all four copies to the immigration office across town. They stamp, sign and keep one copy. You have three copies left and report to customs where they stamp, sign and keep. You have two copies and return to the Prefecture. Stamp, sign, keep. You end up with the last form where none of the correct information is in the correct spaces because of your early failure to properly align the carbon sheets, but is is adequately stamped and signed. This process takes about half the day. Add the Falklands inquiry and it takes a little longer, though the Argentinians were pretty helpful with the paperwork that allows you to go to a country they have no sovereignty over whatsoever. We even signed an affidavit promising not to go to The Falklands on our way back to Puerto Williams, which is like promising not to go to Wisconsin on your NY to Florida road trip.

That night in Ushuaia we ate an outstanding asado of Patagonian Lamb and the famous Argentinian steak. You know it's serious when there is a band saw set up in the foyer of the restaurant, next to the open fire and strung up lambs. We drank an excellent Malbec and in that moment I would've sided with the Argentinians on the Falklands question just out of respect for their wine and asado. We returned to the boat and secured some extra lines in anticipation of a blow coming that night. The blow did come and the sheer strength and sound of the wind kept us up most the night. We were rafted to two other boats and being blown off the dock, thankfully. The wind peaked at 54 knots, which creates an incredible sensation inside the boat, or outside, when running lines or securing chafe gear. I kept thinking, at what point should I hold on so that I don't fly away.

We left Ushuaia with our paperwork done, fueled up, and provisioned with things we would surely treasure during later offshore moments, but man did we look forward to returning to the the pastoral relaxation of Puerto Williams and our temporary community of sailors. We pulled into Micalvi and rafted up to our friends on Nastiq, and proceeded to begin planning our passage to Cape Horn which we would have to do quickly in order to use the remaining days of the calm after the system we experienced n Ushuaia.

The next day we left for the Horn, crossing Bahia Nassau in considerable ease and meeting up with three boats we knew in Caleta Martial. They had just returned from The Horn and were celebrating with pizza and champagne. We joined them and toasted to the future while they toasted to the past. Early next morning, they were pulling out as we were leaving to circumnavigate Cabo de Hornos. We took our time and tacked out of the canal into the open Pacific where we met some swell and started to see the familiar outline of the peak of Cape Horn come into view. We sailed all day to get around the horn and into our next anchorage. It was a contemplative, beautiful day, though it didn't exactly blow our minds. I mean, we have been navigating similar islands for months now, but I did reflect on what it took to get so far south. Hundreds of small steps, small goals, miles of to-do lists, seemingly insurmountable challenges like the engine rebuild, and so much filthy boat work in heat, cold, rain. Then of course there is the commitment, quiting your job, moving onto a boat, and then months, well years really, of constant attention to a project you share with one other person. In a way sailing around Cape Horn was like any other day of our lives as sailors. In another way, it was a gesture of great significance, not just for us, but for our communities, our families, our grandchildren. In the moment, however, we were just peacefully sailing around a big rock and eating left over guacamole. I looked to port and said, It is crazy that the next thing south is Antartica, right?

I think we will save that for next time, Max said.