Monday, May 1, 2017

Please Poseidon: The Falklands to Brazil

I had wedged myself into the bench in the main salon with my feet braced against the starboard bunk. The boat heeled and surged with the waves. "Do you think I will ever be a beautiful woman again?" I asked Max.

"You're a woman?" he replied.

"I don't know anymore, I just have all these memories of having been a woman."

We laughed at the truth of it. I looked down at my trusty Carhart overalls, stained with oil, fuel, coffee, and other mysteries. My knees were dusted with teal bottom paint, the tops of my shoes had broken free from the soles months ago and the tip of my dirty sock stuck out.

Our last meal of the delicious lamb raised in The Falklands.
One of the great misconceptions about life at sea, or sailing in general, is that it is terrifically romantic. I'm sure that when people imagine us on our adventure, they picture us snuggled with cocktails on the fore-deck, a glowing sunset on the horizon, and Tortuga sailing herself through just windy enough seas. They may imagine us walking along an exotic coast, disclosing our deepest secrets to one another. Though this has occurred, it is extremely rare, and there are no secrets left. We have grown closer to each other than I ever thought possible, but this has mostly to do with head related activities we didn't use to share, or emotional meltdowns we have rescued each other from. That's the bathroom sort of head in case you are wondering.

Another myth about sailing is that life at sea is terrifically exciting. That famous quotation about war, periods of extreme boredom punctuated by moments of terror, or something like that, is applicable to sailing, and particularly applicable to sailing the southern ocean. I imagined so many things that would be difficult about this trip, but I never knew that the sheer boredom of it at times would come to truly challenge me. Another challenge is the utter lack of hygiene. When the boredom and feeling of personal filth coincide, I sit on the rail for hours staring out to sea. Instead of contemplating the horizon, the sea birds, or the cloud formations like a responsible sailor, I just imagine, over and over, taking a hot, pressurized shower, scrubbing my skin red, and then falling asleep in a level bed with fresh sheets. Sometimes in my daydream I focus on the moment when I scrub my scalp with shampoo over and over. Other times it's the sloughing off of skin that excites me.

After twelve days out from The Falklands, only one had brought favorable winds. That was the first day and we put behind us 140nm proudly, jubilantly. We bid farewell to the last huddles of jumping penguins, to the forceful winds of the south, and were on our way to sunny Brazil, ready to shed layers and swim all day. Every day since has brought northerly winds, mostly light, revealing the disappointing truth that our Westsail can only sail 60 degrees off the wind with a opposing sea state. If the wind builds to 20 knots, we become even less efficient. Though, and this almost makes it worse, with long periods of intense focus and concentration, we can manage to improve our progress towards Brazil by going slightly more north of east or west. When the wind picks up, this means sitting at the tiller, pounding into waves and rain, while making 2-3 knots in the wrong direction. Really not fun. My brothers used to play a game with me where they would put their hand on my forehead, lock their elbow, and say, come and get me, come and get me. I would struggle this way and that, but not be able to move towards them. If you're so mad, why don't you come get me? they would taunt. For two weeks sailing felt like that. However, due to those periods of focus, a lot of tiller time (especially after our autopilot broke), and the first day when we had favorable winds, we somehow advanced towards Brazil 800 miles in those two weeks. Normally, we do that in almost half the time.

An Albacore Tuna Max caught on a hand line.

The usual scene of gore that accompanies Max catching a Tuna.
It is very hard to maintain morale under such slow progress. The slightest thing will put a crack in the most resilient optimism. Yesterday, it was a half cabbage flying across the cabin that sent me over the edge into despair. The flying cabbage was preceded by the overflow of waste water from our holding tank out of the toilet and over my feet. Just as I stood up from pumping the toilet dry, a sudden jolt sent my head into the corner of a beam, ear first. After that, the cabbage was more than I could handle. I was soon slumped in the cockpit, rain gathering on my face, with a look of utter melancholy. A dense fog had rolled in as thick as cotton and would stay with us for three days. It reduced visibility to a quarter mile and we took to making announcements on the radio every thirty minutes stating our position and heading.

The cabbage was sent into flight by the irregular waves of a system that halted our progress completely for 12 hrs. It started at 4:30 a.m. during my watch. I had been listening to a podcast outside and ignoring the indications that the boat had too much sail up. The cockpit had been soaked by a few waves, but I thought it would pass. Nothing is worse than changing your whole sail plan to find out that it was just a tiny squall, and all that sail needs to go out or up again. This time it was a persistent squall with winds in the 30s and dump trucks of rain. When that happens you really, really regret not reefing when it first crossed your mind. So Max was up and we were shouting back and forth through the weather and not only reefing, but exchanging our sails for smaller storm versions. I remember feeling my full body weight against the tether that held me to the boat, and just trying to see anything in the rain. By 5 a.m. we had downsized and were sailing into the weather in a slightly more controlled way. Our forward progressed had diminished to 2 knots and we were really getting slammed around. It was obvious that our efforts were useless. We decided to heave-to and go below to sleep. I had been up helping Max during the first night watch and the overall commotion had deprived us both of sleep. So, we heaved-to, and allowed the boat to drift backwards, towards The Falklands, away from Brazil, while we went below and slept. We slept earnestly, completely undaunted by the idea, the fact, that we were floating backwards in dense fog through the southern ocean, being battered by a storm, the howling wind and rain like a battlefield outside, and the occasional wave that threatened to rock us out of our bunk. It will be over by ten and we will be able to sail. For now, let's just sleep, Max said.

By ten we were dressing in our foulies and excited to be underway. By 10:30 we were underway and utterly defeated by the weather. By 11:00 we were hove to, reading in bed. We waited all day and made a few more efforts to move against the weather. It was pointless, and also dangerous to exhaust ourselves with so many miles ahead. By early afternoon we were in bed, eating cheese and crackers, passing a beer back and forth, and watching a movie about Beyonce defending her husband against the advances of a relentless stalker. I bet no one who imagines us on our adventure imagines that.

The storm blew itself out by evening and we were underway for real, enjoying every sign of the weather's growing docility. We had lost 24 hours of progress, drifted backwards 14 miles, but were armored with the renewed optimism a dry cockpit and regular wave pattern can muster. We are going to get there, became the mantra when one of us saw the furrowed brow of the other. This is another thing I am sure no one imagines when they imagine us out here- that we often fall into the dramatized hopelessness reminiscent of childhood tantrums. One of us may flop lifelessly on the bunk and moan out that we are never going to get there, or ramble off a list of complaints- I'm so wet and feel so dirty and my face is so sticky. I just want to shower. I think I hate sailing. The other one will swoop in with encouragement because we both know it is not long before we will switch roles. Max will say to me, It's okay babe. we just need two good days. Remember Colombia to Galapagoes? we were so frustrated because we did 400m in 6 days, but then we did 600m in 4 days.  This is also a perfect time for one of us to talk the other through all the blessings. It's not raining right NOW, I may say. We have plenty of fuel and water still, the engine is doing great, and we still have four carrots.

What provisions start to look like after two weeks at sea.

Not a bad meal made from the provisions above, a few potatoes, and the last of the eggs.
It certainly wasn't all bad aboard Tortuga during this passage. We had our lovely night watches filled with hours of reading outside, star-gazing, and daydreaming. At times the scent of freshly baked bread overtook that of diesel and the cabin turned into the coziest of floating nooks, a flickering pocket of warmth on a vast sea. I'm sure it is a surprise to know that we spend a lot of time apart on passages. When days start clicking past, it is common for us only to interact during meals and cocktail hour. The rest is just turns sleeping, passing off thoughts on wind and sails at the changes of watches, a hand on your shoulder and the whisper of, it's your turn, there's new coffee in the thermos. At cocktail hour we express all our thoughts to each other. We speak at length about literature. If one is reading a book the other recently finished, we discuss the characters in detail expressing our frustration at their decision making. If one of us is reading a new book we deliver mini lectures on the topics of our recent learning. Seal hunting in the southern ocean, the political situation in Venezuela, the experience of a Nigerian immigrant living in NYC. We read a lot out here. A lot.

Two weeks and three books- Americanah, Sophie's World, and The Fountainhead.

Max's Albacore is memorialized on fish print t's for family and friends.
We also experience the ecstasy of shower night every three days. We heat up a kettle of water and pressurize it in a pesticide sprayer (don't worry, never used for that purpose). We spray ourselves down, and scrub away the filth while conserving as much of the water as possible. Shower day is followed by new sheets night and that is when morale skyrockets. There is nothing to improve a passage like a shower and a clean set of sheets.

Though this passage was incredibly challenging, I reminded myself again and again that within 20 days we would go from walking with penguins on the beach in The Falklands to snorkeling and sunbathing in Brazil. In the last month we have been immersed in Chilean culture, reminded of the velvety sounds of Castellano in Argentina, watched Rugby over warm beers with the Falkland Islanders, and in a few days we will be speaking Portuguese and drinking Caiprinhas on one of the most stunning coasts in the world. That's the thing about sailing. It can be miserable. It can require more patience, endurance, and initiative than you ave to offer. It can make walking a challenge, keeping the soup in the bowl impossible, and can slow time down to an unbearable creep, but then you find yourself approaching a new coast overwhelmed by the wonder of it, and you set foot in a new country, with its history, language, food, and you stretch your legs for the first time in weeks to explore, and don't have to worry about being robbed because you look like something a cat threw up.

Though the winds are fickle in the southern Atlantic, the experience of moving away from the southern ocean has eased my mind. The layers of wool and rubber that encumbered our movement in the south have been shed and we have even removed our shoes in the cockpit. The "Furious Fifties" were behind us, as were the "Roaring Forties." We are in the 30s now which to my knowledge lack a terrifying nickname. We made it back to calmer, warmer waters.

In the end it took us seventeen days to reach Rio Grande, Brazil, 1000nm south of our intended landfall in Ilha Grande, Brazil, and 1200nm overall. The weather forced us to shorten the trip and seek a closer port.  We ran very low on fuel by the end, had done pretty well on water, and had run out of fresh food. We were completely out of patience. By the time we reached Rio Grande, an industrial port not frequented by cruisers, it was like arriving in paradise. Just to finally see land was enough to celebrate. This is a low part of the coast where a large river meets the sea and man has done much to modify the landscape. There is a 2km breakwater that extends from the entrance to the port out to sea. Outside, and inside, enormous cargo ships move in slow motion. Turns out, this is one of the biggest ports in South America. We just made it past the breakwater at dusk and, as the big ocean swell flattened out, we found ourselves with all sails up, on flat water, within ten miles of the marina. Hundreds of seals were barking from the boulders of the breakwater and the sun was setting behind the windmills and silos of the industrious landscape. The anxiety of the long, at times seemingly endless, passage was behind us and we felt as if there was nothing to worry us. Darkness came and the landscape turned into a blanket of lights, all colors and sizes. Some guided us and others were on either end of dark hulks that moved towards or away from us, or came silently from behind to overtake us. Little Tortuga sailing upriver amidst ships that could carry hundreds of us. The current picked up and our progress slowed to a creep. Ten miles became an endless stretch. I made coffee and settled in for a long journey. In addition to the sails, we started the engine and pushed as hard as we could against the current. The channel, which is dredged often to compensate for the shifting sandbanks brought on by this vigorous current, was marked every quarter mile, but with so many other lights, it was hard at times to spot our next goal. Just outside the channel I could see that it was shallow enough for egrets to hunt in the light from the container docks where men were working around the clock. Industrial ports are hideous during the day but have a surreal charm at night. Most sailors wouldn't attempt to enter at night, but coming from NYC, we aren't that afraid of city sailing at night.

We entered the breakwater at six, and arrived at a dock near the marina at 9:30. In other words, after doing 1200 in 17 days, which is really slow, we did 10nm in 3.5hrs, which is so much slower. The good news was that there was a dock where we could tie up and friendly sailors to catch our lines. We immediately hopped off the boat and began exchanging stories. Both boats reported similar struggles with the current. One guy gave up after seven hours and anchored for the night. In the end, we decided we had done quite well getting up Rio Grande in the dark.

Rio Grande is not a glamorous location, but offers everything a cruiser needs to rest and provision for the next stretch. The morning after we arrived we skipped into town, taking note of every tropical flower and feeling the warm breeze on our newly exposed skin. We found the practicality of the city charming and appreciated the pastels of the stucco buildings, obviously quite impressive at one time, but currently rather neglected. We found immigration and, as Max handed over our passports, I was daydreaming about an afternoon run along the water, some reading by the pool, and logistics such as getting the laundry done.

Our own private dock in Rio Grande.
Then reality hit. I had arrived in Brazil without the visa necessary for Americans. Max was fine with his German passport, but I was illegal. I found this out a little too late and we decided to take our chances entering Brazil, hoping that they would fine me and allow me to buy a visa at an official port of entry. What happened was that they kicked me out. I had to leave immediately and go to a border town in Uruguay to complete the necessary paperwork. It would take days, as we had arrived on a Friday, and Max would not be able to accompany me. He had to stay with the boat to complete the immigration processes in the appropriate offices Monday morning. And so, after 17 stressful days trying to get to Brazil, I was leaving on the first bus, by myself to a mysterious town where the locals assured me I would be robbed. That story will have to wait until next time...

Our first morning in RG we were invited to a BBQ with this friendly Brazilian family.