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Rounding the Horn
Being the Story of Merchant Seamen, Daring Explorers, Natural Disaster, Native Splendor, and a Journey to the Most Fam
By Dallas Murphy Basic Books
Copyright © 2005 Dallas Murphy
All right reserved.
From Ushuaia to Puerto Williams
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map, I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there." -Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I am hartily sick of this palgy durty good-for-nothing weather-I would advise no one to come round Cape Horn for Pleasure. -Nathan Appleton, mate on the sealer Concord, 1800
On a sparkling, warm, atypical day in March, we shouldered up our gear and headed down the hill to the harbor at Ushuaia, Argentina. It's deep enough to accommodate oceangoing freighters at wharves fronting Avenue Mupai. But the west end, where the sailboats live, is mud-bank shallow at low tide when the moon is new or full. This morning's low had left the concrete wharf high and dry except for a shallow pool at the outer end, where Pelagic and three of her colleagues were raftedbeam-to-beam, barely afloat. Pelagic was the outermost boat in the raft.
We were here in Argentina to go sailing in Chile. To a boat in the business of exploring Southern Hemisphere wilderness, a civilized base of operations is essential. Ushuaia, isolated on the Beagle Channel at the far south shore of Tierra del Fuego, is the only practical option. It has a real airport, hotels, grocery stores, telephones, mail service, and a population of 32,000. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. That Ushuaia is in Argentina, while Cape Horn and the entire Fuegian Archipelago are part of Chile, wouldn't matter if the two nations didn't distrust and despise each other with abiding passion. They've carved utterly arbitrary borders on Tierra del Fuego, an enormous island of 25,754 square miles, the size of Scotland. Chile owns the western portion out to the Pacific Ocean. Argentina owns the eastern section along the Atlantic coast out around the toe at Cape San Diego and back along the south shore as far as Ushuaia. The rest of the island west of Ushuaia's suburbs and all the islands to the south belong to Chile. And since there are no border crossings on Tierra del Fuego and no interisland transport, Ushuaia is isolated by politics as well as nature.
I was vaguely aware of their mutual animosity, but I didn't see what that could have to do with us aboard Pelagic. None of us was a citizen of either nation, and she was registered in England. But then I heard that Chile was prohibiting us from huge tracts of their wilderness waters and islands. It must be a formality or something, and once they understood our purpose, which was merely to observe this piece of their beautiful country, they would suspend their prohibitions. Then I heard about the gunboats. Painted flat black for maximum menace and bristling with guided missile pods, they patrol at flank speed back and forth in the Beagle Channel, Argentines on their side of the border (it runs down the middle of the channel), Chileans on theirs.
Chile has closed off sections of the archipelago for reasons of national security, for fear of invasion by Argentina. It's happened before, Chileans say, look how Argentina stole Patagonia. And then I heard about the land mines. Chile has planted antipersonnel mines on Cape Horn.... No one was laughing. As we walked down the dock to meet Pelagic, a gunboat rounded Punta Escarpados and carved a dead-slow turn through the harbor while lookouts with binoculars on the bridge wings searched for Chileans.
Pelagic's particulars: Length: 53 feet Beam: 14.6 feet Draft: Keel up - 3 feet Keel down - 9.7 feet (3m) Sail area: 470 sq. ft. (145 sq. m) Weight: 30 tons Range, motoring: 2,000 miles at 7 knots Power: 115-hp diesel engine Water: 1,000 liters (42 days' worth for six people) Food: four months' worth for six to eight people
"Pelagic": relating to the open seas and especially those portions beyond the outer border of the littoral zone.
* * *
Pelagic was ready to go, said her captain, Hamish Laird, a man with a posh British accent, a quick wit, and fifteen years' experience in these waters. Kate Ford, his mate in both the nautical and domestic sense, was downtown buying a lamb, she'd be right back. As for the customs man, well, you couldn't always tell about him, but he'd promised dispatch. We couldn't go anywhere until he'd cleared us out of Argentina's waters. After that we would be required to proceed directly to the little settlement at Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino to clear into Chile's waters and to receive our cruising permit. In Spanish the permit is called el zarpe, from the verb zarpar, "to set sail." No one sets sail from Puerto Williams without el zarpe, but we were hoping for a special zarpe. While we waited, Hamish suggested we might want to stow our gear below and pick a berth, and then he'd give us a safety tour. I lingered awhile to look her over.
This is a rugged, go-anywhere boat, whose reputation precedes her. Her hull is built of steel. All the deck hardware is beefed up a size or two and doubly reinforced. She's rigged as a sloop, which is to say she has one mast, and it's as stout as a bridge abutment. She carries two sails forward of the mast, a big one and small one, both set on roller-furling devices for easy handling. I liked her already, and of course I respected the hard miles she'd logged. She'd crossed the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula numerous times as well as to South Georgia Island, the Falkland Islands, and of course Cape Horn. She had stood up to weather that we, her weakest link, hoped to avoid.
Pelagic is not a handsome vessel. Her deckline is dead flat, her profile frankly trapezoidal, and her doghouse is boxy. She has no elegant overhangs at bow and stern, no varnished wood or other cosmetic niceties. This environment doesn't respect brightwork. Nor is she particularly nimble or slippery through the water. Speed is a direct function of weight, but the need for self-sufficiency precludes lightness, and besides, fast boats tend to break. Her owner, Skip Novak, professional ocean racer and high-latitude mountaineer, believes that strength and simplicity should trump every other design consideration for the sake of dependability. The combination of deepwater sailing and wilderness mountaineering is Pelagic's purpose, a concept pioneered in the sixties by one Bill Tilman, whose name is spoken with reverence aboard Pelagic. Novak may have learned his priorities, the commitment to simplicity, from Tilman, and maybe a little of the Skipper's disrespect for dudish comforts. We had no electric winches, no refrigeration or water makers, because those things are both unnecessary and liable to breakdown. If you want a cold beer, stick a case up in the unheated forepeak next to the metal hull. And if you run short of fresh water, stop and borrow a tankful from a mountain stream or a melting ice floe. That's Skip's view, and we'd known it long before we came here. We weren't expecting hot showers or piqa coladas served at sunset, nor did we crave them.
Her deck layout is smart and simple, with all the sail-control lines conveniently to hand. She'd be an easy boat to handle. On deck, all sailboats are similar, and once an experienced sailor learns the ropes, he or she can sail any boat. But there was one substantial difference between this deck and others we'd known in the lower latitudes. Mounted around the mast are three keg-sized spools of heavy rope, 150 meters on each spool. Because the weather often turns vicious without notice, one cannot merely drop an anchor and expect the boat to stay put. In addition to the big plow-style anchor, we would need to take the lines ashore and tie them off to trees or boulders. I loved that the spooled decklines were coated with molted penguin feathers.
Below the waterline-at the keel-there is a remarkable nautical adaptation. Keels are crucial because they provide stability by counterbalancing the press of wind against the sails, without which the boat would flop over on its side. But keels are literally a drag. Not only must this multiton protuberance from the bottom be hauled through the water, but to be efficient the keel needs to go deep; seven feet would do, but nine would be better for a sea boat, which she certainly is. But for an expedition boat meant to approach poorly charted rocky shores, which she also is, deep draft is an impediment to her objectives and a threat to her safety.
Novak and her designer addressed the paradox aggressively. Her keel can be retracted up into her belly (with aid from an electric winch) as if it were a centerboard on a racing dinghy. This reduces her draft from over nine feet to three. She can't sail with the keel retracted, but she can tuck her nose into the tiniest cove, offering intimacy with the environment. But in sailboats, everything compromises something else; nothing is without cost. The retracting keel has nowhere to go but up inside the body of the boat, residing in a floor-to-ceiling box, twelve feet long, three feet wide, running down the middle of her living space. There's a row of berths in double tiers along the port side of the box. Kate and the captain have a tiny cabin on the other side, next to the head.
My friends had finished stowing their gear in the small allotted spaces, and they'd left me a nice berth on the starboard side above the settees and dining table, which looked like a pleasing place to spend an evening with friends. This brings up the selection of people to sail with when one has a choice. Tim, David, and Jonathan are old friends from other boats. Dick, from England via Australia, was a new friend, but you could tell from his sailing risumi and his manner that he'd be a boon on any trip. Plus, he'd taught meteorology at the University of Papua, New Guinea! We had plenty of sailing skill, but for that matter, Kate and Hamish can handle Pelagic by themselves, and often do.
We'd need sailors with inner resources to amuse themselves quietly, people who could converse, but not have to; we'd need those who subscribed to the expedition ethic, holding that shipmates should be of good cheer even if they're not.
Hamish gave us a tour of the boat's innards, pulling up the floorboards to show us where all the seacocks were located. These are valves that let in water for plumbing and other purposes, which means that the seacocks are located below the waterline, where you don't like to have holes. If you find yourself hopping out of bed into ankle-deep water, seacocks are the first places to look for the leak. In the event of failure, Hamish had placed a wooden bung beside each and a hammer to drive it home. Topside he showed us where the safety gear was stowed, flares and strobes and safety harnesses, and how to deploy the self-inflating life raft. But he said if the worst happened, we would take to the hard-bottom inflatable dinghy, which was stowed upside down on the foredeck. "Much more comfortable. With a motor."
"Oh, look," said Hamish, interrupting his man-overboard procedures. "Here comes Kate with the lamb. I hope you guys like lamb. This is Argentina, after all."
Kate was climbing over lifelines and working her way around the rigging on the neighboring French and German boats, declining offers of assistance.
"What else?" said Hamish, wrapping it up. "Oh, yes. See that chimney?" It was poking through the cabin top just forward of the doghouse. "Don't stand downwind of it. The back draft puts out the cabin stove. You'll like that stove. This is a heat wave."
Wait a minute, that was the lamb? Kate was cradling a black plastic body bag from which hoofless hindquarters protruded.
"The butcher asked if I wanted it all cut up in chops and shanks and such," said Kate. "But I told him, no, all in one piece. He was so pleased."
Hamish took the corpse off her hands. He withdrew the skinned, decapitated lamb, blue veins visible beneath the translucent fat, and lashed it spread-eagled to the split backstay with the long belly slit gaping. It was then we noticed that the three other boats in the raft all had lambs lashed to their backstays like sacrifices to the wind gods.
"Well, do we have any mint?" Jonathan wondered.
* * *
There was a story going around the docks. I heard it first from Skip Novak, subsequently from Hamish, then someone else. This family from Ushuaia sailed their little boat across the Beagle Channel for a barbecue on the north shore of Isla Navarino. That's only four miles away, but it lies in Chilean territory. While the family roasted their lamb, a Chilean gunboat arrived, slipped the sailboat's anchor, and without a word, towed the boat to Puerto Williams, leaving the family stranded. As the story had it, the gunboat towed the sailboat backward. That was egregious. I pictured the little fiberglass boat bucking and slewing behind the warship, the rudder cracking off, floating up in the churning wake. Even if the story is apocryphal, and it might be, its general acceptance as fact reflected the local mood. Like the antipersonnel mines on Cape Horn.
Back home, ignorant of the geopolitical friction in Fuegia, I'd planned a sailboat route through the archipelago using a British Admiralty chart with the enthralling title "South-Eastern Part of Tierra del Fuego." Navigation charts might be the most poetical of practical documents ever conceived, truth and beauty on a single stiff sheet. I love the planning stage when all things seem possible. I'd sailed every high-latitude wilderness from the Sverdrup Islands to the South Shetlands using charts to lend verisimilitude to fantasy voyages, but this one down to the Horn would soon become real. I wanted to be prepared. I pored over the chart until I could call up from memory the complex configuration of islands and channels so that the most harmonious route might reveal itself. I knew that weather can turn concrete plans into vague abstractions, but that's no reason to forgo the pleasure of laying them.
After clearing customs in Puerto Williams, we'd continue on around the east side of Isla Navarino and then south across the open water of Bahma Nassau. It was clear from the chart and several disappointed sailors I'd spoken with that Isla Hornos lacked a secure anchorage. It made sense, therefore, to position ourselves for a quick dash to the Horn, taking advantage of fair weather if it came our way.
Excerpted from Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy Copyright © 2005 by Dallas Murphy. Excerpted by permission.
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