Friday, February 27, 2015

Two Sides of Chiloé

The month of February, 2015 - it'll never come again.   (Once it's gone, that is, I'm anticipating by a couple days.)

We might have done any number of things with that month, but what we actually did was to explore Chiloé - both the east coast of Chiloé Island itself, as well as the outlying islands in the Golfo Corcovado and the mainland on the eastern shores of the Gulf.

The area has something of a split personality.  The picture above was taken in Quellon, a fishing town every bit as hard working and hard-scrabble as fishing towns usually are.  When we pulled into the anchorage crowded with work boats and beheld the grimy waterfront of the town itself I was moved to comment that traveling sailors coming in from the delights of the Gulf of Alaska probably feel a similar sort of deflation when they first see our beloved, though certainly grimy, Kodiak.

Once we were ashore, the view didn't improve.  We found an open sewer and drunks on the sidewalk. The buildings cried out for a coat of paint, the nice women running the empanada shop where we stopped for a bite were turning away yet more drunks who were looking for a feed.

We were in Quellon only for groceries and boots (for Elias, who had been doing without waterproof boots) and kept our stay short - one afternoon and the following morning, and then we were gone.  But it was one of those places that you just don't feel like visiting with a four year old who listens poorly.

On the other hand, I suppose that it was a valuable bit of education for Elias.  "Dad," he asked me as we passed a passed-out drunk on our way back to Smooches after our morning hit ashore, "why do some people have no money and other people so much?"

And further on that other hand, there was the toothless young fisherman who gave us a double handful of the clams he had laboriously collected himself with the help of a hookah.  And the women in the empanada shop who shared their own dinner of mussels with us.

The mariscos (shellfish) didn't thrill us - Alaskans can be such seafood snobs - but there remains nothing as touching as a spontaneous gift from someone who doesn't have much.

We fled Quellon for nearby Isla Cailín - with a mostly empty beach to walk on, which we enjoy very much, but still in cell phone range for me to communicate with some biology collaborators back in the States.

Even though Cailín was out of the impact zone that is Quellon, it was still on the same metaphorical side of the coin.  The bay was encumbered with aquaculture, as is every spare scrap of ocean around Chiloé  And the beach was thick with plastic trash, most of it from aquaculture and fishing boats, just like every beach in the area.

The ocean around Chiloé is made to work hard - people here are getting a buck out of the sea more so than any other place we've visited in the Pacific.  It's hard to get Alaskans to be polite about farmed salmon, and the one taste that I've had of the local farmed fish will be enough, thanks very much.  But on the other hand I love the bustle and energy of the local fishing fleets, and the warm reception that people working on the water give us.  I appreciate the value of the muscular livelihoods that are earned on the water here.

This picture of Eric above, and all the pictures below, were from the other side of the metaphorical coin - in this case Bahía Tictoc, our southernmost point on the mainland thus far.

This is the Chile that we came to see.  Where Chiloé features heavily modified agricultural landscapes, Tictoc offers native forests.  And where Chiloé is a place of people, Tictoc has exactly one inhabitant - the caretaker for the land owned by Douglas Tompkins, who has single-handedly set aside a huge chunk of land here for conservation.

We on Galactic don't need a huge chunk of land - just give us a deserted little scrap of rocky shoreline for the boys to scamper around, and perhaps a few new bird species for the family to identify, and we'll be happy as can be.

Tictoc was the very first place where we've tied into a Patagonian anchorage with shorelines - in Puerto Juan Yates, to be more specific.  We identified a new species of dolphin (Peale's) as we were motoring into the anchorage, we saw our first kelp geese there, and from the decks of Galactic we watched American mink diving to forage in the subtidal zone.

Once we were over in nearby Puerto Escondido we met said caretaker (Manuel?  Manuelo? I find it so hard to catch names), got a tour of the premises, and Elias finally found his Chilean angling mojo, catching dinner for the whole family.

There's lots more of that sort of anchorage to come.

Through it all, of course, the rigors and vicissitudes of life on a traveling boat are never far away... 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Keepin' on

Any day you see penguins is a good day.  These are Magellanic penguins,
Spheniscus magellanicus
It's only really travel if you're on a roller coaster.  There have to be the heady highs and, inevitably, the Stygian lows that keep them company.  I first learned that when I was traveling by bus through Ethiopia with my bestest mate, Linus, all these many years ago.

Estero Pailad had plenty of surprises.  Here I'm
plucking a spawner out of the sea chest -
there were lots more where this one came from
Having the Little Dipper taken off us was a low.  We're pretty good about not being attached to possessions, and there was only a little of the inevitable self-blame.  (Why did we stop hanging the dinghies every night?)  But mostly, we (I) feel for the blow to the ship's operations.  You might call it a luxury to have two dinngers (we still have Smooches, our éminence grise of an Achilles).  But aside from the convenience of being a two-car family and having a boat that was great for Elias to operate on his own, we quite like the redundancy of a second tender for the waters where we plan to operate over the next year or so.  The Little Dipper had beed our planned go-to for rowing lines ashore in the caletas of Patagonia.

Scanning Estero Pailad for a dinghy that we know is
well and truly gone 

Ah, well.  We did have a bit of a compensatory up when we first went ashore to look for any signs of the missing boat and stumbled upon an extended family from Santiago, about to enjoy a mid-afternoon repast of lamb roasted over an open fire.  They immediately welcomed us into their gathering, pressing beer and wine on us and insisting we should stay to eat with them.  Quite remarkably hospitable people, whose easy friendship we weren't quite in the mood to enjoy.

Despite whatever lows come your way, it is vitally important on a traveling boat to develop the capacity to just keep going, metaphorically and actually.  When we bought Pelagic, I remember the sellers, Q and Tatty, telling us that even when things just seemed too hard, we should keep going.

They were talking about the work of keeping a traveling boat in good nick, but the same thing applies to this sort of situation.  So the day after we lost the Little Dipper, we picked up the hook and headed down to the fishing town of Quellon.

How Alisa and Elias sail to weather
How Eric does
We had a bit of a bash to windward to get there - two reefs in the main and all that.  But after we'd tacked back towards Chiloé and the wind-against-tide action had mellowed out a bit, Eric recovered his wits enough to point behind us and say, "Look, that volcano is erupting."
See the plume on the left?
And, he was right.  One of the peaks on the horizon was having a grumpy.

Eric was so pleased that he had been the one to spot it.  And for me, it was this powerful moment of realization, a moment that brought home to me how far we've traveled over the last year or so, and what a remarkable place we've reached.  A place where your four-year-old can look over the stern of the family home and spot an erupting volcano in the Andes.

Too cool, that.

And finally, this parting shot.  The Little Dipper in happier days, Amanu Atoll, the Tuamotus, 2014.
Sic transit gloria and all that

Friday, February 13, 2015

Ripped off

For years we've made it a habit to hang the dinghies on halyards at night. It's part of what we call the "Galactic way" - our general approach to operating the ship. If the dinghies are hanging out of the water, they're a lot less likely to go wandering in the night.

On this last haulout, I saw that the topsides paint was getting scratched up where we hang the dinghy. So ever since we left Valdivia, we've been leaving both dinghies in the water every night, tied to the stern, just like most every other traveling sailboat does.

You can see where this is going.

Last night someone cut the painter of the Little Dipper, our hard rowing dinghy. And it is as gone as a dinghy can be.

We're going to miss that little boat. Elias has rowed around a bunch of anchorages in it all by himself, and we had some ripping sails with it at Amanu last season. We still have the sailing rig, if you're interested.

So, over seven and a half years of sailing we've now had two outboards and a dinghy stolen. I wonder if this makes us slow learners?

Thursday, February 12, 2015


I was awoken in the middle of the night by the unmistakable sound of water rushing past our hull.

We had anchored towards the head of Estero Pailad, a long fjord-shaped bay that opens up into wide shallows above us. The tides here are six meters - we took that into account when we had anchored at high tide in the afternoon. But we had no idea that the place turned into whitewater on the ebb.

It was much, much more current than I had ever heard around one of our boats. Clearly enough to be dangerous.

I was on deck in a second. The water boiled all around us...but the anchor chain was slack. I looked again at all the boils and ripples in the water - and at all the fish.

We were surrounded by masses of a small pelagic fish. It was actually slack water, and the turbulence on the surface of the water and the noise down below that had been loud enough to wake me up was just due to the million or so (no joke) fish in our near vicinity.

So that was why the Estero was alive with Chilean dolphins and South American sea lions. These animals were feeding all around us, leaving trails of bubbles all around the boat as they chased the fish. Whatever the fish were, we figured they must have been spawning to be aggregated in such numbers.

Alisa and I took in the spectacle for a few minutes, then went back to bed and marveled at the sounds the fish made inside our boat.

The next day, Elias pumped the head and managed to splatter shit up against the toilet seat.

(This is that romantic side of the life afloat that you might not have heard about.)

The head pump didn't seem to be working, so I disassembled and serviced it. When the pump was back in place, it still didn't work. I took it apart and replaced another valve. Same result.

Meanwhile, the sinks in the galley and our head were draining very slowly.

Do you see where this is going? There were so many fish the night before that some of them apparently lodged themselves in the seacocks draining the sinks and supplying water to the head. (I have no explanation for why restricted water to the head makes it spew backwards.)

I managed to blow the head supply seacock clear with air from the dinghy footpump. One fish ended up in the cockpit (the drains communicate with the sea chest feeding the head and engine raw water supply) and another was floating at the top of the sea chest. We very tentatively identified them as South American pilchards, Sardinops sagax.

No amount of drain disassembly and foot pump action would clear the galley sink, so I gave up and put on my wetsuit.

In the water, I pulled another 17 of the buggers out of various through-hulls. Four had stuffed themselves into the sink drain to plug it, and five managed to fit into the head outlet.

I've never heard of a boat having all of its through-hulls stuffed full of fish like that. And it's potentially a bit of a nuisance. Until I pulled them out, we had no use of the engine, sinks, or head.

I can't figure if there were so many that they just randomly ran into our through-hulls when they were being chased by predators, or if there was some other reason they ended up in there.

I just hope I got them all...

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Monday, February 9, 2015

d' Islands

That's where we are - the red oval is more or less over the east side of Chiloé Island
Locals row; visitors row, too

Chiloé Island - it's just famous enough that we'd heard of it before we arrived.  Bruce Chatwin, a few glowing reports from friends who have been here before us - it was enough that this place was on our radar as somewhere significant to visit.

North of us is Valdivia and the long unprotected west coast of South America.  South of us is the vast abyss of the Patagonian canales, where untold adventures await and winter approaches.

And we're here, in this happy middle ground, where we can cut our teeth on navigating Chile.

We're traveling a little blind - nothing much to read beyond the comments in the "Italian Book", as the go-to pilot for sailing Patagonian waters is universally referred to.  We have whatever the Lonely Guide to South America has to say about the place, but when I read other Lonely Guides, describing places I know well, I always come away with the impression that the first (and only) draft of the context material was written in crayon.  So we haven't looked there.

(Biggest apologies to the Lonely author we actually know, and a note that their Tasmanian guide is rock-solid.)

So we're just following our noses, developing our own extremely idiosyncratic picture of this place, based on the sights we stumble upon and our random interactions with locals.  The fishermen are certainly friendly.   And I continue to reap the cachet of having fished one season for Bering Sea red king crab.

We started our sojourn with George - scion of the Harcha clan, and I'm sure fated to be the only genuine Chilean politician whom we will ever have on the boat.

Hosting George gave us some great insight into Chile, and it was very instructive to see how he cajoled the reluctant owner of a cocinería - a small restaurant in someone's home - into cooking us dinner.

George Harcha Uribe earns his passage

Palafitos - houses built on stilts over the water, Mechuque Island

This picture reminded Alisa of Alaska.  We're wearing Xtra-tuffs and Carharrts…and there are no kids in sight!


Dalcahue is something of a South American theme park
After all of our mental, and physical, preparations for the gelid weather of Patagonia, this February in Chiloé has been a wonderful interlude.  We're in baking sunshine day after day, missing the shade of the bimini that I packed away in Valdivia, sure that it was something we wouldn't want in Chile.

We'll miss easy weather soon enough.  But for right now, it's giving our time in Chiloé a delightful, languid feel.  The days are endless, the livin' is easy, and there is always a nice estero just a few miles away where we can drop the pick.  We haven't done so much island hopping - Apiao and Mechuque and Lemuy and Quehui, not to mention Chiloé itself - in I don't know how long.  There are a few Chilean sailboats about, and even fewer foreign yachts, and we're having the great experience of knocking around a new country without living in the parallel expat world that you get in places that are swarmed by foreign yachts.

All in all, it's no bad.


Sailor in port

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Chronic

I spent two summers in Alaska before I moved there, hitchhiking up and working in salmon canneries to finance hiking trips in the Arctic before hitching back to New Orleans for the winter.

I remember in those early visits meeting Alaskans who said they "couldn't handle the Lower 48." Whatever, I would think to myself. What's so hard about the Lower 48?

But then I made the Great Land my home. And it wasn't too long before I couldn't imagine going back to the Lower 48, either.

A place changes you, I suppose. Or a place can make it easier to be true to yourself.

Alisa just noted that it's been a week since we left Valdivia. And in the timeless way of traveling on our own boat, the place we left behind seems a lifetime away. In that week we've seen blue whales and a dozen new species of birds. We've anchored in six places. We've tied to a commercial dock to make a crew change and watched a fishing boat power up hard against the lines that were holding it rafted behind us, only a meter or so from our solar panels and wind vane, an easy error by its captain or crew from doing real damage to us. I've driven the boat towards the shoals in an unknown anchorage on a falling tide and caught myself, thinking, you don't want to go aground here. I've used my broken Spanish for quick conversations with people we've run into on the beach. I've used that same broken Spanish to talk with a new friend, learning something about his life and life in his country.

And through it all I've been traveling with my children and my wife, and my wife and I have counted on each other totally to get through the routine rigors of navigating and anchoring in places we've never been to before, all while raising the kids.

Can you see why we don't want to stop doing this?

I can't imagine another way of living that would force us to live so much by our wits day after day. Another way of living that would be so fierce, if you will. This morning I saw Alisa's face as she stood in the companionway, scanning the anchorage at first light. If you could see her face as she calmly took in everything around us, evaluating the state of wind and tide and weather and the lay of the land, all the boats and the scattered houses around the landlocked bay and what their life might mean to us - if I could show you the look on her face as she did that, with the light of dawn on her, then you'd know what I mean.

During this last season in French Poly we started to come to grips with when we might go back to Alaska and give up our wandering ways. We decided that two more years would do us - we'd be back in Kodiak in the Boreal summer of 2016.

But now we can feel our resolution slipping. We're just having too much fun. And really, we can't imagine going back.

It helps enormously that I am able to keep working as a biologist while we travel. The finances would never work out otherwise. And my demeanor is such that I would be unhappy if I didn't feel that I was contributing to the common weal in some small way.

So, we have observed over and again the many ways that life can change in some fundamental way and puts a stop to sailors' voyaging. And our sailing continues to be dependent on my ability to find enough work to pay for it all. But, barring those two contingencies, we seem to be moving towards more of the same.

And though we are inclined to keep going because we are so content, there is also that part of us that can't quite see the way clear to going back again. We're like those Alaskans I met all those years ago - we've been changed by the experience of living this way, and it's hard to imagine the life that we took for granted before we left.

We realize that it will likely only get harder to go back as we stay out longer. But surely we can fit in a visit to the Falklands before we point the bow north again?

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