Saturday, October 31, 2015


Nothing will focus a sailor's mind like the prospect of passages in the 50s South latitude of the Atlantic Ocean.

We find that a couple of boat questions are becoming resolved as we think of the season ahead. Take the 8mm stainless steel wire that serves for lower and intermediate shrouds and forestay on Galactic (in landlubber talk, the stuff that holds the mast up). Eight mm probably looked plenty robust in San Francisco, when the boat was rigged only five years ago. That same 8 mil is now looking a bad joke after both aft lowers have stranded at some point in the past season. So now we've got the stranded wires swapped out with temporary replacements, and a pile of 10mm rigging is being shipped to meet us in the Falklands, where I will get to play rigger for a while.

(Ahh, those riggers and other sailboat professionals who speak so authoritatively from their shoreside perches in the towns where boats are fitted out. Sail far enough away and they start to seem irrelevant or worse.)

Take too the new polycarbonate for our porlights, also of the 10mm variety. (We have small portlights.) For years we've thought of our old 6mm acrylic as a vulnerability. We've made various improvements, but cost and time have always led us to some sort of compromise. Now, with that same focus lent to us by the coming season, we've bit the considerable bullet of price to get that new 10mm on the same ship from the UK.

We could have done the job easier and cheaper in a lot of other places, but the time for really solid portlights, if it hadn't arrived before, is definitely with us now.

At the same time that we've found ourselves focusing on those boat issues, I find my focus on Chile fading. We've had the most wonderful stay here, but whatever has happened has happened, and the feeling that the best is behind us is hard to shake. The Falklands are increasingly the focus of our attention, as we wonder about king penguins and getting west from Stanley and what the summer might have in store for us. Chile has become a place that we're passing our last weeks in, not quite real to our distracted attention. The sailor's mind eventually bends forward, grasping at whatever is over the horizon.

Chile is as out of focus as this day, one of the first really rainy days that we've had in these three weeks in Beagle Channel. The mountains above are completely lost in the wrack and gloom, and even our starboard bow line, which is at its full extent of 110 m, seems to disappear into the haze of driving precipitation.

(Thélème, if you read this, know that we sing your praises every time we run out a hundred meters of polypropylene to make some caleta anchorage completely bombproof. If Richard hadn't told us to get 110m lines we can so easily see how we might have figured that 55m would surely be long enough. How different los canales would have been for us!)

I suppose that this wind and rain is what you would expect from Tierra del Fuego. But it isn't, by and large, what we've gotten. Enough of our days here have been focused tack-sharp that I think that is the memory that will stay with us of this place. Endless blue skies, and all the day to wonder while we wander.

That's a memory that won't lose focus soon.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Snow With Everything

I don't know if it's an El Niño effect, but we have been blessed by snow on this putative spring cruise around the Beagle Channel. Long afternoons of impressive curtains of the stuff, big flat flakes that in the aggregate are enough to blot out the view of the far end of our shorelines, a hundred meters away.

There has even been enough to shovel the deck, which means that the snow has met our Alaskans' definition for what counts: it isn't snow unless there's enough to shovel.

All this has been scenic and enjoyable. Coming around the corner of Isla Gordon, making the turn from Brazo Noroeste to Brazo Sudoeste, the Northwest Arm of Beagle Channel to the Southwest Arm, savoring the tiny naughty delight of taking a shortcut through Canal Barros Merino, a route unauthorized by the Armada in this region of rigid rules on the places where yachts may or may not go, the little blast of weather coming in off Bahia Cook and beyond that the open Southern Ocean, real Cape Horn country, was greatly dignified by the eye-stinging snowflakes that fled before the wind.

Or the impenetrable grey blanket lying over Brazo Noroeste a few days before that which proved, when our path intersected its, to be the thickest, fattest snow available, instantly blotting out everything around us, and making the ski goggles that we have been carrying just the thing for keeping watching eyes unbothered by driving snow.

We've enjoyed it.

But there was a downside on our first day here in Estero Coloane, when we set out as a family to climb to the vantage point behind the anchorage. The snow-slicked slopes were too much for Eric, and the walk fizzled out at the first reasonably flat spot that we came to. It was one of those what is my five-year-old doing here? moments.

This place - Estero Coloane - might be the most beautiful place we have ever anchored, if only the weather would do it the favor of putting on a bluebird day. Instead of seeing glaciers at the end of a long fjord we're in a deep mountain bowl with glaciers ringing 180 degrees around us. The recumbent glacier across the bowl derives a great sense of scale from the way its flat section hulks across the Estero from us, needing to be looked up at.

The family walking in this place was redeemed yesterday when we made our way through the (introduced) beavers' zone of chewed and toppled trees on the other side of the Estero and thence to the glacial creek and long lateral (medial?) moraine below the snout. This was open country well suited to kids encumbered by raingear and insulated boots, and besides the delight of reaching the glacier face we all had the pleasure of a good look at a Magellanic horned owl, our first owl in Chile.

And yesterday it began to rain. The snow is gone for now. The buds have become young leaves, and I suppose this means spring is no longer putative. It's all very nice in a grey, damp way that doesn't make me happy to see the snow gone.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Five Lines

That's us right now - tied into shore with five lines, a perfect cat's cradle of security to keep Galactic in place when the rigging starts moaning in the middle of the night. We're in the west arm of Seno Pia, a scenic delight of tidewater glaciers beneath the Cordillera Darwin, that range named to please any biologist with a love for the mountains who might sail through.

This place has the surprising ability to turn a strong west/northwest breeze into booming gusts from the southeast. Thus the five shorelines (we were surprised) and our warm thoughts of Phil and Julia on Illawong, veterans of the south who gave us our fifth shoreline when they chucked it all to sail back to Canada.

So we'll be here for another day or two until calm returns and we can untie without undue drama. Time continues to be our great luxury in the life afloat. I do find myself just now a bit pressed meeting various work deadlines, and Alisa has the job of listening to my regular moans about how there just isn't enough time in one life to pursue the parallel tracks of science and sailing and (if there were more time!) writing. The lament of the inadequately selective. But still, the time that we have at our disposal continues to put to shame anything we might reasonably expect from a life ashore. As in: let's go off to the fjords of Tierra del Fuego for one more month before we head to the Falklands! Can you imagine it?

Alisa on the flow of time on the boat: "Here, a week seems like a year. Back ashore, a year seemed to go by in a week."

It might not be a lot, this illusion we have built for ourselves. But it's what we've got.

Ahh, what we've got and haven't. Fertile grounds for a weather day rumination. Haven't: careers, a stable community of friends, regular visits with extended family. Have: an abundance of time with the boys (see above), friendship with quite a number of amazing people we'll never see again, intimacy with some of the more remarkable places in the world, an immediacy of things that comes from being our own guides and expert help in the task of sailing across oceans.

We could have done worse.

And, more immediately, what of those fjords of Tierra del Fuego?

In this last week-that-seemed-a-year, we've eaten more centolla then we could, relict of those will-be bygone days when king crab were still numerous in Fireland. We've watched a guanaco, that llama of the south, calmly chewing its cud by the banks of Beagle Channel. The family has aired differing opinions about exactly how close two condors flew to us as we picnicked on a mountain ridge. Was it really 15 meters and 10? We've pushed the bow through floating fields of ice thousands of years old, we've watched ice tumbling from the snout of a glacier, we've watched an avalanche sending up great clouds of snow on the mountain side. We've been in two snowstorms at sea level, and we've woken to find a caleta iced up around us. The boys stood on the bow while Peale's dolphins bowrode on their backs and leaped completely clear of the water. We've had coffee with a Norwegian cod fisherman and coffee with that miracle of the south, a centolla fisherman who could dumb down his Spanish enough to make reasonable conversation with me. I've worked on a magazine story, and another science proposal, and neglected my writing. The boys have brought vigor to every moment of every day, and Alisa and I have gotten a huge laugh out of the tired frown that she always seems to be wearing in our pictures from family hikes.

As I said. It'll do.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Farewell Tour

Many places sing us a "what-if-you-stayed" siren song.

There's some element of regret and wistfulness that motivates the desire to see more of a place, or to see some of the best bits over again. Maybe you were distracted during a part of your visit, and you look back and think that you could do a particular country or island group better justice with another go round.

And some places just have a magic that convinces sailors to spend season after season getting to know them.

The far south, where we are now, is one of those places. There aren't a lot of sailboats here, but many of those have been here for years, making the circuit between Puerto Williams, Ushuaia, the Falklands, and Antarctica.

We're not Antarctica-bound ourselves, but the thought of spending another year in the south has appealed. Eric in particular seems to have an ear for language, and if nothing else there is the benefit that the boys would get in learning Spanish if we stayed in Puerto Williams next winter.

But...we dislike sitting still enough to make it hard to believe that we'd really want to spend a whole winter tied to the Micalvi. There are a lot of other places in the world and our time is only so long. So although we have agreed to defer our final decision until we're in the Falklands, odds are that we'll be sailing north up the Atlantic this year and not the next.

So when we set out from Puerto Williams four days ago for another sail around the Beagle Channel, it was quite likely that we were setting off on our last tour around los canales of Chile.

So far we've been impressed by the difference from the last time we were through these parts, when it was the dead of winter. The days now are long enough that we can put in a day of travel and still have time for a family hike in the afternoon. It's so warm that we don't have the diesel heater going during the day, and we found ourselves hiking in t-shirts yesterday.

And, the biggest difference is that everything isn't completely new. We've been around the proverbial block, and we're seeing even the places that are new to us with the discerning eye of experience.

Yesterday we satisfied our long-standing desire to behold the guanaco, that southern cousin to the llama. Both yesterday and today we've been up hill tracks that were closed to us by the snows of winter last time around, and thereby got good outings with the boys and views of glaciers to boot.

And through it all it feels like we're filling in the final corners of the canvas that has been our year in Chile.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

East Wind Blows

East wind blows.  The weather is so good.  The sun shines and Elias says there's not a cloud in the sky and I say you're right.  Not a single one.  When people normally say that there's at least a few somewhere down around the horizon.  But not today.

Not a single one.  Beagle Channel
Or the day after.

We have considerations.  Who doesn't I suppose.

Our considerations are number one above everything else especially in the can you believe it Beagle Channel: wind.

East winds blow.

What you hear about the place is west.  West wind.  With modifiers.  Like howling.  And remorseless.  The Beagle Channel is scene to a certain amount of bragadoccio from afar.  People write between the lines of their posts.  I am an expert sailor.  And these are demanding conditions.

All that fades when you're actually here.  The winter-over crowd is very low key.  Maybe bragadoccio comes with the summer.

But still September has a reputation.  Remorseless.  Howling.  West.

We are going west.  As soon as I get my work done I tell the unassuming people every time they ask. Just as soon.  The magic day gets pushed back.  As we knew it would be and we're not fussed.  We have some time.

As soon as I get my work done
Meanwhile September is magic.  East winds blow.  No winds blow.  Snowy days still starry nights.  We could have left a dozen times I tell the particularly unassuming chap next to us.

Considerations.  What if.  What if we sailed to Namibia? What if we chartered in Alaska?  What if the research funding comes through?  What if we keep going?

East winds blow.

Meanwhile: plot twist