Friday, January 30, 2015

A First

It's on.

We've busted out of the sticky embrace of our first landfall and ventured into that live-by-your-wits, incredibly dynamic, surprise-a-minute experience that is sailing into the vast south of this country in our own boat.

Sooty shearwaters.  Seen 'em in Alaska.  Seen 'em in California.  Seen 'em
in New Caledonia and New South Wales and Tasmania.
Now, seen 'em in Chile.
We had the 140-mile sail to get us from Valdivia to Isla de Chiloé, our first taste of maritime Chile.  As always, the sailing life is generous with its transitions.  We even had a pretty-darn-sure-it-must-be-them sighting of several blue whales, our first ever, to sweeten the the overnight sail.

And, in a departure from all that is routine aboard Galactic, we had crew.

Jaime Elias Harcha, chance acquaintance at the Valdivia dentist's office and our introduction to all things rodeo in Chile, came along as supercargo.

We've only very occasionally taken anyone along on an overnighter…and they've either been family or friends of long standing.  Keeping family life going on a traveling sailboat requires us to stick pretty closely to our ways, and we're very aware of how the consequences of spontaneous decisions gone wrong will fall most heavily on the boys, and on the very small tolerances that we operate under while caring for them on passage.  So we haven't ever taken a chance acquaintance anywhere on the boat.

At some point in our short acquaintance, Jaime began to joke about coming with us when we set out for Chiloé.  And then, when he and his wife Karina had us out to their house in Los Lagos for a fantastic asado, I realized that what had begun as a joke was becoming more serious.  Jaime really would like to come.

Alisa and I were in a great travel mode that had us feeling open to whatever good things might come along.  We felt an instant affinity with Jaime, in spite of our communication being limited to the very basic (and basically mis-spoken) ideas we could express in Spanish.  And Jaime had just made the trip on his brother-in-law's sailboat, so we figured he knew what he was in for.

So, when we set out, we were a crew of five.

And having Jaime on board added a great dimension to what would have otherwise been a thoroughly routine overnighter for us, albeit wonderful.

A natural sailor
It was great to share the experience, and this brief taste of our life afloat, with a new friend.  Jaime was an easy guest, in the sense of being adaptable to whatever was on offer, and very good company in his ability to just hang out, and his willingness to stay up through most of the night with the on-watch crew.

As a plus, it just happened to be his birthday.  So we got to do the thing Galactic-style, with a pineapple upside-down cake (muy tipico de norte america de la edad de mi mama, Alisa tried to explain), a crown for the birthday boy, and a few simple gifts.

Elias presented Jaime with a depiction of el rodeo

Six knots of current behind us in Chacao
By the time we rode a rippin' tide in through Canal Chacao, on the north side of Chiloé, we were thoroughly pleased with the experience of having him aboard, and sorry that he couldn't stay with us for a few days of knocking around the area.

But then, when we dropped Jaime at a working dock in La Vega, we got a bonus in terms of a crew exchange.

What we lost in the form of Jaime, we made up for with his 30-year-old son, George.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Art of Leaving

Outside the club de Yates, Valdivia
Having been the recipient of several lifetimes' worth of unsolicited advice when we were preparing this boat and the last to set out across the Pacific, I have been quite loath to offer any of my own bright ideas to people  who are just starting out to chase the salty dream.

But, since it fits in so well with what we're doing now, I'll go ahead and get it off my chest.

(And then I'll get to the part about Kafka.)

So here it is - if you're dreaming of sailing to distant shores, just leave now.  Go sailing in your boat.  Sail a thousand miles - just sail five hundred miles down the coast, then turn around and sail back home.

After you do that, you'll have a much better feel for what the life afloat entails.  You'll save yourself the effort of all sorts of boat improvements (needless complications) that look good only in a marina.  With any luck, you'll discover the magic of sailing the ocean in your own boat, that "oh right, this is how I thought my life would turn out" feeling that makes all the expense and effort worth it.

And, not least, you'll have had your first experience at one of the very hardest things about boats - leaving.

"Dad's plumbing in the cabin heater!"
After having been through it off and on for seven and a half years, I still don't quite understand why it seems so hard to leave port.  Part of it is that the period in harbor between big seasons - say, between crossing the Pacific and wintering in Patagonia - necessarily involves a lot of Port Engineer-type jobs.  Clearly, this is the part of the sailing life for which I have the least aptitude.

Part of it is doubtless my personality.  Back when I had a job (!) I was the guy who was always five minutes late getting out the door in the morning.

But although part of it is me, there is also some larger vortex at work that tends to keep boats tied to the dock.

But!  We're getting past that point.  So much so that I went to the Armada today (the Navy, natch) to request the necessary paperwork for leaving Valdivia and sailing to Chiloé.

This is where the Kafka part comes in.

Buying 1,040 liters from the fuel truck.  We must be getting close.
Back in New Zealand, when we went through the emergency gear, we noticed that our flares were getting close to their expiration date.  Being tired by then of keeping the New Zealand economy afloat all on our own, we decided to put off buying new ones.

(If you have a picture of "cruising" on sailboats that is derived mostly from sailing magazines and online forums, this decision might be surprising to you.  Who would put off buying safety gear?  The answer is, many of us.  Most of us.  We're total outliers among our friends because we actually service our life raft every three years - most people forgo the pleasure of shelling out a thousand bucks for nothing much.  And hey, if the flares are a few months old, it's not like they all suddenly go on strike.  And if one happens to be a dud, we've got tons of the things.)

So we decided to put off getting new flares.  And forgot all about it.

And then, this morning, the armada boarded us for an inspection prior to giving us permission to leave Valdivia.

And, you guessed it, they weren't too impressed by flares with September 2014 expiration dates.

So, no problem - I went out to buy new ones.  They were (are) shockingly expensive.  But that wasn't the problem.  The problem was that we couldn't buy them.

Turns out that to buy flares we need permission from the same division of the carabineros that regulates firearms.

So, no problem, I'm up for a travel experience - to the carabineros it is!

Unfortunately, the officer I dealt with came from that 40% of Chileans who I can understand not at all.  But from what I could gather, he couldn't give me permission to buy flares because I'm a foreigner.

So, he sent me back to the armada to get a piece of paper saying something about having permission to operate my boat in Chile, and once I give him that, then he'll give me another piece of paper (in triplicate, and I'm not making that up) that I can take to the shop to buy the flares.  And then I'll take the flares back to the armada and they'll give me permission to leave Valdivia.

Now, let me make it explicitly clear that I am not complaining about Chilean bureaucracy.  It is inappropriate and dull for travelers to impose their cultural standards on the countries they visit.

But I did start to think about Kafka - specifically, The Trial.  Really liked that one.

Luckily, by the time I finished at the carabinero office the armada offices were closed for lunch, so I went back to Galactic to regroup.  And then we made our appointment with the fuel truck at a dock a few hundred meters from the Club de Yates.  And then a funny thing happened.

I met a man who works in the marine side of things here.  And after hearing my story, he said something along the lines of, "Shoot - flares?  I got a heap of them things that are gonna expire in six months anyway.  I'll come down to your boat and give 'em to you tomorrow."

So we'll see what happens.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What We Do Best

Where we are now - rafted to Windora at the Club de Yates, Río Valdivia.
We're close.  The inevitable period of getting the boat organized and re-provisioned is drawing to an end, and we're hearing the siren song of the South, louder and louder.

These periods where we spend weeks getting things fixed and organized and stocked come along regularly, of course - at least one big push for each change of sailing season.  These times are tough on the boys - they're asked to spend days tagging along to various stores while their parents, running errands in a foreign culture and a different language, tend to be too distracted to give them full attention.

Here, and below - a splicing session with Phil from
Windora.  The barky will be sailing away from Valdivia
with new steering cables.
I've thought at times about slowing things down once we're ready to go.  We could rent a car and tour the cordillera for a week or two.  I could enroll in a language school here in Valdivia for a month, we could get the boys into some combination of Spanish lessons and interaction with local kids to get their Spanish underway.

My Spanish is far from conversational, and at times I've been very attracted to the idea of improving now, at the beginning of our stay in Chile, when any improvement will pay off the most in terms of interactions with Chileans.  And I'm keen for the boys to learn some Spanish, and very aware that they won't do it when they're on the boat with us.

But, the those ideas about land travel or language instruction in Valdivia don't have staying power.  For one thing, we've been enjoying the most remarkable run of glorious summer weather, and conditions this good just cry out to be spent gunkholing around Chiloé Island, which is just 140 miles south of us and meant to be one of the sailing jewels of the world.  Winter will be the season to spend enough time in one place to find a Spanish teach.

For another thing, the last time that I checked his passport, Eric was still only four.  That's not an insurmountable obstacle for enjoyable land travel, but it is a consideration.  Everything is easier for us on the boat, where we're always at home, no matter where we are.

And finally, we'd really rather go sailing than anything else.  Alisa and I both have a dislike for boats that sit still.  Those sedentary times come along in any sailing family's life, but they're best avoided and delayed as much as possible.  This whole undertaking only makes sense when we're working Galactic, getting across some body of water we've never seen before to see what might be on the other side.

And that feeling of release that comes when you leave a port that has sucked you into its vortex for a few weeks - that feeling of possibility and, well, joy as we feel the boat coming to life beneath us - that feeling is really at the heart of why we've been doing this for years and years.  It's the same feeling that I used to get in the Alaska Range, contemplating the cathedrals of ice and rock and snaking glaciers from some improbable perch - I guess it's that feeling of being more than fully alive that has brought me closest to understanding what religious people might be talking about when they use the word soul.

Anyway, it's a good thing.  And I'm looking forward to a little more.

Boxes of groceries now give us months of independence in the future

Monday, January 12, 2015


We kept saying it - "this is the best haulout ever".

But then Alisa and I would follow that with a "not to jinx us", or touch wood.

We were very aware that we couldn't claim victory until we were back in the water.

We've been getting after our annual haulout in the Valdivia Club de Yates - the most civilized setting for a boatyard experience that we have ever seen.  There's only room for one boat (that would be us) and there's a lawn right next to the slipway, with a picnic table where the whole family has been eating lunch together every day.

Galactic is in phenomenal shape, since our to-the-mats haulout in New Zealand was only ten months ago, so there has been relatively little work to do.  And with that lawn right there, and a couple of very nice French kids on another boat in the marina for out boys to play with, and a few strategically-placed cartoon sessions on the iPad, Alisa was able to get off mom duty enough to do some serious boat work.

And, Alaskan readers take note - we had perfect summer weather each and every day.

So things went quickly - we came out Wednesday afternoon, and were meant to go back in the water today - Sunday afternoon.  That would make it our quickest haulout ever.

 And that's where things nearly went askew.

The parents of the nice French kids very kindly climbed up on Galactic to ride the cradle down into the water and help us with the business of steering backwards out of the marina on a windy afternoon.

They climbed up the ladder with us at the appointed hour - and then nothing happened.

The cable that was meant to pull us into the water had snapped.

No worries - it could be fixed.

But even with the cable fixed, the yard winch had a hard time pulling us down into the water.  We would sit and wait for a while, and then all 18 tons of us would suddenly lurch backwards just a little too fast before just as suddenly stopping.

It took us an hour to get into the water.  And by the time we did, the tide was going out and we couldn't reverse off the cradle.  So we winched ourselves off.

All's well.  After we were finally off the cradle we managed the part about backing out on a windy afternoon without any furhter drama.

So, all in a day's adventure.

But it was enough to qualify the whole "best haulout ever" label.

We'll call it "best-ish".

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

El rodeo

We're traveling now...

…and lovin' it
So, in my last post, I made noise about how we were forcing ourselves to postpone our experience of Chile so that we could take care of all things boat and get ready for months of independence in los canales.

But you just can't keep a good travel experience down.

Alisa, I should tell you, lost a filling around day 10 of our passage here.  So a visit to the dentist was high on the list when we arrived in Valdivia.  And at the dentist's office she met a very nice couple who braved the language barrier to chat her up.  They ended up giving Alisa and Elias a ride home, and she brought them aboard for a quick visit, and bang, they invited us to their house for an asado.

Well.  Their son-in-law dropped by a few days later to confirm the plans.  And then he let drop that his father-in-law, Jaime Elias (that's him above with our Elias and Alisa) was riding in el rodeo.  And would we like to come watch?

So we were plucked out of a regular day on the boat to the scene that you see here.  The "cowboys" are huasos.  Their ponchos are mantas, their hats chupallas.  The action is very different from the North American rodeo.  Pairs of huasos herd a steer around a small area in the arena - the medialuna - and then around the larger arena, where they pin the steers against the fence with their horses, earning points for the decisiveness of the feat as well as for the point of the steer's body that is pinned.

I'm very cognizant of the fact that whatever I post about Chile is about 1000 times more likely to be read by Chileans than, say, anything that I wrote about French Polynesia was likely to be read by a Polynesian.  So I will beg the indulgence of any Chilean readers for the mistakes of fact and interpretation that I am bound to make.

That said, I was mesmerized from first moment.  The whole scene was so overtly Chilean, and also, to my eyes, such a display of a Hispanic ideal of masculine beauty.  In the picture above you'll notice Jaime's clothes for riding in el rodeo - that looks to me like a tailored suit beneath his manta.  Los huasos were so restrained in the saddle - for all the incredible speed and violent exertion of the minutes that they are engaged in el rodeo, the only expressions of emotion that you see are of men crossing themselves before their steer is released.

After the competition was over, though, their was great affection and respect among the finalists - warm hugs and handshakes between men on horseback.  And then, the crowning moment - the first, second and third place pairs of huasos take turns dancing the cueca with two chinas - the queen (and runner up) of el rodeo.

There can be no rodeo without a queen.  And, American readers, I defy you to imagine the winner of an American rodeo dancing while the crowd looks on admiringly.

Finally, I'll note that several Chileans to whom I've recounted our experience have been quick to say that they don't care for rodeo.  Their concerns center on humane considerations.  But I also suspect that, without being overtly political, the rodeo is a good predictor of someone's politics.  If you like it, I'm guessing that you are likely to be right of center, and if you don't, I suspect you are on the left.

It strikes me that it's just like high school football in the US - I can predict your politics pretty well if I know if the risk of brain injury would be enough for you to keep your kid from playing...

The faces of los huasos slayed me - but the light was tough and I
didn't have the long lens, so I couldn't do them justice
Here, and below - the victors dancing the cueca

Meanwhile, back in everyday Chile