Friday, June 26, 2015


We've noted a couple of milestones this week. First, we've passed solstice, so the shortest day of winter is behind us; though we may still be getting shorter daylight as we continue to move south.

Second, we've seen the eighth anniversary of our departure from Kodiak. We only lived in Kodiak for seven years, and I'm sure that neither Alisa nor I expected to be gone so long when we set out on Pelagic. Alisa made pudding for dinner on the anniversary night and Elias asked everyone to share their favorite place of the trip. I came up with Hobart, as that's where we brought Eric into the world and into the crew. Hobart would have scored high points with everyone regardless. And as for some of our other favorites, they underscored the vastness of the South Pacific. How do you evaluate Iluka, New South Wales and Rapa, the Austral Islands, on the same scale?

And now, improbably enough, we find ourselves just north of the Straits of Magellan.

We need the weather to play nice when we enter the Straits, as they funnel and accelerate the prevailing westerlies. We're getting a very nice break between two lows just now, but most of the good weather arrived at night, and we weren't willing to leave this anchorage in the dark. So we'll check the updated forecast just now, but based on the forecast that we saw yesterday we expect it to be blowing a gale by this afternoon.

We operate on the border of feeling that if we wait for perfect weather we'll never move and not wanting to get caught out in really bad conditions. For the day that takes us into the Straits, we're leaning towards the latter. So we'll likely be waiting here for several days for another chance.

When it's beautiful here it's really beautiful; when it blows it really blows; and when it rains it really rains.

We got no internet, no no.
We're as out of touch as we can be,
Yes, yes.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cat and Mousse

At least the second time, we realized what was going on before we had pulled our final shore line.

Caleta Mousse is a wonderful natural harbor, small enough to easily span with shore lines in order to buy the security of a four-point tie. Its location is the height of nautical convenience, as it is directly next to Angostura White, a narrow pass on the way to Puerto Natales that sees ten-knot tidal currents. You can wait in Caleta Mousse for the right tide to go through Angostura White, or park in there after you've put that obstacle behind you.

Which is what we did on the way out of Natales just a few days ago. We caught the tide through Angostura White and got to Mousse in time for a family hike up the hill behind the anchorage.

The next day, the weather being good and ourselves feeling ready for movement after all the sitting around in Natales, we set off.

There was a bit of breeze, nothing more.

I went ashore and untied one line. Then I dropped Elias off on a little island that borders the Caleta to gather mussels to bait the crab pot and untied another line. Then the third line, and I rowed back to pick up Elias.

By now the breeze was building. I got Elias back on Galactic.

Can you see where this is going?

Galactic was hanging on the anchor and the final shore line. Once that line was untied we'd be swinging in the little Caleta, where there isn't room to swing at anchor. The wind had now built to the point I thought it best that Alisa row ashore to untie the last line while I stayed behind at the helm of Galactic.

That is where everything that followed differed from how it will play in the future. From now on, if the wind is building while we're untying, we'll just sit tight and see what happens.

But, you've got to learn these lessons for yourself, I suppose.

So Alisa got the last line untied and hustled back aboard and got the anchor up quickly. And just as we had it up, in this little Caleta no more than five boatlengths wide, the conditions spiraled into full-on williwaws.

The wind, lifting curtains of spray off the surface of the Caleta. Our 18-ton boat, leaning this way and that with each blast. Out in Canal Santa Maria, great sheets of spray flying above the summit of the 50-meter high hill blocking off the end of the caleta.

We decided to get the hook back down. But we ended up with no more than 3:1 scope and an anchor that had no chance to set. So now Galactic was the mousse, and the wind was the cat, chasing us all over the caleta.

Sometimes we were upwind of the anchor, in full reverse. Sometimes downwind, in full forward. And all too often we were side-on to the wind, and getting blasted down towards the kelp-fringed rocks that were never too far away.

After we were thoroughly tired of this routine I managed to get a line ashore. We had one last moment, after the line was safely around the tree but before Alisa could take in the slack and make it fast. The wind caught Galactic just next to the rocks and pushed her over, hard. I saw a lot of bottom paint and for the first time felt that whatever would happen, would happen. The situation was that out of control.

But Alisa gunned the engine and somehow kept Galactic from touching. I got back aboard and made the line fast and we were safe, no matter how hard it might blow.

I can report that at times like this, owning a steel boat gives you a little warm feeling, right down deep at the edge of your consciousness, that you are barely aware of but know is there, and is a tremendous comfort.

And the boys during all of this nonsense? They were down below, laughing uproariously at the way the boat was pitching back and forth around them.

So we tied the other three lines in and pulled the boat back deep in the caleta and went for a walk on the beach. It commenced to snow hard during the day, but we never saw anything like the half-hour (?) of williwaws that had bedeviled us just when we happened to be picking the hook.

We spent that day there, and the next and the next. The weather wasn't the sort of thing that would make you think of untying your shore lines. And our anchor was inconveniently close to the rocks, where we had dragged it, which would make getting out a little trickier.

And then, when we went to leave on the third morning after that? A replay. Not full-on williwaws this time, but sudden gusts. Building gusts, corrugating the surface of the caleta.

But we'd seen that movie before. And this time we were smart enough to call a break for lunch while we still had a line to windward.

We got no internet, no no.
We're as out of touch as we can be,
Yes, yes.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Peak Moment

"Peak moment in our cruising careers," I said to Alisa.

She gave me a look.  I normally deny having anything to do with "cruising".  Maybe it was living in San Francisco that did it.  Long story.  Anyway.

"No baby, I mean it," I continued.  The boys were asleep, so they couldn't give me grief for calling their mom a baby.

"We got a zarpe for Puerto Williams!  We are so in the moment!  This is it!  Straits of Magellan, babeee!"

I was a little worked up.  This Patagonia stuff has just been getting better and better.  Every leg is so much more than the last.  I can't wait to see what the utter south has in store.

I want to sail south down these canals for ever.

Meanwhile, it blew hard again last night.  Stopped completely at noon today - stopped like a Republican trying to understand science.  Not a lick of wind since noon, but when I dropped by the armada in the afternoon to get our permission to leave, they told me the port was closed.  High winds and all that.  (I didn't even think of pointing out the window at the millpond where Galactic was anchored.)  Port might be closed until Monday, I was told.

So we'll see what happens when we actually try to leave tomorrow...

Sailing around Puerto Natales is so much like sailing your yacht to Colorado in the US.  I just can't shake that comparison.  I'm sure I haven't quite captured it in the pics, but it's very apt.  But it's Colorado with saltwater, and flamingos, and bigger mountains.

This area gave us our one taste of the other Patagonia - estancias, four wheel drive tracks, big empty spaces.  It's so different from the canales.  To get here, you more or less navigate to the other side of the Andes.  If you sail to Patagonia and you bypass Natales, shame on you.

On our way to being denied entry to Argentina
Fueling at the terminal pesquero, and of course someone
gave us a bacalao
In retrospect, we used up all of our good weather in Natales, and didn't have much left over when we poked around the surrounding areas.  Which wasn't such a bad thing, as getting chores done from a yacht anchored in Natales during a stretch of bad weather doesn't bear contemplation.

Heading up Seno Última Esperanza, our hopes were high for scenic over-kill.  But the clouds that were hanging just at the edge of the mountains, both when we came and went, weren't going to leave just because we were there.

We were so excited for this little bit of snow.  What did we know about what was coming?  It was enough, with about 30 knots of wind behind it, to keep us from seeing Lago Azul.

We had to make do with a little tourism at the National Park after we pulled in to water the barky at the dock.  In the summer the place is buried in tourists, but this time of year the rangers were very happy for some new faces.

The family reacting to icefall on the glacier
Back in Natales, the weather had turned, and not for the better.

Alisa read my last post and said, "you made that sound pretty casual.  I remember when we were at the mast during that first big blast and all I was thinking was that the only thing that mattered was that we both hold on.  That and whether boats that are knocked down at anchor come up as quickly as boats that are knocked down at sea."

And it's true - that night she was talking about was pretty violent.  We were in the best anchorage in Natales for the conditions, and everything came out fine.  But when it started blowing up again last night, Alisa and I definitely gave each other "not again!" looks.

The next day, the boys had school recess playing in the snow on deck.  It doesn't show in the pics, but a dinghy ride ashore wasn't on in the weather we were having.  I felt a bit sorry for them, being confined to that little space for their snow play.  But they didn't know any better.  They were in heaven.  Little Alaskans who don't know snow.

The next day we got ashore for a proper play in the snow.

And that's us and Puerto Natales.  We didn't see the famous cave of the Milodon, and we got no closer to Torres de Paine than the pic at the top of this post.  But that's fine.  Those places have enough people looking at them, and we are happiest with the little out of the way places that we find.

Through our stay here, I've been working hard at the science side of things, enjoying the luxury of doing research with the ability to look things up online, where every scientific discovery is documented and every question about statistical techniques is answered.  What luxury.

I find myself, though, ready to get back to our quieter life in the canales, and I'll be very happy to be tied in somewhere when the next blow comes through.  Somewhere like Caleta Mousse, at the doorstep of Angostura White.  That's us tied in there in the pic below, and time and tide and the whims of the Capitanía de Puerto allowing, that's where we hope to be tomorrow.

Andean condor.  We saw 16 at one time on this day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Live Bloggin' the Blast; or, Up All Night?

Elias baking "creation loaves" (his name)


This particular Monday night finds us standing anchor watch for the first time in the nearly eight years since we left Kodiak.

We were expecting strong westerlies tonight, but got something more than "strong".  Blasts of wind, water smoking, us heeling all over the place as we were blown through the anchorage.  We managed to get the inflatable on deck and deflated early enough, but we weren't quite quick enough at getting the engine started to motor into the wind and give the anchor a little help.  We dragged about a tenth of a mile before we started motoring into it.

We weren't the only ones caught by surprise - a commercial boat anchored near us had to get under way to reset their hook, and a couple of big working boats that must have been at the other side of the harbor came charging around, trying to get their anchors down, and eventually succeeding.

We ended up in 30 meters of water, which is a mite deep for anchoring when the water surface is smoking around you.   All thanks and praise to our 40 kilo Rocna, which did great considering the conditions, and reset quite quickly after dragging.  With a lesser anchor I'm sure we would have blown much further.

We also managed to get a second hook out without much drama.  We had already dragged into the deepest water around, and had tons of room downwind, AND the work boats kept their distance.  So all good thus far.

The boys slept through the whole thing.  How, I have no idea.

The irony is that we are only here, in the notorious anchorage of Puerto Natales, and not somewhere more sheltered, because we needed internet.  I've mostly been using it for my biology work, but now that I find myself up in the middle of the night, standing anchor watch, I can take advantage of the chance to post some recent pics.

There's nothing sillier than a blog that's "out of date", that's struggling to catch up with the flow of events.  But since we can only update pictures on the infrequent instances when we have internet access, I'll beg your indulgence and look back a bit.

Leaving Estero Peel

After we left behind the ice of Estero Peel, we found ourselves taking shelter in Puerto Bueno - where Bill Tilman's crew despaired at the idea of sitting for as long as two months while the climbing party did their thing on the Patagonia Icecap, and where Jorge Sarmiento found refuge in the 1570s, if you can believe the Italian Guide.

How anyone ever sailed in and out of a place like this with sixteenth century technology, I'll never understand.

Puerto Bueno
We loved Puerto Bueno.  It's beautiful, and it's surrounded by great hiking.

The boys had serious energy to burn after being confined to the ship in so many
other anchorages.  Note our mast in the background
Eric flamed out, threw a complete wobbly, and had to be packed out
Puerto Bueno is also the place where, memorably, we
finally caught the wily centolla...
...and saw a fox.  Sightings of terrestrial mammals are
rare in the canales
Canal Harriet.  That's a whale vertebra on Fernando
As we moved south into Canal Sarmiento, and then Canal Harriet, we noticed something...different.  It wasn't raining.  As I've said before, we didn't come to Patagonia to carry on about the weather.  But we definitely noticed when we got a day without rain.

Elias, Caleta Harriet. He recently wrote an email to our great (adult) friends
on Enki and signed it "your trusty mate".  That melted his parents' hearts

We were in Canal Harriet because it leads to Caleta Thélème, which we are
entering  in this pic.  (With just enough light!)  We were keen to visit that
Caleta because we count ourselves as friends of the eponymous boat.
Elias, lending a hand with shore lines in Caleta Thélème
Caleta Thelémè.  If you drop in, know that the Italian guide mis-identifies
the anchorage waypoint as the entrance waypoint
Packing the crew back to the boat, Caleta Thelémè
The old campaigner - wearing down jacket inside sleeping bag, sitting next to the heater

Sewing a new mesh bag for one of the shorelines, Estrecho Collingwood

Then, in Estrecho Collingwood, we got our second day of sun in three days.  Again, we don't go on about the weather.  But we did notice.

Estrecho Collingwood

Estrecho Collingwood

With a heavy French accent: "It was my dream!"
That's our anchorage?  We'll take it.  Isla Jaime, Seno Union
On the summit of Isla Jaime
Picking the pot at Isla Jaime.  They didn't catch nothin'.
Isla Jaime and Seno Union are where we broke off from the straight and narrow path to head for Puerto Natales.

But I'm noticing that the wind has died down to something reasonable, and the barometer has climbed from the Stygian depths of 968 all the way up to 977 mb.  It might be time to get some sleep...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ice & Flamingos

Some days are so fun.

We arrived yesterday in Puerto Consuelo, a shallow bay far inland, north of Puerto Natales and well into the Patagonian Steppes. Sere grassland, vast spaces. A very different Patagonia than the dripping rainforest of the canales.

Estancia Consuelo is the access point from the anchorage. By going through the private property of the estancia it is possible to access a gravel road that can get you back to Natales, and onward to Argentina, if you so chose.

That second option, of going to Argentina by land, was of interest to us when we arrived. The end of our 90 days in Chile was approaching. Rather than deal with the bureaucratic two-step of requesting a 90-day extension, many sailors simply cross into Argentina by taxi or bus and then return immediately to restart the 90-day clock in Chile. Last night, looking at the weather situation over the coming four or five days (deteriorating), we decided to go ahead and make the border crossing today, in the last day we could expect no wind, when we could leave the boat for the day with no concern.

In the night we were awoken by a grumbling sound around the hull. The puerto had been ice-free when we arrived, but overnight the freshwater lens on the surface froze. The grumbling sound was ice on the hull.

We awoke to a perfectly still day. Ice all around the boat, though neither very thick nor continuous in the bay. Blue sky, alpenglow on the snowy mountains in the distance as an opening act to sunrise.

And then Elias, shouting, "Flamingos! Flamingos!".

There was a flock in flight over Galactic, their impossibly pink wings the only color that could have raised the bet placed by the orange alpenglow.

Our first frozen anchorage (as opposed to glacial ice) and our first flamingos, on the same day. Patagonia puts on impossible-seeming combinations.

From there, we moved from strength to strength.

We made our way ashore, Alisa and Elias using oars to bash a path through the ice from the bow of Smooches. Elias was, understandably, more exuberant than helpful, and received a steady stream of corrections and admonitions from the guy driving the dinghy.

Rudi Eberhardt, the owner of the estancia, proved to be perfectly simpatico. Interrupted in his morning of tasks by a family of strangers wandering around his place, he organized two taxis to get us to the border.

The first driver didn't have the necessary permit to drive to the border, which was as well since he drove like an idiot on the icy gravel road from the estancia.

He handed us off to his compañero, Luis, who did have the permit, and turned out to have worked on a charter yacht in southern Chile for years, and so was an interesting companion for the 25 km drive.

We all checked out of Chile, no problem.

Then we drove a few klicks through empty mountainous terrain to the Argentinean side.

Here, a problem.

Australians, Canadians, and Yanks have to pay an entry fee for Argentina, equal to the visa fee imposed on Argentineans by these countries. And, you have to pay the entry fee online, before you get to Argentina.

Even though Phil on Illawong had warned us quite distinctly on this point in Puerto Montt, I somehow flaked. We arrived thinking we could pay at the border. Which we couldn't. So we were denied entry into Argentina.

An attempt at online payment with an iPad getting dodgy signal in the no-man's land got us nowhere. Plus, you apparently needed a printed receipt, which we weren't going to get from the iPad no matter how good our signal.

So, we returned to the Chilean side, unsure what would transpire. We weren't actually entering Chile from another country, which we were expected to be doing in order to qualify for a fresh 90 days.

The Chilean official had a perfectly long official face. Where does such a young man learn such a morose expression? He gave no hint of sympathy at our situation. But he did give us all new tourist cards, good for another 90 days.

I didn't even dare to look at the cards until we were driving away, back towards Puerto Natales. When I did, exultation all around, even for Luis. And then I cracked the best joke I've ever made in Spanish, saying that in 90 days we'd go back to the border and do the same thing. Completely honest mirth from Luis.

You see, Eric's Aussie passport expires in a couple weeks, and so as to avoid any possible difficulties concerning traveling with a minor of a different nationality, we were all traveling on our US passports. Which meant that we were looking at $640 USD in fees just to clear into Argentina and to clear out again. Which is a lot of coin after you've been sailing the Pacific for almost eight years.

And...there's a little more.

The first thing that you see on this particular crossing into Argentina is a sign proclaiming that the Falkland Islands are Argentinean. Which, they are...if Alaska belongs to Canada, and New Caledonia to Australia. I figure the Argentinean claim has about that much weight. So their claim naturally offends anyone who believes in the right of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.

Which is all fine, though a bit abstract. That isn't our argument. We don't have a dog in that fight, you might say.

Except that the Argentinean government does everything that it can to make yachts visiting the Falklands get permission from Argentina before doing so. The Falklands are on our itinerary, and it was already sticking in my craw, the idea of applying to the Argentinean bureaucracy for permission to visit "Puerto Argentino" (Stanley). And conveniently, this happenstance of being denied entry into Argentina might set the timetable for us never having to enter the country for visa reasons. And at $640 for entry, we might be happy to forgo the cheap re-supply options of Ushuaia. And if we never go to Argentina, we don't have to ask their permission to visit the Falklands...

Eric, meanwhile, was exultant that he got to throw his first-ever snowball in the mountains at the border crossing. He threw it at his brother, of course.

"I whistled it right at his tush!" he exclaimed, triumphantly.

We got no internet, no no.
We're as out of touch as we can be,
Yes, yes.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Thing With Pictures

Days like this, you don't get pictures of.

We arrived in Puerto Natales late yesterday, just in time to sniff out a place of rest in this notoriously un-welcoming anchorage.  The Italian Guide, with a poetic flourish, calls the anchoring situation here "just a step short of tragic".

When we woke this morning, our solution to the anchoring puzzle from last night wasn't looking too good.  Onshore breeze (light), half a meter of water under the keel.

So Alisa and Elias (yes! a helpful little deckhand these days) and I spent the morning untying the cat's cradle we'd woven the night before.  Shorelines aboard, stern hook up, except that it was set so hard I couldn't budge it from Fernando with the trip line; so bow hook up first, then stern hook pulled with the windlass, doing the dance between anchors with that shore just downwind of us.

We did all that without taking a single picture.  Just like we took no pictures during the afternoon filled with the traveler's chores of armada paperwork (the bit of piping that attaches the armada guy's pistol to his body, and why is it only the guy at the front desk who is always armed?), food run (a thousand pesos for the taxi to drive through the gate to the fisherman's dock? we'll shlep), and propane fill-up (clouds of white vapor collecting around legs of the voluble woman, queen of all that she surveys in her backyard propane emporium, as she decants cooking gas into our foreign cylinders).  Days like this stretch and surprise you, and the memories last.  But somehow I never end up with pictures of these days.  

Now that we're in Natales, we also have access to the internet.  So, after that intro on what sort of pictures you don't get, here is a story told through the ones we did.

"This is so much fun," I keep saying to Alisa.  "I'm having such a good time."  I wonder if I'm protesting too much, and then decide no, this really is a blast.  "I'm so glad you keep saying that," Alisa always answers me.

The pic above is in Seno Eyre, just south of Puerto Edén, as we're making a valiant and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buck the north wind and take in views of the Ventisquero Pio XI.

Ah, but!  Glacier-viewing is one of the lower forms of nautical tourism, hardly to be mourned when the chance goes astray.  Besides, traveling north to south as we are, there is always another glacier in the offing.  Things get better as you go.

The real consolations of travel are moments like the one above, in Caleta Parry, our backup anchorage after missing out on the glacier.  This golondrina de mar, aka stormy petrel, aka Mother Carey's chicken, was in the cockpit when we bestirred ourselves before dawn to retrieve shore lines.  It was doubtless brought in by our lights.  I passed up the chance to examine its plumage and thus to get a solid ID on these difficult birds, and instead just put him in a quiet spot on the bow to regain his wits.

The conditions that these tiny birds handle at sea just beggar belief.  Seeing them is one of the continual delights in the life of a marine biologist on a traveling sailboat.

The day that followed saw us down Canal Concepción in comfortably rowdy conditions.  Fast sailing in protected waters, the family staying cozy below in the rainy bits and coming up to stare at wildlife in the dry - it's no bad.

Watching whales, Canal Concepción.
Alisa getting in on the good sailing.
Giant petrel, Canal Concepción.

Every day, nearly every mile, the snowline seems to come closer.

Alisa at the laundromat in Caleta Tilman.  Gals, if your husband has some so-called "dream" about sailing away, know that this is where that dream will get you. 

Only kids could have such a fantastic time on such a wet day - Caleta Tilman.

Caleta Tilman itself.
Alisa motoring out of Caleta Tilman to next-door Caleta Amalia.  We wanted to see something different.  But the new Caleta looked much the same as what we'd just left.  We are 1) not ones to notice much; and 2) certainly not ones to sail to Patagonia and then go on about the weather.  But at this point we were completely used to being soaked by rain day after day.

Which is why so much of family life was happening downstairs, in the snug saloon of Galactic.  Too soon to crow, but so far I have been very happy with the way that the core living areas of the boat are standing up to the challenges of the climate.  We're dry and warm, which are all that counts in a cold place.

Chewing ice.  Hurts me to watch.
Leaving Caleta Amalia, we started to get into bits of glacial ice.  Estero Peel, the larger body of water that hosts Caletas Tilman and Amalia, gives access to several glaciers flowing down from the Patagonia Icecap, which is why Bill Tilman and crew were here in Mischief nearly sixty years ago - they wanted to access, and cross, the icecap.  Which they did successfully.

And how the world does change.  What Tilman would think of our family outing to the canales, in winter no less, I can hardly imagine.  What was a foray to an unknown corner of the world then is now a completely routine trip.  That said, Mischief ventured far up the Estero, far beyond the point at which we on Galactic started to think prudent thoughts.

Estero Peel.  At this point Alisa is thinking that it's time to have a meeting with el capitán about expectations, etc.

The boys, as always, are blissfully unaware of any considerations of operational conditions, like where a good anchorage might be, how far the backup is if we can't make our first choice, and when night will fall.

A Peales's dolphin, we believe.

On our third day in Estero Peel the ceiling lifted enough for us to get some views.  In the picture above you can see the line of ice that was the turnaround point for Galactic, and would have been the forge-ahead point for Mischief.

I don't think I'm the only one having fun
Eric, on the other hand, still occasionally asks to return to French Polynesia.
Estero Peel, on our way out
So, two things strike me at this point.  First, this is such a linear adventure.  It's not like crossing the Pacific, when you travel across incredibly open spaces.  Here you're always hemmed in on two sides, with only the decision of going forward or going back.  Which is no decision at all.  So it becomes quite intoxicating, this forever traveling southwards, waiting to see what the next day will bring.

The second thing is that this is such a democratic adventure.  A lot of boats come here, and from what we've seen they're pretty average sorts of boats for the most part.  Whatever the drawbacks of our age, we do live at a time when it doesn't take a Tilman.  Any Jane and Joe can come here and have their own adventure.

And if you want to escape the maddening crowds, you can just come in the winter.