from Howard Rice
Seven days ago I awoke at 3:30 am anchored offshore in the Strait of Magellan to prepare for departure south from my location just north of Punta Arenas. I was finally seeing a small weather window of opportunity as January has likely hit the record books here as one of the windiest ever. My friend at the Armada has repeatedly said the January winds are very unusual and more like the heavy September winds. He and others at the Armada attribute the high winds to climate change, perhaps they are right. It has been blowing like crazy for days and so I have waited. While possibly frustrating I see the waiting a bit differently. It is an opportunity to experience more of Chile and Chileans and to work on the book I am writing. This is voyaging in the classic sense. Voyaging is not just about the wilderness of the sea and remote landscapes it is also about strategy, patience and immersion in another culture. I am having a positive and dare I say fantastic small boat voyage by any measure although I really am longing to begin sailing.
Prudent seamanship when working small boats is to be patient. The term “delay” really isn’t in my vocabulary but seems to resonate with some who have a notion I was setting out on a particular date, a date I am not aware of nor have ever stated…..just for the record;-)
As a sailor I know the danger of sailing by a clock or calendar, one factor that often gets sailors in trouble. So in closing I am learning, interacting and I enjoying my voyage as it is. Patagonian Chile is fascinating, of course I’d rather be underway but sure wouldn’t want to go just to be gone.
A Day of Days
So this said I was up early and put away sleeping gear, opened the foot well, donned boots and set about making a hot breakfast. The morning was brisk at about 42 degrees F. The wind had blown most of the night at about 16 knots. I had wisely chosen to follow natures lead and in so doing had managed a soporific sleep anchored between two kelp beds. Being here and being patient has allowed time between preparation tasks to observe and through these observations learn. It has been some time since I was last sailing these waters and I knew through observation I would soon come into synch with my surroundings.
For several days since escaping the estuary I had swung at anchor and noted the patterns of the sea birds at night. There are two long kelp beds perpendicular to shore and each night the birds bath in the estuary fluttering, splashing, dipping and diving all the while squawking like mad and then take places lined up in the kelp beds for the night. The kelp dampens breaking waves and so I followed suit and anchored amongst but away from them and managed restful nights. I may be well suited to sleeping on boats as I am a light sleeper, which serves me well as any odd movement awakens me.
So up early, back anchored with my big hook on shore I set the boat right with the exception of final battening down of some hatches. I planned to batten everything down including inflating and closing the cuddy just before setting off. After stowage and making the boat ready I sat back with a hot cup of coffee and enjoyed the early morning light watching the vapor of my breath in the frigid morning air. It was actually magical, cozy and warm. Night time is a bit of an after thought in this part of the world with a sort of darkness, which lasts about four hours. At 7am I pulled my inflatable kayak alongside for the paddle to shore. Before setting to shore to retrieve my anchor I pulled my dry suit bag out and made ready to put it on when I returned. Sure glad I did in retrospect given what happened this day.
The Armada had been by to see me the day before asking that I contact them by VHF on departure. I had made daily required radio check ins without fail and yet had never received a confirmation reply. Therefore I was a bit nervous about my comms with the Armada. Communication is supposed to be a two-way affair. All vessels of any type entering, transiting or voyaging through Chilean waters are required to check in with lat/long daily. Failure to do so triggers an automatic search. How could I set sail without knowing? My greatest fear was to wake one morning with a helicopter hovering overhead. So after retrieving my VHF and a few tasks on shore I noted the wind had increased to the mid twenty knot range and I felt the urgency to leave as soon as feasible in order to get south around a particular point where I could ease sheets and reach on in what I expected to be winds up to 25 knots with higher gusts. I was set to sail with reefed mizzen and spitfire jib only.
I began calling the Armada but no response. I tried numerous times and no response. My friend Juan met me at the shore and he too called and no response. Frustrated I realized I could not depart without acknowledgement and after discussing the issue with Juan decided I had no choice but to travel the 7 miles into Armada HQ and clear up the one way communication issue, which had become the norm.
So I went back to the boat changed clothes and made my way back to shore. An hour later I reached Armada HQ and was told to wait, I waited. Finally, I could wait no longer as the wind had come up and shifted direction by some degrees, I was getting very nervous and hastily made my way the 7 miles back to Southern Cross. During my trip to the Armada the wind had blown up with gusts in the mid forties at least.
On The Beach
I reached her location and my heart skipped a beat. I raced toward shore and there was my boat fully engulfed in surf and being pounded onto shore with the cockpit full of water, sand and seaweed. She had dragged anchor and I was not there to tend to her needs. Now she was ashore on the beach being beaten up. I was momentarily dumb founded as I realized the scope of what was in front of me. What could I do? I had been here before at age nineteen when a rookie error caused my Cape Dory Typhoon to beach in breaking surf on Assateague island in the middle of the night in similar cold but not as windy conditions. I managed a solo self rescue then, could I do it again? I had to get over the shock and act if there was to be any way to get out of the dire situation, which at the moment looked very serious and so I did. I reached into the flooded cockpit and grabbed my dry suit, stripped off coat and shoes and got on with it.
I dug out Southern Cross‘s main anchor, released more rode and entered the Strait swimming it out as far as I could. I dove under and set it for I knew just placing it might not be enough hold for what I was about to attempt. The water was really cold and I all of a sudden realized I was not nineteen I was much older and this was a serious situation. With no time to think I got back to the boat and shoulder under her bow sprit I began lunging and lifting with all my might but nothing as she was continually pounded further on to shore. I regrouped and grabbing her pump handle furiously pumping her cockpit getting just ahead of the incoming water, what a mess, gear floated and I thrashed it aside as I pumped until my arms throbbed.
Back at the bow sprit I began rocking her timing each rock with the next incoming wave and she began to inch bow out to sea. This little boat, my world, my home, my dream yet fulfilled wanted to live. Soon I had her bow out and went to starboard and hauled in rode, the anchor held. I made my way through waist deep water to her stern and again timing with each wave I put my back to her transom and used my bodies largest muscle group my thighs and managed to inch her out as her bow lifted with each wave. I had been at this for nearly an hour and adrenalin was coursing through my being and I felt neither cold nor fatigue. Finally, she was free and I swam to her side and hauled in more rode pulling both of us to sea.
She was free of the first break and I needed to stop and collect myself to make a plan. I swam to shore and crawled out of the water all of a sudden feeling very spent. I looked at my hands and winced, both bled from numerous cuts on my knuckles, I hadn’t felt a thing until that moment. I stood on the beach catching my breath and looked for a solution. To my left and 200 yards away was a ship wreck and relatively calmer water between the wreck and shore. I had no other option and realizing how much trouble my boat was in and how precarious her location was I again got to it.
She was listing heavily to starboard and I felt heart sick and driven to her aid. I entered the water and swam to the anchor pulling it from the bottom as wind whipped the surface and took my breath away. I man hauled my way along the anchor rode to shallow enough water enabling me to stand and began working the boat along the beach toward the slightly more protected place. This took real effort as I worked her side shore to the break but just far enough out that she remained free. Finally, I got an anchor down off her stern in about eight feet of water and bobbed my way back to shore. I set my main anchor deep in the sand. I then manually pumped her foot well almost dry and felt so thankful I had built in the foot well and transom vents, they had saved the day.
The mistake of not dogging down hatch covers had bitten me but hard as her lockers were full to the seat tops with water, sand and seaweed. Some dry bags had yet to be fully closed and contents were ruined. Her centerboard was fully jammed with seaweed and rocks and the pennant broken. The rudder up haul was also broken and I was unsure if she had been holed or not. I eased off her aft anchor and brought her close to shore and began unloading soggy salt gear all of it soaked in salt water and most of it covered in sand and seaweed. I piled it on the beach and pumped her seat lockers. What an incredible mess. It was hard to know where to start or how to continue. So I stopped long enough to take off my dry suit, the suit that had saved the day and for a moment just stood looking at my boat.
Revelations and Lessons
For a moment I had a most astonishing revelation, I felt not defeated but in an odd sense elated. I was elated because I had managed to save my boat and knew I was in a club of sorts. The club of those who before me had been blown ashore in this windy place. As a result of this nerve wracking experience I knew I could go one of two ways. I could end up frightened, intimidated with no enthusiasm to go forward or I could go to the flip side and see the silver linings as they were definitively there after a bit of digging. So for me it was all positive and lined in silver! This is an adventure of adventures and this incident is an integral part of the experience.
Years ago before I first voyaged the Beagle Channel and south around Cape Horn in a fifteen foot sailing canoe I called Hal and Margaret Roth. Aboard their Pacific northwest built Spencer 35 they had been blown ashore south of here and had to rely on the Chilean Armada for rescue. Recently John Welsford and I in talking with the crane operator who dropped Southern Cross in the eater learned of his recent work lifting a yacht off the rocks near Cabo Froward, it happens here with regularity as conditions change in an instant.
I faced some tough questions. I was amazed, a bit dumbfounded and I knew what had caused the incident. The place, the communication question with the Armada and my lack of attention lulled by waiting. I was still a land bound creature not having fully made the leap to creature of the sea, which had to happen, always does when I voyage.
I was in a sense still thinking in land-bound terms, I had become complacent. The Strait of Magellan is in a sense an other worldly place akin to space and I was a shore dabbler not yet fully tuned in. The first real test was on me in full force. I knew I had to change as I hauled loads of sodden gear 100 yards up the beach and with each load a new resolve to become what I had to become in order to survive the sail ahead began to take shape. I had been in the Strait of Magallan, I had been beneath the surface diving in a thirteen pound Northill and chain. I had felt her power and not just observed it from shore or tucked warmly yet precariously in my tented cockpit. I felt in touch with the elements and glad for it, I had prevailed and I had a steel resolve to not be in this situation again.
The Strait is a forbidding place, ice cold, wind swept, powerful beyond imagining. I heard its message and I heard it clearly. Your not ready, you left the door ajar just enough for the wolf to get his nose in and he was pushing hard. I had just fought a good fight. I had met the wolf and forced him back inch by inch, I had saved my boat, my dream, my hopes and I felt elated and enlightened. I felt no fear and looked out at the water in front of me and vowed to come to it again with a repaired and better boat and a new respect and understanding. I was learning and this is why I came here. I felt humble yet not intimidated. The niggling unease I had felt at night at anchor knowing just how precarious it all seemed was now gone. The wolf and I had stared each other down and although he had wounded me and had a shoulder at the door and at the point of fully bursting through he also knew he had strengthened my resolve and deepened my wisdom.
First I tended to my hands and then back to the boat I continued to off load sodden soggy gear. For two hours I emptied and pumped and then I put my dry suit back on to wait for the incoming tide. I hauled out block and tackle, winch and beach rollers and set up to haul her clear above the high tide line. This was no small task after the hours I had spent rescuing and clearing her gear out. I managed to get her up the beach and then flipped her on her side to inspect for damage and to release her jammed centerboard. I was delighted to see she had not been holed (I built her to be strong). Her bottom paint was scarred and worn away, centerboard jammed, pennant broken, rudder up haul broken and centerboard gasket ripped and hanging from the hull.
Three days later (three days ago) I again flipped her back over on to rollers after clearing the centerboard, replacing the pennant, repainting her bottom, re-attaching the gasket, cleaning every inch of her interior aft of the cuddy cabin and fixing the rudder up haul. I also took the time to refine some of her rigging to better meet conditions I will face. In the interim I had to rinse and clean everything soaked and sandy, a huge task with only one small farm bucket to haul water in. I had to meticulously clean the interior and exterior of the boat of all sand as sand is the ultimate enemy of any boat. Some of my food provisions were ruined so I replaced those. All of this was done out of a small boat builders beach shack…….Thank you again to my friend Juan!
So now to the most silver of linings in this incident. I finally have a real and persistent weather window and plan to launch from the beach today and leave tomorrow morning, a bit wiser, more prepared and much more at one with the sea. All in all, the beaching although regretable has been a great experience and an integral part of my little adventure as odd as that might sound.
Stay tuned for regular updates as we get them —Eds