Cruise to Antarctica- Newsletter #1

Puerto Montt, Chile, October, 1998

It seemed like FIONA’s 1998 cruise would never start – we had to yank the engine out only weeks before departure and boatyard people were still working on the new deck two days before we left.   The deck replaced the teak, which was finally going after 23 years, (yes, Virginia, FIONA is getting old, like her skipper) work was hampered by a rainy spring. Mike Demont flew in from South Africa a couple of weeks before departure to join Walter and I as the crew. We left on July 9, three days later than planned, and, in fact, we have been running behind schedule for this whole phase of the cruise, in each port I felt a little like the White Rabbit – “I’m late, I’m late!” Sticking to the timetable is important so that we get a good weather window at Cape Horn. We skipped our traditional one night layover in Block Island, heading straight to Bermuda. For the first two days the winds were light and variable but then we picked up good NE winds and romped to Bermuda in a little over five days after leaving Fire Island Inlet. The shock I encountered on this leg was not caused by the weather or some problem with the boat: sitting comfortably in the cockpit at happy hour with a rum in our hands the day before landfall Walter announced, out of the blue, that he was getting off in Bermuda and flying home. He felt he just was not ready for the trip. I must say this was a blow, Walter was a veteran of FIONA’s 1995-97 circumnavigation and had become a very competent sailor, Mike had only a month or two of blue water experience under his belt and we were heading for some of the roughest sailing grounds in the world. Once in Bermuda, Mike called friends in Africa who might want to join the cruise and Brenda posted “crew wanted” messages on Internet notice boards. Finally we left (late as usual, the search for crew was the delaying factor) with a   Bermudian crew member who had sailed across the Atlantic and had several good references from yacht skippers. We had wonderful winds and made the 900 mile passage to St Martin in a little over six days. We had a very near miss with a freighter one night when a couple of hundred miles from St Martin. Despite prolonged discussion about collision avoidance with the captain on the VHF radio the clown put his helm over when just yards away and barely cleared our stern. When we got to the French side of St Martin the immigration officials refused to admit Mike as S. Africans needed a visa, so we puttered round to the Dutch side and cleared in there. As there is no border between the French and Dutch parts of the island this is a perfect example of mindless bureaucracy. It was in St Martin we parted company with our Bermudian crew; he just wasn’t working out, considering what lay ahead and I got him a ticket home. After stocking up with duty-free rum Mike and I sailed the boat to Bequia, the start of a charming cruise of the Grenadine Islands. Wandering about the small island of Mayreau we came across the gravestone of Margaret Alexander, who died on the 31st of January, 1950, aged 113! It is staggering to think that this lady, who died well after WWII, as a child probably saw British men-of-war that could have been at the Battle of Trafalgar. Her parents were probably slaves, but she was born just as the British Empire renounced slavery. Later on we talked to a local who was her great-great grandson. We dived on a sunken gunboat on a reef west of Mayreau, but that was from a later era; it had a boiler.

At each island I bombarded Brenda with phone calls concerning possible crew replacement. She had flushed out on the Internet a Frenchmen called Bruno who was very interested and I finally managed to talk to him myself – a not inconsiderable feat considering the phones on most West Indian islands. He seemed OK and we agreed to rendezvous at Curacao, our next stopover with decent air connections. We had a great down-wind sail to Curacao, arriving in the middle of the night, as usual. We made it to an inner lagoon by means of a winding channel with a rock-bound narrow entrance, it was quite hair-raising in the dark and we went very slowly. Unfortunately Bruno had not contacted Brenda to give her a flight number and date and after waiting a few days we gave up on him. However the island did hold a pleasant surprise; through my vintage auto rallies I had come to know a Danish couple who owned a hotel, I gave them a call and they insisted Mike and I should stay with them for a couple of days. The hotel was very luxurious and for two nights we enjoyed a sybaritic existence, particularly so after the semi-Spartan life on a cruising sailboat. Ultimately we tore ourselves away and sailed for the San Blas Islands, a beautiful archipelago of tropical islands off the Darien coast of Panama. They are inhabited by the Kuna Indians, who have a good deal of autonomy and have prevented any development of tourist facilities, so they make a wonderful cruising ground. The Indian ladies come alongside in dugout canoes to sell embroidered cloth squares called molas, which unfortunately for them they have over produced, as the prices were less than when FIONA visited the same islands in 1996. The crew situation was now getting really worrisome, the Panama Canal was less than 100 miles away, once through it we were committed to some very long distance sailing that would not be too enjoyable for a crew of only two. There was a solitary phone booth outside the customs house on Porvenir Island, a rare symbol of civilization in these islands and I thanked my lucky stars I could raise the ATT operator on it, so calling home was not a problem.   I got Brenda to call several of my old sailing chums in a vague hope they might have a few months to spare that they could spend getting cold and wet off Tierra del Fuego. Mike recalled an old colleague of his from Zimbabwe, Bruce, who was presently on a walk-about in England. The   only point of contact was a secretary at his old firm in South Africa who, we hoped, would have a number for him in London. With this slim lead Brenda managed to track him down and he agreed to join us in Panama!

When we tied up at the Panama Canal YC in Colon I found the city had improved considerably since our last visit in 1996. Many decrepit buildings had been knocked down and people on the street seemed happier and better dressed. Most importantly; nobody mugged me this time! We stayed a few days in order to complete the formalities of transiting the canal and made final arrangements to meet Bruce when we got to Balboa, on the Pacific side. I had to hire three Panamian youths as line handlers, the commission rules require four people on board as well as the skipper and commission pilot. We stopped for the night in the Gatun Lake, between the Atlantic and Pacific locks. We were definitely discouraged from swimming when we noticed an alligator casing the boat. Bruce arrived on schedule at the Panama City Airport, we left within a couple days and anchored for the night at an island in the Las Perlas group, so Bruce was not thrust immediately into an ocean passage – he had no deep water experience. The next day we left for the Galapagos Islands. On my previous two trips there, we encountered light and variable winds and we motored a lot. This time we had a steady head wind.   Although we did not have to use the engine, we had to tack and tack, the 900 mile trip took eleven and half days and we logged just over 1400 miles.


We spent a few days at Santa Cruz Island, Mike and Bruce went on a tour of the unique wildlife – I had seen them before. We left Santa Cruz just at nightfall so we could motor over to Santa Maria and anchor for the night – what was left of it; we arrived at midnight. Santa Maria is famous among sailors as it was here the old whalers left letters for homeward-bound ships to collect. A barrel was attached to pole at what became known as Post Office Bay. As the outward-bound ships were often away for several years this was their last chance to send mail home for some time. Strictly speaking, yachts are no longer allowed to cruise to individual islands in the Galapagos but I felt tradition demanded that we stop at Post Office Bay. When we dinghied to the beach early in the morning we were met by a National Park ranger who was escorting a gaggle of tourists. We had seen the barrel through binoculars from FIONA, so we pleaded to be allowed to walk over to it, but we were firmly ejected. I wonder if the tourists appreciated the irony that we were about to leave on a 4,000 mile cruise to Chile via Easter Island. We were just the sort of sailors the barrel was originally set up for.

The trip to Easter Island was a delight, we had strong SE trade winds on the beam the whole way. We reeled off 170 miles a day and made the 1,900 mile leg in just under twelve days. At one stage the boisterous winds tore the mainsail, which we removed and repaired using the old Read sewing machine. We approached the island just at sunrise with some trepidation as there is no proper harbor and many sailors tell of difficulty getting ashore in their dinghy through the pounding surf. We anchored well clear of the surf line and saw local boats using a gap between the breaking waves. We inflated the 10 ft rubber dinghy and attached the 8 hp outboard. Without it we would not have been able to get ashore. Just inside the surf was a small breakwater with a thick hawser hanging 6 ft above the water. The idea was to tie the stern of the dinghy to this line and then fasten the bow to the dock wall. Once ashore we went through the arrival formalities at the port captain’s office and then treated ourselves to a good lunch at one of the restaurants in the small village of Hanga Roa. The owner was a very helpful Frenchman, through him we arranged to rent a jeep the next day so we could tour the island.


The island has a fascinating history; Polynesians from the islands to the west (the Australs or Gambiers) arrived by ocean – going catamarans about the 7th century AD. It must have been a shock after the lush islands they left; although Easter Island is just sub-tropical (it lies near 27°S) only the occasional palm tree on the shore reminds you of this, the interior is fairly desolate and wind-swept, you could be in Labrador or the highlands of Scotland. The early settlers soon cut down most of the trees and ate most of the native birds and animals. A long period of hardship began, which they dealt with by carving huge statues of former chiefs (Moai, pronounced Mo-eyes) who were associated with the Good Times. When the statue was erected and mother of pearl and obsidian eyes inserted, its spirit (Mana) guarded the land, the statues always had their backs to the sea. As times got tougher the Moais got bigger, finally achieving over 30 ft in height. (more Moais the answer?) Ultimately the Polynesians descended into cannibalism and fierce fighting between factions led to the destruction of many Moais. This period began just as Europeans discovered Easter Island and their diseases and slaving raids completed the annihilation of the Rapa Nui culture. There are hundreds of the big statues, some have been restored like the ones we saw on the NE coast at Anakena. Further south is the quarry where most were made from the soft pumice – like rock. It lies on the side of huge volcanic crater, many half-finished statues abound. Finally we drove to the huge crater on the SE corner called Rano Kau. At a high point, right on the precipitous cliff, is an amazing collection of stone dwellings, made from flat basalt rock, each hut has one small opening for ingress, perhaps 2 ft square. Why on earth people chose to live at this exposed spot, with winds howling in, I don’t know. Perhaps it was where they kept the lepers. Immediately south of this small community are a couple of very small rocky islands about three quarters of a mile offshore. Legend has it that in the heyday of the Rapa Nui civilization a young man was chosen each year as the bird king. To achieve this honor the youths climbed down the cliff, swam to the larger island (Motu Nui) found a bird’s egg and returned with it unbroken. The winner was crowned and received many honors for the year, I don’t know what happened to him after that. Frequently a sacrifice was called for, I suspect.

When we left we sailed in a big arc round the permanent high pressure zone centered on 30°S. Apart from the first couple of days, when we used the engine, we had good winds on the stern and we ran day after day for the South American coast with the jib set wing and wing, a leg of about 2,000 miles. As we drove south the temperature fell, our t-shirts gave way to pullovers. Our only companions on this lonely stretch of ocean were the sea birds, including the graceful albatross. Some evenings we showed a video using the camcorder as a VCR; we have a small B&W TV set. Perhaps it is a sign of the generation gap that when I screened the Astaire/Rogers comedy “The Gay Divorcee”, I had to explain to the crew that nobody was getting divorced because they were gay, in 1934 that meant Ginger was happy and carefree.   Then I had to explain what a co-respondent was (a common way of divorce in England in the 20’s through the 50’s was to use a professional co-respondent to imply infidelity – the basis of the plot) I guess some films don’t age well, but the dancing was wonderful.

We anchored south of the lighthouse at Punta Corona 14 2 days out of Easter Island. The canals (Spanish for channels) have fierce currents and we waited for the flood to take us in – it ran over 8 knots! We have tied up at an excellent marina in Puerto Montt, having logged 8,637 nautical miles since leaving Long Island. I am going to take a lot of broken bits to Long Island to get them repaired and then, on my return, we will cruise the scenic canals that lead down Chile’s west coast to Puerto Williams, a scant 90 miles from Cape Horn. We hope to spend Christmas there.


Scenes of Easter Island

Moais at Anakena

Bruce, Eric and Mike at the stone huts, Orango

Petroglyphs and a view of Moto Nui, the island to which young men swam for the ceremonial eggs

Castro, Chileo Island. Houses on stilts at the waterfront

Fiona lies at anchor in Pto Bueno off the Sarmiento Canal

Eric holds a king crab donated by the port captain at Pto Eden. Mike looks on in disbelief.