Panama, March, 2007
Port Stanley was exhausted after the excesses of Christmas and Boxing Day, nearly all the shops were closed until New Year, but we managed to buy some fresh fruits and veggies. The baker was shut all week but the West Store had some frozen bread, so I bought 10 loaves and cranked down the temperature of the freezer. We left on December 28th with what looked like a favorable wind forecast, alas, by the 30th we were hove-to with a head wind of 35 knots gusting to 50 knots. By the evening we were able to sail again but by the next day we were becalmed! This is a part of the world where the weather changes quickly. Our destination was King George Island in the South Shetland group. On New Year’s Day I made a traditional turkey dinner, originally intended for Christmas but, of course, we had eaten out in Port Stanley. The weather was a mixed bag as we approached the island chain, each morning I talked to a radio ham in the Falklands, Bob, who provides forecasts for yachts in the Cape Horn region. As we approached King George at night the weather was atrocious, we also had to battle an unfavorable current running over 3 knots, the wind was on the nose and we started the engine, but we scarcely gained ground. Sleet accumulated in big piles on the deck and on the rigging. Joey made a small snowman in the cockpit, he is from South Carolina and said he had never seen snow before. We anchored in a bay on Nelson Island, just south of King George, which I had chosen by inspecting the chart for a sheltered haven. As it got lighter we saw we were surrounded by large chunks of ice breaking away from a glacier at the head of the bay. I contacted a Russian base on King George by radio and they gave directions to a better anchorage nearer their station, which we moved to as soon as practical. A lone scientist on the shore of Nelson Island waved and called us on the radio, but it was too deep to anchor near him. As we approached the anchorage at King George we found a charter yacht was also there. Several countries operate bases on the island. As we walked over to the buildings we passed several Chinese from a research station near the anchorage. The terrain reminded me of South Georgia, it is not completely devoid of vegetation as is the true Antarctica, but most of it is moss. The Chileans run an airport which has service to Punta Arenas; how things have changed since Shackleton had to make his epic voyage 90 years ago from Elephant Island, not far to the east. At the control tower we talked to the meteorologist about the forecast and tried to find out the extent of the sea ice further south. We were invited into the Russian base; we inspected the research equipment and had a cup of tea in the lounge. We were able to check our e-mail for the last time in several weeks; all in all, I think the Russians are very comfortable there. Our host, Sasha, then walked us over to a Russian Orthodox Church which had been prefabricated and then erected near the top of a hill overlooking the site. It was small but very impressive.
The next day we left for Greenwich Island, I had a note on the chart that there was a penguin rookery near a good anchorage. I was determined to sail there despite a head wind to conserve fuel. We beat down the Bransfield Strait all night, but of course it was fairly light in the long Antarctic twilight. A good thing as the radar went out and there were scattered icebergs about. On Paul’s watch he spotted a huge shelf ‘berg, the first he had ever seen of that kind; so big he thought we were approaching land, we tacked round it. By morning we approached the anchorage; a small bay formed by a finger of volcanic ash called Yankee Harbour. The guys took the dinghy ashore to look for penguins while I fiddled with the radar, without success. I also had no luck getting the cabin heater to work, why do these devices die just when you need them the most? During the night a flotilla of small growlers, lumps of floating ice, drifted in to share our anchorage. Our next stop was Deception Island; many years ago it was a whaling station which was built on the shore inside an old volcanic crater. The volcano is still active, several times the base had to be evacuated due to eruptions and thermal springs dribble hot water into the sea at low tide. I first visited here on the 1998/99 cruise. Since then the British have tidied the place up, much old equipment has gone, including the fuselage of a deHaviland Beaver plane, which had been abandoned by the British Antarctic Survey.
But there is still plenty to see, including several decaying huts and the aircraft hangar, which is still in good shape. When we were here before the hangar was full of snow, now it has all gone. In fact, my impression is that there is much less snow and ice than there was in 1999. We spent a morning exploring and digging holes in the ash; then watching them fill with water that was too hot to touch. The wind was fair, after lunch we left for a day-long sail to Port Lockroy. It was cold, heavy sleet fell which gathered in the fold of the reefed mainsail. When we started the engine and hauled in the boom as the wind died in the lee of Brabant Island I noticed that the sleet has frozen into a solid bar in the sail, we wouldn’t have been able to shake the reef out until it got warmer. After Brabant the wind howled again in the Gerlache Strait and we dropped anchor at Port Lockroy in the evening, with the sun shining brightly. This was our first stop in the 1998/99 cruise, there were quite a few changes. To start with we anchored in a bay behind Goudier Island which was frozen solid on our first visit. There were three other yachts at anchor, all charter boats operating out of Ushiai in Argentina. A large cruise ship was anchored nearby, while we were there half a dozen ships stopped, loaded with tourists. Port Lockroy has been discovered. The post office has been expanded into a gift shop and the resident staff increased from two to three. In the morning we introduced ourselves to the staff; a male manager and two lady assistants. One of them, Jo, was leaving the next day on one of the cruise ships. We were told the revenue from the shop pays all the operating expenses of the base and provides a surplus to help the British Antarctic Heritage Trust.
In the afternoon we explored the extensive Gentoo penguin rookery on a nearby shore and took pictures of huge whale skeletons left there probably a century ago by the whalers. After supper we went back to the base to say “Goodbye” to Jo, as a precaution against the cold we took along a bottle of Mount Gay rum, quite a party developed. In the morning we dinghied over to charter sailboat we had first encountered at Port Stanley; Pelagic Australis. It is operated by a well-known captain, Skip Novak, who also happens to be a member of the Cruising Club of America. Using this slender link I got us invited on board, a well heeled party of ten British charterers were having breakfast in the main cabin so we stayed in the pilot house. The boat was interesting as it was specially constructed in South Africa of aluminum for Antarctic chartering. In the afternoon we watched a movie on board Fiona and transferred our extra fuel from jerry jugs into the main tank. After deflating the dinghy we left in the morning for a quick race to the Antarctic Circle, the ultimate goal of this part of the cruise.
Our route took us through the Le Maire Strait, which had been impassable due to ice in 1999. This year it was cluttered in places by growlers and brash ice but we had no difficulty finding a way through. It was spectacular sailing; the strait is five miles long and less than half a mile wide. Immense black cliffs, slashed by great glaciers and walls of snow, tower up thousands of feet. Looking up almost vertically as we sailed through one can’t help wondering what would happen if the snow banks, high above our heads, decided to detach themselves at that moment and fall into the sea. The wind was failing so I decided to anchor for the night. The chart showed a group ahead called the Argentine Islands. A British base was shown on one island, Galindez, but I suspected it was closed, however it had a nice-looking anchorage and we headed for it. Soon some buildings and radio antennas came in sight and a flag was flying; blue and yellow–Ukraine. When we dropped the hook in front of the largest hut a Zodiac dinghy roared out to greet us and later returned with a scientist, Andriy, who spoke English. He persuaded us to move to a very secluded bay behind the station, but it was so confined we had to tie the stern to a rock to avoid drifting onto the shore. Later the Zodiac returned to take us to the base. It was formerly British but had been taken over by the Ukrainians about four years ago; it is used for atmospheric radio research. The poles are especially good for this; signals generated by lightning strokes in the northern hemisphere are conducted by the earth’s magnetic field to the south polar region, where they can be detected as very low frequency waves, called whistlers. As it happened it was the station chief’s birthday. We helped ourselves to a splendid assortment of buffet food and frequently toasted someone or something with vodka in the Russian style; down in one gulp. Speakers played loud ethnic music and we were made to join in the dancing, everyone in a circle jumping up and down, arms linked. Unfortunately there were no women stationed on the base. The chef brought in an impressive three tier birthday cake with three candles, which the chief extinguished with one puff. A small room off the bar served as the library, I was amused to find shelves full of old British periodicals such as ‘Punch’, many were nearly 30 years old and ,of course, very few of the present residents could read them. It was after midnight before we got back to the boat. In the morning Andriy and two other scientists came to visit us, they were particularly interested in our e-mail capability using SSB radio and the service I had signed up for when we were in Brazil to get the GRIB weather charts. As Andriy was leaving I asked if they could spare some diesel fuel and he departed with our empty jerry jugs. Just after lunch the Zodiac returned with 60 liters of fuel, they would accept no payment. The Ukrainians had been very hospitable to us and the brief break at their base was our last encounter with “civilization” for several weeks.
Our course south took us down the Grandidier Channel. On our left were massive headlands of black rock and ice towering thousands of feet. As the sun inched infinitesimally towards the horizon the pale horizontal rays dramatically illuminated the gaunt cliffs, whose tops by then were enveloped in cloud. Fiona plowed on, almost as though she was sailing into a vast stage setting of Wagnerian grandeur. When Ware was on watch about midnight the density of the floating ice around the boat suddenly increased and he called me on deck, there seemed to be no way through, we were at 65º 35’S, only 60 miles from the Antarctic Circle. A glance at the chart showed we could reach more open water west of the Biscoe Islands by backtracking about 20 miles. The wind had died away and I was reluctant to use precious fuel but we were so close to our goal we put the wheel over and headed northwest with the engine. When we were able to head south again the wind slowly returned and strengthened. We crossed the Antarctic Circle at 66º 33.5’S and 68º 59’W at about 5 am local time the next day in gale force winds. It was bitterly cold with sleet falling. Working on deck was not too pleasant but we got the boat jibed over and heading northwest. The wind increased and backed, we tied the second reef in the storm mainsail and ran as the seas built up with a wind that gusted up to 55 knots. Later in the day the wind began to subside, we slowly set more sail but we made a tedious trip across the Drake Passage as a large high pressure system settled in, it took us a week to reach 55ºS, but at least it was getting a little warmer. We were usually close hauled in light or moderate winds that blew between northeast and northwest for most of the cruise up the coast. We talked to Bob on ham radio every morning who passed on the latest weather forecast. It was a slow, tedious sail until we got north of 48ºS, when the wind veered to the west. A week before we got to Chile the sky cleared, hanging over the stern of the boat in the southern sky was the most brilliant comet I have ever seen. The tiny head glowed diamond white and a vast, bushy green tail illuminated a large segment of the sky. I asked Bob on our next radio contact what it was called but he did not know, in fact, had not even seen it in Port Stanley. A couple of days later we took the covers off the main cabin windows, which greatly lightened our space below. Abeam of the large island of Chiloe the wind died entirely and I decided to make for Ancud, a small town just inside the Canal Chacao as we did not have enough fuel to get to Puerto Montt if the calm persisted.
During the night the engine stopped half a dozen times as dirt in the bottom of the tank was stirred up by the swell, I think the fuel we got in Mar del Plata had been particularly dirty. Each time it stopped I had to clean the filters and purge air out of the fuel lines. Eventually the feed line from the tank became so clogged we could not clear it. As a last resort I drilled a hole in the top of the tank and pushed in a piece of hose from which the engine could suck fuel. To complicate matters a fuel return line sprang a leak and about 7 gallons of our precious fuel went into the pan under the engine before I noticed. We pumped it out via a filter and put it back in the tank. It was a busy time and I stank of diesel fuel. I was heartily pleased when we chugged into Ancud just after lunch and tied up to a fishing boat on the jetty. Fortunately there was a nearby gas station where we filled our jerry jugs. Then I had to clear in at the Port Captain’s office. As Ancud was our first Chilean stop the paperwork took some time, when I got back to the boat the crew were enjoying a party on the foredeck of the fishing boat; swigging Chilean wine and eating raw shellfish. Several fisherman came to inspect the boat, we were the first American yacht to stop there in years. Unfortunately one of them took the opportunity to swipe Paul’s cell phone. Later we had a celebratory dinner at a very pleasant restaurant overlooking the bay, but appearances belied the food, it was the worst; my chicken was practically raw and still frozen on the inside. Ah, well, you can’t win ’em all and we were home and dry; we had made it to the Antarctic Circle and rounded Cape Horn westabout; definitely worth celebrating, even with raw chicken.
It is about 60 miles to Puerto Montt from Ancud, the first part of the passage is through a fairly narrow waterway called the Chacao Canal, it is notorious for the fierce current. As the moon was full I expected it would be especially strong and we timed our departure to make maximum advantage of the east-setting current. There was no wind, we chugged along under power at about 5 knots, but when the current grabbed the boat I noticed the GPS showing our speed over the bottom as 11.4 knots; a boost from the current of 6.4 knots. We arrived at the marina about 7 pm, I was fairly familiar with the local set-up as we had stayed at the same marina in 1998, when we were on our way south to the Antarctic. The next day we tackled the maintenance problems that had accumulated during the Antarctic leg, the most serious was a fracture of a stainless bracket holding the starboard side of the bowsprit. I crawled into the chain locker to hold the nuts while Paul unfastened the bolts on the outside and we removed the bracket. I gave it to the marina manager, Rodrigo, who arranged to have it welded. We also needed a new cockpit seat cushion to replace one that had been washed overboard in the storm that hit us when we left Stanley. Down came the Yankee jib, we intended to use the large Genoa for the rest of the trip north. In the evening we all went to a restaurant which one guide claimed served the best beef steak in Chile, it was full, so we ate next door, where the food turned out to be mediocre. Soon the crew began to change, Paul left for Santiago, and Mickey showed up with his wife Barbara. When she left Mickey moved back on board and eventually Joe took a bus to Santiago, 600 miles to the north. Mickey and I made a new feed pipe to put in the hole I had drilled into the fuel tank. One afternoon, while we still had a rental car, Barbara, Mickey and I did the food shopping to restock the boat as far as Ecuador, nearly 3,000 miles away. Puerto Montt was founded by Germans in the nineteenth century, very little architectural evidence remains but one nice relic is the German Club. Here one can eat from immaculately set tables, be served by punctilious waiters and enjoy good food. The days soon passed and then it was time for Ware, Mickey and myself to start the long haul up the Pacific to the Panama Canal.
Five days after leaving the Chacao Canal we arrived at Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, the very island on which Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the early 18th century and which was the inspiration for the novel written by Daniel Defoe. We had to slow down in order to arrive with the first glimmer of daylight, our radar was still defunct, we anchored just clear of a couple of dozen small fishing boats in Cumberland Bay. The only sign of civilization was a small village, otherwise the verdant, steep mountains looked just as they must have to Mr. Selkirk. There are a few unpaved roads in the village but they do not seem to go far. When an airstrip was built the only flat land they could find was on a peninsula on the other side of the island; potential passengers must make an eight hour trek by foot or a two hour boat ride. There are a few small restaurants, a couple of shops selling mostly canned or dry food and a large catholic church. A supply boat comes from the mainland three hundred miles away about once a month. It reminded me of the first visit Edith and I made to the smaller Caribbean islands in the early ’60s; muddy tracks, chickens everywhere and cockcrow of roosters.Does anyone remember Ruby;s number one and Ruby’s number two shops in Road Town, Tortola, before the Whickam’s Cay development? After a pleasant lunch, fish of course, Ware and I hiked up to a pass between vertiginous peaks, a lookout at the top permits a view of both sides of the island. Ware climbed down to the other side but I had had enough exercise; it was a steep climb of nearly 2,000 feet straight up from sea level. After another fish dinner I slept like a log. The next day I took care of the mandatory postcards and got our clearance to leave for Ecuador from the Chilean Navy. Mickey and I looked for a memorial to a famous sea battle that took place here in WW I; the German battleship Dresden was trapped by the British and sunk in Cumberland Bay. The only evidence now is a number of gun turrets that rather incongruously line the muddy main street. We had a very pleasant fish lunch at the yacht club overlooking the bay and then weighed anchor after spending the last of our Chilean pesos on canned fruit in one of the small shops.
On the night of 20th February we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, it is surprising, I think, that one can cruise from the Antarctic Circle to the tropics in less than four weeks of sailing. We had steady but gentle southeast winds for almost the entire trip to Ecuador. We used the engine only sparingly for the 2,000 nm leg to La Libertad, which took 16 days. Twice off the coast of Peru we encountered fishermen in 20 foot dories powered by an outboard. They were off a mother ship, lurking somewhere, as we were nearly 200 miles from land. The yfirst asked for food and we gave them a loaf, the second wanted beer but we could only spare a can. In the Gulf of Guayaquil the wind died completely and we finished the leg under power. The Puerto Lucia Yacht Club ay La Libertad is very luxurious, it incorporates a hotel, pool and pleasant restaurant. The architecture is very modern and striking. We stayed for three days, which we spent refueling, replenishing the propane, checking e-mail and, of course, clearing in and out, the Ecuadorian bureaucracy was like most in South American: slow and cumbersome. Ware met some young friends and spent a day at a resort up the coast surfing. There was a group of live-aboard yachties at the club, mostly Canadian and American. They were taking advantage of the very low labor rates to get major boat work done; about $5 per day. We enjoyed our stay, taxis were very inexpensive and the Ecuadorian currency is the US dollar, which made things simple. But we were running a few days behind schedule, the winds in the Gulf of Panama are notoriously fickle, it was time to make a shot to get directly to the Canal.
The trip to Panama was frustrating, for the first five days we managed to sail for only 10 hours, otherwise we powered over an oily sea. As we approached Punta Mala we were very low on fuel, naturally we then ran into headwinds and strong counter currents. We had to beat up to the Gulf of Panama, making good only 50 miles a day but sailing over 120. We anchored for the night with the great bridge carrying the Pan American Highway over the Panama Canal in sight. It was exactly two months since we left the Antarctic Circle. The next day we began the tedious process of renting a mooring, clearing in and starting the paperwork to get through the canal. It was very hot with the temperature touching 90ºF by midday; still Long Island was enduring another very cold spell, so things could be worse. Our experiences in Panama and the canal transit will form the start of my next newsletter. So far I see we have logged 16,407 nautical miles since we left Patchogue.
Until the next time, best wishes from Eric
Russian Orthodox Church on King George Is, South Shetlands.
Gentoo Penguins and chicks, Port Lockroy, Antarctica.
Paul and Sally help Joey to the dinghy after Jo’s farewell party, Port Lockroy.
Entrance to Le Maire Channel, Antarctica.
Eric at Greenwich Island, Antarctica.
Inside one of the old base huts, Deception Island, Antarctica.
Remains of the old generator equipment, Deception Island, Antarctica.
Iceberg encountered on the way to the Antarctic Circle.
GPS readout as Fiona crossed the Antarctic Circle.
The famous castaway peers out at Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile.
Mickey by a gun from the Dresden, Robinson Crusoe Island