Ever since the beginning of our sailing adventure in July 2008, the idea of crossing the boundaries of relatively well-trodden sailing areas had always tickled me – and whenever Katharine and I had contemplated life beyond the Caribbean Seabird Surveys I had always pitched the idea that it should contain a trip into the deep Pacific – just to see, just to experience a wild place.
Within six months we would aim to live in two highly opposed wildernesses, leaving the intense, seething, effervescing swampy rainforest of the Orinoco delta, to greet the wild, tempestuous, phosphorescing southern Pacific Ocean. Lista Light had wet her 75yr old sturdy timbers in the Pacific, but never before in the infamous roaring forties, even mentioning the words made me slightly nauseous, yet definitely curious and eager with anticipation. Intrigued. Would the rushed preparation be enough, and would our experience to date have equipped us sufficiently for seas in which an accidental crash jibe costs more than just blushes and mild profanity? Could we arrive this time with two masts intact, or would it be a question of arriving at all?
This account deals with the trip from the Equator to Chile, the long country that extends 2000miles from within the Tropics to the tip of Cape Horn, but barely reaching 100miles wide. The winds determined that a wide detour should be taken all the way around a huge high pressure which swells and contracts and generally gyrates around the mid-South Pacific, and acts as a ginormous roundabout for sailing boats, especially old ones like ours that do not head at all well into the wind. But gentlemen don’t go to windward as the adage goes……..
6th March 2011 The journey started on an ill-footing. Aside from complications which arose from risking an entry into Galapagos in an unaccustomed port, there was one final requirement to pay fees to leave, which resulted in an uncomfortable and awkward discussion with crew on account of our own liquidity issue because of the lack of a bank on the island. The hope and keenness to get underway – forever under the pressure of the Austral winter approaching, and excitement at embarking on our longest voyage yet was somewhat overshadowed by the awkward repercussions of the money discussion. With such a huge and unique experience at stake, and such small living quarters it was more than a shame. The first few days of any voyage are about minor milestones and finding a rhythm of life, and this seemed to take a while.
Added to this was the fact that just South of the equator there is a large area of water dogged by a lack of wind and intermittent squalls described in Jimmy Cornell´s World Cruising Routes as “an area to be avoided if passing south of the Galapagos is between longitude 90degrees West and 95 degrees West and latitudes 3 degrees South and 8 degrees South . . which appears to be an extension of the doldrums…”Lista´s least favoured conditions. With no suggested antidote aside from keeping on a starboard tack headed South and the only hope of better weather being South of the area, we had to reluctantly accept to use the engine, something Kath and I always feel is our Achilles heal – ready to undermine us. We sailed the miles we could, eaking South, and recorded some terrifically diminutive daily totals. We bore out the gaffs creaking groaning and downright flogging as best we could. Sails went up, then down. We rolled, we collected water in the squalls and we prayed that every zephyr beyond the 5 degree line should bear the beginning of a substantive wind. Hopes more often that were eroded by short-lived breezes evaporating into thin, static air. We busied ourselves where possible but the sea began to feel very big.
As with each little wind, the issues of crew harmony soon petered out and life aboard improved: Diary 8th Feb 1800 Ships Log: “Crew unity returning to the ship”.
As a concession to modern technology and general prudence as to the conditions we would more than likely punch Lista Light into further south, we had bought more things with plugs on before we left Panama. This latest toy was to give us nothing less than time travel – the ability to see into the future and foretell fair weather or foul by downloading forecasts via a mobile phone. The phone is a tremendous beast – much like the early 1990’s mobile phones in a kitsch leather case and pull out plastic aerial, you’ll never lose it in your pocket. As ours was only properly installed in March its early use on Lista Light involved one man teetering on his toes holding up the additional omnidirectional aerial near the helm somewhere, and another downstairs driving the tangle of wires to ensure a connection to the laptop was maintained through the various connection processes – highly reminiscent of early beeping-pipping-squelching dial-up from home. But our home is in the sea and it risked our solitude being shattered.
Marine technology seemingly knows no bounds, but has the slightly unfortunate habit of cacking out at the first opportunity given the hostile environment of humidity and salty air, and because of this, and our need to find wilderness we chose not to use the phone for any calls to home, however tempting it may have become, to preserve our illusion of solitude. We are probably in the last era to enjoy it that way. Nothing worse than setting the expectation of a call, and necessarily the fear of not getting one, with the ones who were worried for us at home, then accidentally pouring a great big mug of hot chocolate over the damned phone and creating all sorts of panic. So we used it once on the first leg to Easter Island until the wind blew.
The effect of that forecast and the effect of the hollow wind on my psychology is described by my log of the day:
9th feb, 2011 DL Personal Log “……Terrible day from a sailing perspective. Our new toy [iridium] told us that no wind was due for 4 days, after that who knows. Felt totally dismayed and defensive. Had coming south been the right thing to do? There were no other options really but I jumped to my defence even though nobody questioned it. Probably a sign of insecurity, I should have checked the weather more thoroughly (though again we had no choice on departing Galapagos so had no options as to leaving date).February is a short month and I was hoping to get to Easter Island by the end of it……. ……At least with the weather forecast it allows us to stop searching for signs of wind endlessly and drop the flogging gaffs. On the downside we retreat from the signs of this environment a step further as technology removes the imperative to read the “real” signs. This is a shame. This vast ‘land’ still feels big, especially at 1 ½ knots, but it’s shrinking.”
Several visitations rewarded us for turning off the engine and listening. Firstly Mr West visited. To start with just a hum, then clearly the clatter of a helicopter. I wondered if it was the coastguard but we were a long way from the nearest land, and as the craft came alongside, 100ft away inside the little two-seater were two jumper clad guys who waved and smiled, in the middle of the vast expanse of nothing! They were a fish spotting crew which fly from the massive tuna catching vessels, legal or otherwise, in the Pacific. As they disappeared into the distance it was hard to imagine what sort of a state the fish stocks will be in if they are being marshalled from the sky as well as the sea – technology is surely their greatest foe.
Stranger things have happened at sea they say – as we flopped about going nowhere, the silence was interrupted by a disturbance on the water – unmistakably whales. From the South they made a direct course for us. It was like a game of British bulldog, but we were marooned! At the last, perhaps 20ft away about 15 Pilot Whales dipped under Lista to re-emerge on the other side, making haste. A louder blow came from where they had been and it was very different. Where the Pilot whales snuffle this beast was ejecting a massive column of steam and splutter, and even from a distance you could see it was colossal. We scurried up the deck to get better vantage points and following the same routine but keeping a more cautious distance aside and underneath the whale went. As it emerged you could see a huge lightening in the ocean as its body glided forwards, and we took the best pictures we could muster amidst the panic. To be in the presence of what seemed to be the great Blue Whale, or his slightly inappropriately named cousin (he reached 27m you see) the Pygmy Blue Whale was breath taking. Some miles into the distance its blow was still evident as it disappeared to the East and into a squall on the horizon, and we excitedly documented as best we could a rare sighting of this illusive beast – if it proves to be – the Blue Whale, the biggest animal to have EVER roamed planet Earth.
In this state everything seemed big – the fauna surely but also the concepts – our depths measured in kilometres rather than meters, our course should follow the Great Circle route rather than a direct A to B, the ocean so big it could only be thought of in terms of imaginary grids of Longitude and Latitude to break the scale a little. The currents feeding this water were conceived as far away as Antarctica. Our position was divided by times zones not hours…..
And then, just as quickly the days had been filled with hopeless frustration, they were replaced with wind, hope and brown rice (Kath and I had taken the opportunity to shove an a mini-“lent” period of eating just rice for three days as a much needed cleanser) – the voyage began!!!
12th Feb, 2011 DL Personal Log “Sailing for once – spirits immeasurably uplifted! Nervous of course that this is temporary but 3kts for 8hrs has at least equalled our last two days runs ….. Day spend grazing rice, sitting on heads trying desperately to expel my foul innards laden with explosive gas discretely – clearly impossible, and embarrassing!”
The next 14 days to windward on the South East trades was superb sailing as we blasted away the miles under full canvas, balanced, and heeling into the deep ocean. For each wave we took across Lista´s port side we delivered equal punishment back to the sea as Lista buried her flank and the sea recoiled sending out a mass of foaming spewing water. Pushing an old working boat to windward is punishing and for Lista Light it took its toll. The sounds witnessed from inside, in our bunks, were harrowing – crunch, groan, silence than another heavy crunch and creak. I would run to the hatch expecting to find a full gale blowing but it always seemed ok outside, so I’d return to another half slumber. The toll was that fact that as the timbers are stressed by the sea small amounts of water seep through – move the planks enough and more water comes in. The bilge pumps were going every 50mins but were pretty stable so although plenty of water was coming in, it wasn’t getting any worse at least. The rig was pulling hard, but sheets and sails stood up remarkably hour after hour, day after day on the same point of sail.
All good things come to an end and eventually, during shaking out a reef, the gaff on the main mast jammed and seemed to be flexing far too much. It had been a make-shift spar for the last season which had managed and therefore not been replaced. The epoxy glue holding the 2by4’s together had failed and needed renewed. Over the course of the next few days prime spruce which I had harboured since the topmast job, was butchered into reinforcing bars on the gaff, new spans spliced and the jaws re-leathered. All in all, the new gaff was like a brick but wouldn’t break at least. All the while we put lista hard on the wind.
By the time we reached the 20 degree line our crew´s physical condition was beginning to cause real concern. It had started with headaches, but progressed to missing meals and watches complaining of heart pains. A heavy cloud hung over the boat. He had undergone major heart surgery some years ago but felt strong enough to sail this leg with us. To manage that he was on a regime of pills and daily blood pressure readings. The readings increased, as did his stress level exponentially and before long he looked rough. All we could do was fill in the watches and try to improve the diet, removing salt and suggesting less sugar as a weak but immediately available remedy. By now it was pretty clear to all that he wouldn’t be going further into the Southern Ocean and on the 22nd we convened to agree that in effect a medical evacuation was needed and we would divert to Easter Island. Confirmation of that seemed to improve matters and by the 27th February, when we landed, having had to push the boat to the wind for a couple of days on the motor, he seemed much better and his wife happy.
Kath and I were transformed though – as if the news that we would be a twosome had somehow meant we should prepare. As we had done all sail changes etc to date, there shouldn’t be much change there, but we would have to stay alert for twice as much of the watch time, and the boat would need to be shipshape. There would be one small team of Kath and I focussed on one goal, sometimes lean is better, and it would be a great challenge for us.
We have over the course of our little adventure encountered a small number of men and women who we have referred to affectionately as “Mum” and the unlikely, firmly pressed, crisply cut, square jawed figure of the “Armada de Chile” is fast becoming our latest, respectfully of course. We already have our own tremendous Mums who have laid these slightly cracked eggs that we emerged from, and it´s no discredit to their persevering concern that we look elsewhere too, but in travelling away the few select people who have been generous enough to consider maternal, anxious, apprehensive and honest concern for our hapless floating circus, have borrowed the badge, temporarily.
On arrival to Easter Island we had radio’d in advance, explaining the cardiac problem and requesting permission to land. Soon after the Armada arrived in a massive pirogue which they clattered alongside Lista Light, tearing off the doorway. Once aboard in the cockpit, we had two men from the Armada, one man from the Sanitation department, one from the Immigration service, and one from the Agriculture department, all settled in and thrusting their paperwork in front of us, joking, and bypassing the extraneous sections with a dismissive flap of the hand. Officials bypassing paperwork, helping us with our homework?!?!? They were such fun in contrast to anywhere else. Finally, I was taken off with them to be showed around the various departments in town and to complete all the paperwork possible before being delivered home safely. Over the next few days they showed genuine concern as to our crew, to us and our journey. I was emailed weather reports, without requesting them, helped to mount our little sign showing where home was (a memento dedicated to them), and attended to whenever we appeared at the office.
The Armada request that yachts must call in everyday to report on position whilst in their waters and a detailed passage plan to Chile mainland had to be completed. I made up some numbers for that. It seems a heavy burden in terms of administration but for once you feel the information will actually be used so I resent it less. Ultimately, they were generous, put up with our absolutely appalling Spanish and smiled with us – my first email on arrival will be to let “Armada de Chile de Hanga Roa” know we are home safe from school….thanks Mum.
Isla Pascua was an unplanned stop but not unwelcomed. It’s a lovely little island in the middle of nowhere – dreadful anchorage- one has to paddle through the surf to get to shore, but that’s half the fun. About 20 or so yachts a year make it off the beaten track to visit here, and of the 4 we shared the “anchorage” with, all had rolled their inflatable dinghies in the surf losing outboards or paddles to various extents. Even our own 18 ft kayak was nearly pitch-poled by a big wave as we carried several hundred litres of water back to the boat at night, and on another occasion a cresting wave picked us up as we arrived through the surf break and simply wouldn’t let us go until we had surfed 50m towards the harbour wall!
The island is famous for its Tikis – Maui statues which speak of a former civilisation. They are lovely of course, but the real draw for us was to go a play in the hills and see a modern town infiltrated by guachos on horseback, leaving mounds of muck on the sculpted pavements and galloping full tilt bareback through the streets and past cars!! It was great fun – clearly the kudos of a suped-up Nova had been replaced by having a horse. The guys tearing about rode bareback and bare chested, or carrying a guitar, or posturing like surly youths behind dark shades. Mrs Lowrie was in heaven.
We made use of the chance to idle the streets and in the course of fulfilling some bureaucratic mission spent days walking miles around the little town eating wild guavas, avocado and picking up local meat and veg. It ´s not a cheap place, but the empanada from mr Empanada Man was excellent and an economical option. With a beaming smile and then a pout he gripped his hips and thrust into midair shouting “KAAA-BBOOOOOOM” in order to describe the effect of his home made chilli sauce. It was very good but was so hot it just made my nose run and my testicles ache bizarrely – I’m not sure that’s what he meant.
In our short visit we managed to eat from his store 5 times. We also ran out into the hills a couple of times and got a real feeling for life beyond the staple diet of tourists, out into the agricultural area where people smiled, caracara’s sat atop lamp posts and guachos herded their cattle on horseback. The tikis are ok too.
Back at the boat we prepared, but we are never really prepared. A solo sailor called Paul emerged aboard “Rebellion” too late to spend much time with but what a man. A Dutchman, the same age as us, he had spent the last year and a half in Patagonia using Rebellion, his 30ft little boat as a base for climbing icy peaks with a group of crazed climbers. His images and imagery were startling and we looked at our big floating home with all her chattels with guilty luxury for Rebellion was lean and he had lived aboard her for 8 years in some mean situations. He also liked to free-dive so I suspect he’ll not be about long – catch him if you can for he is a special man. We traded canned meat which we didn’t want any longer for bobbled fleeces and holey socks. He seemed pleased enough, and we wished him bon voyage.
3rd March 2011, Departure Day.
Sailing as a twosome once more. On the one hand, we have sailed some raucous legs with just the two of us, but on the other hand we have thoroughly buggered ourselves up with the smallest amount of temptation – neither of us could be accused of being overly cautious. I think very little of going to the masthead, gaff tip or boom end on a pitching sea and yet demonstrate the agility and grace of a floundering wilderbeast, I borrow the poise of a newly born deer (my nickname whilst, bandy legged and freezing, guesting for my brothers pub league football team by the home crowd was, “Bambi”) and how I haven’t come a proper cropper I’ll never know.
Kath, a beautiful innocent young flower of course (she’ll read this you see), and for all the radiation of poise and grace I’m afraid offers a similar plethora of opportunities for calamity. Sorry Love. We’ve have crashed bikes, chopped fingers, infections, popped spines, squished hands, the full gamut really and with two aboard, we really didn’t have any spare limbs on this two-man sprightly birch. So we departed as two with some trepidation quite frankly.
Despite a decent weather forecast and all the preparations we could hope for we had a mildly shoddy start to the voyage. Firstly the forecast,a Northerly wind, in which we had invested a good deal of hope for the first tricky portion of the journey, took a while coming. One imagines a soaring gallant, determined, smashing exit to soaring guitar solos and great applause – we dribbled out of Hanga Roa at 1kt. It was awkward to know when to stop waving. As we awoke following our first balmy night watch Isla Pascua was still firmly in view, you could see individual trees and make out her features easily. It felt a touch embarrassing.
When the wind did arrive it blew firmly from the North for only a day instead of three and before we could adjust to our new ocean dwelling homestead, we were in the face of a brisk South Easterly wind, the ONLY direction we could not sail to our advantage. We tried to ask Lista Light for the impossible though and tacked upwind for a day or so, making deep switchbacks in the ocean, until we conceded that we were making no progress at all and dropped the sails. Alone this would have been frustrating, but ramifications from lifting the boat badly in Trinidad that had played out in our constant apprehension as to the amount of water we are making, came to a head.
5th March 0600 Ships Log: “Wind and rain for 3 hours – collected 10 Gallons. Steering on and off the wind to keep boat moving but controlled in the gusts. Boat wet. Bilge at 35 mins, need to check it doesn’t keep escalating”
6th March 1200 Ships Log: “Horrible last few hours since yesterday. Jib tore bringing it down yesterday, wind making our progress hopeless – hove-to. Boat pissing in water from starboard side – needs tingle. ….. ……Misery. Hate boats. Hate sailing”.
The bilge pump was being automatically tripped every 20 minutes, a process that was taking 3 minutes to complete. We hadn’t even pushed Lista that hard, and hadn’t reached the thirty degrees of Latitude South, nevermind the seas we would surely meet at forty degrees. On that scenario, another couple of leaks and we would be on a cycle of water evacuation we couldn’t keep up with, in one of the most remote places on earth. Given the number of joins between planks under the water totals a length of over 1000ft of possibilities, and a hole of 5mm would easily flood us, we were in a pretty black place. Nausea crept in. We hoiked up the floor boards and thankfully found the leak in an accessible location – not so much dribbling as bubbling in. It was quite exhilarating to see! In a bizarre moment a little crab ran past my sodden fingers as I experimented with plugging the gap between the frame and the hull but could do nothing but chase the ingress around. I guess we must have shipped him on the anchor chain in Hanga Roa or perhaps before. Not sure what he has been living on (not wood I trust) but he seemed well enough.
At least we knew what we were dealing with. Drip, drip. There is really only one option for fixing leaks properly underway and that is from the outside. It´s not completely unusual for old wooden boat owners have some breathing apparatus on board in case of this scenario, and we were no different. I couldn’t prevaricate any longer so got on with it. The water wasn’t too cold, but there were two challenges. The first came from the movement we were facing. Lista was “hove-to” with minimal, opposing sails up, effectively drifting slightly sideways creating a “slick” to disturb the oncoming waves but still underway in a seaway. The job required was to find the bloody leak from the outside which is incredibly difficult, and bang on a “tingle” (sheet of copper) with 60 copper tacks, bedded down with putty which is trying to swim away. Each tack head is approximately 5mm across, the tack three-quarters of an inch long and the hole being aimed for is a pin-prick. The target is moving quite a lot. The hammer prefers landing on the squidgy digits pinching the tack. The operator of the hammer is a rag doll involuntarily performing gyroscopic acrobatics as the hull rolls the target from near water-level to 3m down in the big blue abyss.
Free-diving to start with and using a plastic bag to test different areas on the hull, I counted my way down the planks from the outside, and Kath communicated with me from the inside via a series of knocks to determine if the crack I was blocking was the offender. It´s not obvious and Lista refused to sit still. Finally, I covered a small hairline crack of about 4cm long on a vertical seam. It was barely a millimetre wide but when I covered it I heard the dull but frantic tapping from inside to confirm it was the one. X marked the spot.
The second issue humbles me completely. Flaming sharks. Despite the possibility of even seeing one of these persecuted beasts is incredibly rare, I was determined one would take an interest in my underwater dabblings. We had caught and returned a little fella on our way South from Galapagos, and had seen them hunting off our deck lights in theGalapagos, neither instance greater than an over sized haddock, albeit with decent teeth. They are by-catch in the tuna fishing areas and we had seen tuna about. Robin Knox-Johnson had had to fire flares at an overly inquisitive beast during a similar operation on Suhaili mid-ocean. The rest is totally unfounded of course, but logic gets watered down in the big blue and as one looks out into a distant galaxy of penetrating rays of sun and tornados of air bubbles spinning off the pitching bow, all sorts of illusions are triggered.
Thankfully, the job at hand took all of my energies and before long I had tunnel vision, and I was re-assured as Kath eased my childish fears by going on shark-watch!! The great (?!) thing about bilge leaks is that at least they are quantifiable and any remedial action is too. As soon as I came to the deck we drank hot soup and watched the bilge switch like expectant parents – a scene which lasted for 75 glorious minutes until she spewed water out. Not perfect but at least we had our contingency back for the Southern Ocean proper, where a similar operation would be a another matter completely in the cold water without a proper wetsuit.
We had additional woes though. We had transported Lista from a sleepy birth in temperate Britain, to the scorching sun of the tropics, 10000miles later to the cooler air of the South and, with the constant motion to windward of the last month in particular, she started to leak through the topsides too. We had caulked a bit in the Galapagos but the problem was the worst that we had ever encountered. Each day, wherever we looked, a new leak seemed to spring as the waves soaked Lista’s usually resistant decks. Seats were sodden; our clothes, especially my pants and socks on the top shelves, were wet through; bedding touching the outside of the hull wicked in wetness from the ocean; corrosive saline water poured onto the oven and rusted all it made contact with.
Our spirits were damp through, Pt Montt never seemed further away. Each time we discussed it we said “IF we get to Chile….” Or “wherever we do end up . . . .” never daring to dream. We even considered veering off to New Zealand seriously!! In these first few days we genuinely couldn’t see the light. We hadn’t stowed properly before we left in a rush to catch the promised but rare supporting wind. Anything not stowed had hurled itself across the boat. We tiptoed around it. Our thoughts were constantly interrupted by the crew issue which raised our own blood pressure. It seemed our technology was giving in too, as a result of leaking decks. The dead list now included an engine alternator that wasn’t booting out power sufficiently (just a belt as it turns out), failed cabling not charging the anchor batteries (we remained philosophical on this as it would only be a problem IF we reached land!!!) and the blessed hob which really was important.
8th March 2011, 2000hrs Ships Log: “Motoring down long undulating swell. Finally over 30deg line which is great but very slow considering 1200rpm. May hove-to again tonight. Water [fresh] flowing freely from breather pipe in engine room – appears lost a decent amount. DL tried underwater epoxy “take-two” on soddin’ cooker – corroded by salty deck water – its killing us. Storm-Petrel on horizon too quick”.
The oven issue was resolved but gave us a fright. Gas on boats is a bit terrifying to most but we’d had few issues to date. The damn thing does however tend to resist my fixing attempts – the first attempt had caused quite a stir as I’d chanced on the type of rubber washer to use – turned out not to be as thermo-resistant as my test had suggested. That was quite exciting. The current fix still survives.
8th March, DL Personal Diary: Added some tar/foil flashing to cabintop edges for that industrial effect. Frustrating time trying to mend oven [boat moving] which responded by catching on fire complete with pungent smoke, and resplendent with mandarin orange flames. The washer I used was not suitable and my means of testing with a lighter perhaps requires some modera…… (even ^$%*ing pen broken now!!!)…
Pen pitters out. Text commences in new, stronger ink.
“…Both of us harbouring concerns for the weather/conditions ahead. It takes us so long to do sail changes. A long roll has developed on the sea from some distant storm and we have Lista´s bow pointed directly towards it. I hope that we’ll survive this flawed journey and that we may get Lista home. The reality of dangerous pursuits isn’t as joyful and fanciful as their concept, formed in nervous excitement and hope, or [in] reflection, distorted gracefully and distilled into a couple of glorious memories”
Writing retrospectively I think what a miserable git I must have been, at the time we were nervous and it felt really grave!!
And then 8 days in and only 300 miles South our moods were transformed with the arrival of some supporting winds, however fleetingly. My mood is so inextricably linked to the wind, at that point elated at being here with Kath, and fascinating books, poetry, plenty of man-jobs to do, unbelievable flights of pelagic birds making their living out here, the peace; sometimes anxious and despairing about the lack of progress and the big swell speaking of gales so distant it seemed we could never reach that far.
For the next 5 days the sails went up and down more than an Essex girls´ undergarments, as adage goes. We got pretty slick at it and it was just the tonic. Miles to windward were sailed slowly in bursts during which Lista was balanced beautifully and we turned off the auto-helm all together, making only minor interventions if necessary, sometimes hours apart. At nights more often than not we accepted our predicament and hove-to or left a minimal rig up, both headed to bed and slept with one ear open.
The time-machine (Iridium) couldn’t be persuaded to tell us about the weather, as it turned out afterwards our chosen application had been disconnected erroneously so we lived on hope. We communicated with the vendors and they reset the password, but in a cruel twist the new password contained the letter “n”, the very digit it turns out that had stopped working on the laptop keyboard – it seemed cursed! The crosses on the chart didn’t move far from one-another. This phase reached a height on the 14th March – heaven on earth
14th March 2011, DL Personal Log “Heaven on Earth. Morning broke after a mostly uninterrupted nights sleep, all sails down, not a proverbial fart of wind. I rose as the sun did and the scene was mystical, beguiling, tranquil but gargantuan at the same time. The sea disturbed only by a low milky roll, only the tiniest of wavelets texturing the expansive sea. To look on all sides as the sun stretched its arms was to feel somehow inundated by the oily swell, it had the appearance of height on all sides, as if Lista sat in a small crucible, like a hare sat in a scrape in an open Dorset field.
As the sun exploded its kaleidoscope of colour, the blue, green, greys, pinks and turquoise lit the sky and sea, as if one great plain encompassed all dimensions. The tan bark of Lista’s sails, her horse rug cushion covers and oiled wood came alive with deep reds yellows and mushroom tones and the morning began slowly, I woke Kath as it was a surreal experience.
As we rose, gathering our senses and captured photos the petrels arrived. First a Juan Fernandez petrel in the distance, then one, then two Westland petrels alighted aside the boat. Idling at some distance at first, they slowly grew in confidence to approach our rolling hulk, peddling slow and fast, directly and in circles as their big grey paddles propelled their duck-like frames. 400nm from Isla Pascua, strictly speaking, in one of the most remote places on earth, a commune was gathering. A red-tailed tropicbird flew overhead, the petrels sat metres away. Soon we were swimming with them, a petrel´s eye view, imbibing their thick musty smell as they grew increasingly intrigued.
[Back on board] their intrigue focussed chiefly on my toes, dangling in the water. They preen, splash, and rile each other. Against all better judgement we couldn’t resist to feed them, to sustain them with our human fare. I had the feeling we had what they wanted if not what they needed – from the can cupboard we present nasty little Vienesse canned chicken sausages, which I squidged in my toes to get close to the waterline, and which they pecked at with their sharp beaks [including a nip at my toe!].
Our own breakfast was served on deck, hot cardamom coffee, freshly baked oatcakes and guava jam. The petrels circled patiently allowing outrageous footage of their each and every plume. Their eyes glistened. Their heads glistened too as they washed fastidiously. Each of their daily routines we stole on camera and in our minds and hearts, parenthood must feel a bit like this – each small turdy emanation from the critter becomes inspiring in its own way.
So days filled with soul searching, strategising hopelessly about the course of our lives, tending to sails, anxiety about weather ahead have been supplanted by a glorious day of natural delight. The long 3-4m swell is glistening, the smallest breath has picked up, a sign we may move soon .. . . “
As we approached the 37 degree line, just as quickly as our moods had transformed, the wind arrived. The clouds had started to scud across, we sailed powerfully with full jib, mains’l and mizzen on one reef, wind just aft the beam. Just as quickly we started to think about tactics for shadowing wind on the sails rather than trying to harness each and every ethereal gust. We did get a weather forecast from another online source and it spoke of the wind that would explain the big swell, and we got prepared for our initiation. We were dog tired but united, enthusiastic and eager once more to test ourselves and Lista in some big weather.
17th March 2011, 0611hrs, Ships Log: “A different Landscape greets the damn eye. Slate grey waves gnarling with white…”
One last wind dip followed, in which we removed our fair-weather solar panel mounts and I soldered the tow generator rectifier, in preparation for meeting our increasing power requirements through the longer nights and heavier seas for the Autohelm to chew over. It was a nasty job completed in the sink to capture the bits that tinkled everywhere. A wave broke right over the cabin and flooded the worksite, so I couldn’t believe it when the thing actually worked.
18th March 2011, 0000hrs, Ships Log “Made the vicinity of the 38.5 degree line so making for Puerto Montt more now. Also swell is fairly bumptious and cutting across our starboard flank, so losing a few degrees may lessen the impacts from occasional marauders. Clear night, full moon. “
Our crossing had started at last, the bilge was behaving and we were surging along for the first time unconstrained by the wind – COLD AIR!!!! COLD WATER!!! TIRED BUT EXHILARATING!
Before long it blew a gale first from the North West as the eye approached, then the West through to the South as the eye passed south of us. As if on cue, a huge albatross appeared like a juggernaut by our side, a sentinel to the gale. I’d never seen one before and was completely overtaken by how big a gentleman he was, and how beautiful his big, black eye could be.
With plenty of sea room and the wind supporting our course, we had 3 reef main and mizzen, and a high-cut jib pulling like mad horses – the feeling is indescribable. By now an increasing quantity of the bulk of Lista has been crafted by our own hands, not least the main mast and all its rigging and the feeling of 35 tonnes of Norwegian wood surging forward at 8knots, 10 knots and more, made me want to scream to the screaming wind!
The waves were regularly 5 to 6 metres and streaked with foam but we never seemed threatened at all. In her belly, attempting the impossible to sleep, the thuds were bone-crunching but atop she didn’t seem phased. The evidence of the bilge not being triggered more rapidly was comfort enough she was coping. This was never going to be a rapid passage, as we were being highly conservative with the rig due to being a little short-handed and soon we shortened to the 3 reef mizzen and staysail but still enjoyed the ride at 6-7kts and the waves slipped underneath Lista Lights stern quarter. Lista showed her colours – 3 degrees of easting were made in 24hrs rather than the 3 minutes (miles) as before!!
For these days all the preparation and all the days of swinging, clattering and collapsing sails was worthwhile – the sea seemed enormous and endless, we had found our wild place. It´s difficult and perhaps unnecessary to conceive the space beyond the horizon, but knowing the raw statistics of how far anything manmade was to us was all part of it. We saw one ship in 4 weeks, a tanker making for Cape Horn, 7nm away. I don’t except he saw us. The weather was perfect in many ways for Lista Light, filing her sails beautifully for she baulks much more at calm weather. For days we made tremendous progress directly East only occasionally losing the breeze. The squalls in the southern hemisphere don’t seem to follow the pattern of the Atlantic. Often the wind came before them and the squall itself wasn’t threatening, nor did it leave such a hole behind it. On numerous occasions they seemed to pass us by, by a whisker, but never did they cause the same step change in wind volume as they do in the North.
We got to understand first hand the by-catch issue related to fisheries. We had been trolling a brightly coloured squid to see if an albacore would take it. We only eat fish if caught on our own line (and that are not vulnerable) and in reality rarely bother trying. In this case, we’d already had some minor success catching a small blue-fin tuna which went back in (endangered enough it should be on CITES list), and an albacore that was too big for us to eat, which similarly went back in after casting slime all over the deck.
The birds were taking an interest too. They seemed to take something from the water around the lure and seem savvy enough not to take a disco squid in place of real food. Until that is a Sooty Shearwater, capable of diving to 60m, managed to get foul hooked. Given all we bleat on about as ecologists this was a bloody nightmare, its little body being dragged across the sea helplessly at 6 kts. We felt awful and dragged him in to see if there was anything that could be done aside from the terminal. In the event the hook had gone through the soft tissue of the wing and its sharp barb was doing its job in preventing it being removed. Kath held the bird and I managed to twist it out hoping not to snag any tendons etc. It was so unfortunate and whilst it sounds incomprehensible at these times the adrenaline does take over and the opportunity to see the bird close up made it a rather incredible experience.
We were concerned for his plumage and general shock levels as he was bleeding a fair amount and looked dishevelled. Shearwaters are typically cavity nesters so we opted to get him into a dark place to calm down, and then return him to a dark hole on deck where he should preen before seeing if he could take flight. After a few hours in the cabin we went to check and he couldn’t be found. We searched around and eventually found him in the study, head into a dark frame recess. He pecked at Kath´s finger and his eye looked bright.
We thought this a decent sign so took him up top where he made some ungainly progress ambling around the deck, before pecking at the bulwark posts now and then. I lifted him onto my lap to see if we could extend the wing, and immediately he leapt clear of the boat and flew low over the waves into the distance – hopefully to preen, rest, mend and feed. We’ll never know how that bird will fair but the lure didn’t go back in the presence of feeding seabirds. I can only imagine how many incidents like this happen daily in order to fill the worlds tuna cans.
At about 94 degrees West we received our next big blow.
23rd March, DL Personal Log Wind arrived, fine to have a forecast – meals all ready, decks clear, on the right tack, anticipation, lust and loathing in alternate spoonfuls.
In the event the wind blows strong, but without the waves of the last gale. That said wind speed alone making it a miserable affair. We’ve spun in the heavy wind, and in the vile blackness and solitude, I summoned motivation to tear down the mains’l and allow us safer but slower passage on mizzen and stays’l alone. The main is a beasty but could be coaxed down with a gaff vang plus a degree of profanity, I have given Kath the night off, as her staphylococcal infection looks rather grim and pussy open hole, cavity, oozing and bleeding etc.
I spin and grapple and cling to lucidity amongst the gale – I cling more to the engine block in attempts to catnap. In context I have the utmost respect for solo sailors we know today and those of yesteryear. I woke Katharine in the morning and asked her to remind me never ever to let me pursue to oft voiced desire to go sailing on a long solo leg in Lista or in a glossy ocean racing boat. During the day some excerpts from the ships log are as follows:
23 rd March 1800hrs Ships Log Making Haste, Lista quivering with the motion
24th March, 0000hrs Ships Log ….Horrible . . . .Water everywhere, thank god for decklight
24th March, 0957 Just put up staysail – squally. Started dog antibiotics this morning. Dave shattered, working all night.
24th March 1152 Just pulling up pants when seawater came pouring through starboard window in the engine room. Nasty.
That was Kath on the aft heads – the engine room has no opening windows, or none that should open….
24th March 1800 Been in bed after misery of last night. Kath manning the ship all day. Had chocolate Torte and Whiskey milk at 1500 as a pick me up. Put on heater with my dodgy wiring [by-passing thermostat] – thermomstats have no place on this ship – max power!
25th March 0015 ….. desperate to sleep forever . …
KL feeling the regime.
25th March 0658 missed the 0600 log as wandering albatross has been busily performing round and round the boat – seemingly sitting on main mast on the updraft! All lovely, some sun. Hot water bottle up jumper.
KL again – I am much too much of a pedant to miss the log like that….!
DL Personal Log continues…. Still nervous about the boats’ condition – sounds over the top but with 35tonnes hitting these waves and only one crack, split or hole and we could lose her so very easily. 700nm away in cold water is not the place for cockiness, we remain slightly austere with a sense that only the sight, smell and cosseting arms of a protected bay will make me believe it is over. Bigger voyages in more dangerous seas by more heroic people are so easily found, but for us this is an immense journey.
And that was the worst of the weather over, and yet again the fears unfounded. The frames of Lista are so utterly massive we trust them more with each test, but it still seems like an uncivilised thing to do to a 75 yr old lady. As to the gales, they stoke your enthusiasm to fight during the day and make your spirit soar as you exchange blows – but on a howling night with only spray whipping your face, dog tired, freezing, hands numb, no moon, dark dark dark, they are no longer sought after.
The wildlife remained mind-blowing. These birds thrive in the most hostile conditions that we can conceive, but the roaring forties are probably considered a touch moderate for most of them. Perhaps the furious fifties and screaming sixties are more like it. The wandering albatross makes the odd heavy wingbeat amongst its dynamic soaring, to substitute for the very stiff weather his frame is built for, and seems to alight more often with a loud splash. We were enthralled by them, firing off endless images as they stun us with their aerial grace and agility, at times sheer power. Monochrome maybe, but they all have unique characters and each fulfils its niche in harmony, most of the time.
The bullers albatross will remain my favourite, not the largest but the most beautiful, if a little bit of a bully amongst the other petrels. The sooty shearwater is the pluckiest, sizing up to the large albatrosses in a scrap for the scraps, and the Juan Fernandez petrel not only the most ever present, but also the most aerodynamic and striking in flight. The wandering albatross (NZ) wins the badge for sheer scale and beautiful inky eye, and the ducks, the Westland petrels for giving us a good look, and the white-chinned petrels for their loyalty and habit of attracting the other birds to our feeding times. And to the storm petrels we give our utmost respect – in a bizarre twist of taxonomy these wee fellows are actually more closely related to the albatross than the other tubenose families, quite remarkable given they only weigh a few grams and have perhaps 10% of the wingspan.
Together, they filled every day to the fullest and made the time fly. Each twist and turn caught the eye, and each was recorded in Kath ´s wildlife diary, perhaps the first comprehensive chronicle of avian fauna on this route, complete with some stunning images. We hope it will become a useful resource in mapping the ranges of these ill-studied, remote species.
The book, Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World, by Derek Onley and Paul Scofield, was an incredible asset in this task and helped immeasurably in identifying these cryptic species.
One last drama played out over the final days. Through sheer exhaustion Kath´s body had come under attack from what we self diagnosed to be a Staphylococcal infection. The poor girl had had a similar bulge on her eye in the Galapagos, which the doctor had used a scalpel to slice open and clean out so we had some idea of the drill. Kath´s new site was a touch embarrassing and bloody painful – right on her port-side bottom cheek!
We cleared a site on the table and swabbed everything in sight with antiseptic – our friend Dan, a nurse by trade, had drilled me on the need for absolute hygiene to avoid making things worse. I’m not altogether sure everyone receives the same emphasis as we did! (amusingly the spell-checker has just proved I cant even spell the word) With Kath in position, and the operating theatre pitching and jolting in the swell I extracted a very shiny scalpel from its small medical foil packet and aimed it toward the lump – hoping to hell it was the right thing to do.
The red sore was about 1cm raised and 4cm across inflamed. The skin parted so easily around the knife and Kath barely uttered a noise despite no anaesthetic. The skin recoiled back to open a hole about 2cm across in diameter and gushing with slop. We had some local antibiotic spray left from the Galapagos, and so administered that after messing round for a bit trying to pull anything out that didn’t look like it was invited to make a home there. The problem being I really didn’t know which bits should have been there! After some time presenting Kath with digital photos of the progress as and when it happened (top customer service I thought – is this the ultimate innovation for the NHS patient choice agenda?!?!?) she seemed more alarmed at the perspective she was receiving on her own lady parts than the pain, so I started to pack up the show and dress her wound as best I could with a pad and several meters of sticky tape all over the area. The operation was at least over, success would be determined in the coming days.
Each day, amid the ocean swell we ripped off the dressings and had a scrape about, each time presenting images to my patient so we could make a joint decision as to which of the white bits constituted bits of Katharine that needed to stay, and which should go. Kath was incredibly brave. I realised I had a pretty poor bed-side manner during the dressings stages as my tools flew everywhere and my tape refused to stick to the sodden bottom skin. I have to admit, once over the initial reservation as to cutting up my wife, I actually rather enjoyed the minor-operation part. Oh dear.
25th March, DL Personal Log: “concerned as to Kath´s staphylococcal boils – may need to make some calls on that if they don’t start to heal – we are now treating another on her neck. I suppose I shall be next – God I hope it´s somewhere civilised……”
Day by day, and with the help of a course of dog-antibiotics which we had managed to acquire, the swelling subsided and ground-zero seemed to return to less mountainous proportions.
26th March, DL Personal Log: “80’s [degrees] seem to pass more slowly .. .we are daring to dream of a landfall after receiving a favourable forecast. It´s giving all the experiences of being at sea a sense of urgency – they will be over soon and muddle up in my crappy memory forever by the clutter of land.
Caught an albacore tuna of a decent size [fast growing little critters]. The birds hailed his arrival of course and they shall receive the lion´s share of the interesting bits, they are fine companions.”
We nibbled away at the Easting for the remainder of the days – switching between broad reaching and goose-winging – a point of sail that gives a ketch a rare sailing advantage over all other rigs, being able to bear almost full canvas to a following wind with sails out to either side of the ship. In light air it can be a touch sensitive though, and had a predictable result:
29th March, DL Personal Log “A bit of tiredness has crept it. Despite engaging and warm chats most of the day Kath and I exchanged sniper fire today over some petty issues. She (we) nearly lost the mizzen mast due to a miscommunication resulting in a preventer not being applied to the boom and the inevitable crash-jibe. I shouted “make up the preventer!”, the wind stole it and blurted back to Kath, “make up the running backstay!”. The gust did the rest. How our toothpick mizzen stood up to the slapping it received I’ll never know, but that was to be our only ´cockup´ and we were forgiven thankfully. The squabble couldn’t last long before descending into timid laughter at ourselves. That was about as fraught as our exchanges became in what was a remarkable trip between us both. Never on land is it possible to manage such harmony for days on end in our little wooden box!!!
And with that, amid an albatross and petrel filled sky we made landfall in Chile – our spirits soared – pride, relief, salted nuts, wedding champagne and emotional overload – then a deep, deep slumber…..