Mina2, Skippers and Clients Imprisoned in Uruguay
Date: 15 March 2011
In all the excitement that was going on at the time, I omitted to mention that when leaving Puerto Williams in Chile to head out into the Southern Ocean in Pelagic Australis bound for Antarctica, we saw behind the headland the most enormous mast. As we rounded the headland I was excited to see that it was Timoneer, a privately owned 150 foot superyacht, famous for its adventurous travels to the high latitudes. Timoneer holds a special place in my affections. Ten years ago Maria gave me a calendar for Christmas with spectacular sailing photographs by Rick Tomlinson. Two, in particular, totally captivated me. One was of Timoneer in a dramatic misty anchorage in Alaska; the other was of an expedition boat called Pelagic in front of an iceberg in Antarctica. I framed both and they hang in my office at home. They were the inspiration for my high latitude sailing ambitions. I now found myself looking at the former, from the deck of the larger sister-ship of the latter. Quite a moment. Enough of that – for the moment.
The moment I returned from the deep south the Downstairs Skipper and I boarded Mina2, welcomed aboard Christine and Fernando, their son Ferdi and their daughter Maria and boyfriend Nico for a 200-mile trip across the River Plate and down the Uruguayan coast to Punta Del Este, the San Tropez of South America. Christine and the DS had spent their holidays together in Punta Del Este since childhood, but it had been Christine’s ambition for years to holiday here on a boat. We were to stay for five days for a winding down before returning to Buenos Aires to lay the boat up for the southern winter.
We left at first light on Friday morning for the 36 hour passage. Once we got out of the delta the wind (typically from the direction we wanted to sail) started to build and, with it, a short choppy uncomfortable sea. We slogged into this for hour after hour, tacking back and forth (mainly back), our guests getting greener and greener. Eventually, under pressure from the DS, I threw in the towel and we bore away and headed for the little river of Riachuelo in Uruguay arriving just as it was getting dark. The idea was to leave again at first light once the wind had lightened up a little. Technically we had entered Uruguay and I should therefore clear the boat and myself into the country. But as this would involve having to go ashore and get a taxi into the nearest town and spend most of the following day doing the rounds of Immigration and Customs offices, we made sure we were up VERY early the following morning and slipped out of the river before the Prefectura (Coastguard) launch came past making a note of all the boats in the river.
The following day was better than the first, but not much. The wind was still from the wrong direction and the sea was still uncomfortably lumpy. To make up time we motor sailed close to the wind most of the day, the sound of the drubbing engine driving me crazy. The guests still distinctly under par, rather than hammering on through the whole night to our destination, we diverted into the Ensenada de Santa Lucia, a large bay just to the west of Montevideo and slept for a blissful four short hours waiting for the wind to veer to the north east for our last 80 miles. We departed at 0030 in light winds (so still motoring) but in smooth water at last, arriving in Punta Del Este at 1200 on Monday having finally managed a decent and comfortable sail for the last few hours. Our 36 hour passage had taken more than 50 hours, most of which we had motored. No sooner had we cleared in than the girls were off to the beach whilst I, after a suitably large anchor nip or three, slept.
In my last blog I said that to come up to the challenge of crossing over to Antarctica next year, Mina2 and I had to become totally professional in our approach. As part of this change of mindset, I have started referring to our guests as “clients”. How they laughed. Then I got the DS to make a note of how many glasses of wine they had at dinner and how many croissants they had at breakfast to ensure an accurate bill at the end of the “charter”. That wiped the smiles off their faces.
The Skipper with his clients on the charter yacht Mina2
On the Wednesday, the young folk returned to Buenos Aires by car, leaving just the four of us oldies. We were enjoying a very sociable time time in Punta Del Este; friends Robbie and Maureen together with Susan and Jose had rented apartments and it was party after party. As the week progressed, the girls spending their days on the beach and shopping, Fernando and I finding things to fix on the boat, a very deep low pressure system started being forecast for the weekend. We had planned to leave on Friday to sail back for Buenos Aires, but given the fiercely strong winds that were due to arrive on Saturday night, we had to wait for the system to blow through. We should be away by early Monday morning.
One of the Upstairs Skipper’s rare appearances on the beach.
On Friday night we saw a yacht anchored in the bay outside the marina. In the dark all we could see were the five spreaders of the mainmast, prettily illuminated and, at the top, a red light to ward off low flying aircraft which signified that it was a seriously large yacht. In the morning I was delighted to see, coming into the marina, none other than my inspiration the Timoneer. Like an excited schoolboy I rushed round and was soon, feeling quite important, chatting away with the skipper like we were old mates. They had shot up from Ushuaia in 6 days (it will probably take me the best part of two weeks to get down there next year) and they are on their way north to the Mediterranean for the northern summer.
Timoneer ties up in Punta Del Este
Bang on cue at 0400 on Sunday morning the wind shot up from 15 knots to 50 knots and it stayed between 40 and 50 knots for 24 hours. The highest wind speed we recorded was 58 knots – more than 65 mph. At times you could barely stand up in it. Whilst we were snug enough in the marina, a consequence of the storm was that the enormous seas sweeping into the bay caused the sea level to slowly rise. Climbing down from the bow onto the ever-receding pontoon to get ashore was becoming more and more of a challenge, particularly when the metal step ladder given to us by a grateful “client” in Crete eventually succumbed to too many dunkings in salt water and disintegrated (sorry Jonathan) whilst the lightweight Christine was stepping onto it. We returned after dinner to find that the water level had risen a further half metre. The pontoon was now under a foot of water and we couldn’t even reach the anchor let alone climb onto it. We were marooned.
Storm force winds batter the breakwater …
… heeling Mina2 over at a crazy angle whilst on her mooring
The faithful old Cretian stepladder gets carted away
A search of the area revealed an oil drum cut into two halves, both bits of which we hauled back to the boat. If we put one on top of the other, we would be able to get back on board. But you can’t put two half oil drums on top of each other without something else to form a platform. We were still stymied. All of a sudden Fernando cried out in his best English “Thanks you Gods!!” and slumped to his knees in a foot of water. We looked down and there, floating past him in the water, were two planks of wood which he fished out, put them between the two open drums, and job done. We had a launching pad.
Monday morning and the wind had died down to 20 knots but the residual waves out to sea were still high. But even if we had wanted to leave we were prevented by the Prefectura, who take a nanny-like approach to seafarers and who had closed the port – they wouldn’t sign our exit papers. Doing a runner is not an option. If we weren’t shot out of the water by the Prefectura gunboats as we made our way down the coast, we wouldn’t be allowed re-entry into Argentina without these papers duly stamped in quadruplicate.
As the day progressed the wind continued to abate, but the Prefectura refused to relent. The port remained closed. Not until the wind was below 20 knots (and I can barely sail in less) and was not forecast to rise above 20 knots, and the waves were safe enough for a toddler to paddle in would they reopen the port. We were imprisoned. They might as well put up a notice at the entry of every port announcing “Uruguay is closed except during extended periods of settled weather”.
Tuesday morning I awoke at 0530. The wind had now dwindled to absolutely nothing. I strolled round to the point to look at the sea. Apart from a slight residual swell it was as calm as a millpond. We would leave straight away. All I had to do was get the Prefectura to sign our exit papers. I was staggered to find the port still shut! However with a bit of insistence from me, they made about a dozen phone calls going higher and higher up the bureaucratic chain until, presumably, they were waking the Minister of Nannying himself to get permission for us to leave in this flat calm and motor back to Buenos Aires. At last permission was granted. We were free! But motoring.
We are now two hours into the passage and the going is slow. I had not accounted for the enormous volume of water that was pushed into the River Plate during the storm and which is now making its way out again. We are pushing against more than 2 knots of current. If it continues at this rate, it will add another 15 hours to our passage time –[ so another long and slow passage.