Travelogue: Valdivia to Isla Robinson Crusoe
After two weeks of rain and chilly weather, punctuated by countless trips to various stores – hardware, household, fishing, grocery, auto parts – for outfitting and provisioning Anna, my Atlantic 57 catamaran, and after having battled through the exasperating Chilean bureaucracy including, among other things, suffering visits on the boat by the Chilean Navy, International Police, Agriculture Department, and the Health Office, our tired crew of Dale Bowman, John Charlton and myself left the boatyard of my boatbuilder, Alwoplast, outside Valdivia, Chile, on Tuesday, May 26th, about 4:00 p.m. in a brief sunny respite from the otherwise dreary weather, headed for Isla Robinson Crusoe in the Juan Fernandez islands, also a part of Chile, approximately 450 nautical miles (15% greater than land, or statute, miles) to the northwest. We were trying to catch a wind shift that brought air from the south, unfortunately colder than wind from the north, and push us easily on following seas to our destination.
Valdivia is at the top of the southern part of Chile, about as far south as Boulder is north, and their winter is not pleasant. Valdivia has suffered two major catastrophes, a fire in the late 1800s, and a massive earthquake and resultant tsunami in 1960 that wiped out all the old colonial architecture so it is not architecturally attractive. The countryside is gorgeous, though, and the people friendly, law-abiding, and neat (more so than many New Mexicans), so it is a pleasure to walk about downtown and drive around the outskirts.
All day Tuesday, the day we left, the wind stayed in the teens, but by Wednesday morning it had climbed to 30 knots with ever-growing waves, somewhat confused, not at all in an orderly swell, smacking us mostly from the southwest, less from the southeast. By 1:00 that afternoon we saw winds over 40. Anna has two headsails, a big genoa of 893 sq. ft.on the outer forestay and a smaller jib of 463 sq. ft. on the inner forestay. We were sailing only with the jib, the mainsail doused completely. That afternoon we recorded our high boat speed for the voyage: 18.5 knots.
The ride was uncomfortable and it was difficult to work in the galley, though none of us had much appetite anyway. We all became somewhat queasy as we were still earning our sea legs and getting used to movement at sea. Later, down in my bunk, I found it difficult to sleep, even though fairly exhausted after my midnight to 4:00 a.m. watch, because I was being tossed around so. It is also difficult under such conditions to write or even read email. I have also discovered that about 25% of the email we are sending is not being transmitted through our satellite phone connection, which often is lost part way through the transmission.
Wednesday evening with winds in the 35-knot range and seas quite high and irregular, and just after Dale went below to rest, the jib preventer – a line that holds the jib boom on its track and prevents it from suddenly rolling to the other side – broke under the strain of wind and movement of the seas, releasing the jib to slam across to the other side of the boat (in sailor parlance, an “uncontrolled jibe”) during which a line (the jib outhaul) became loose and became jammed behind a shackle attaching the jib topping lift (which holds up the end of the jib boom) to the boom. The other crewman, John, and I went out to get things under control and in the course of our attempt, instead of releasing the jib topping lift I unwittingly opened a clutch cleat that released a sheet (a control line) that set the jib free. The high winds caught it and wrapped the jib back on itself and then around the inner forestay, where it flailed madly, making a furious racket. We turned on the engines and ultimately wrapped a spare halyard around the jib to tame it.
We continued on under one engine for awhile, and later on a reefed genoa. When we inspected the damage at first light the next morning we found the jib had two tears, one about a foot, the other about two feet in length, along the longitudinal fibers of the sail. The timing of our arrival at Isla Robinson Crusoe had been set back enough that it was now apparent that we would make it only after dark, which we had been warned not to attempt as the bay is filled with lobster pots and lobster bins (where they store live lobster before shipment). So we slowed the boat to a crawl and made landfall the next morning, Friday, May 29th. After checking in with authorities here, we returned to the boat to begin stitching up the sail.
We finally finished the sail repair two days later, having made two courses, one narrow and one wide, over the rips, then having stitched a rectangular patch over each side of the sail to cover the stitches underneath. We used heavy waxed marline for the thread and the patches we made from the spinnaker sailbag that is mostly nylon but has strong webbing all the way around and in several places across.
In the course of furling the repaired sail we noticed that the action of the furling mechanism seemed odd. Further inspection led us to discover that the eye of the turnbuckle holding the forestay to the boat had sheered in half – and it is one-inch-thick bronze! The rest of the turnbuckle jammed up into the furling drum, ruining it.
In retrospect, my accidental release of the jib was caused by several factors. One is our unfamiliarity with the boat, with many of the control lines the same color and hard to discern in the dark. It is clear that we left Valdivia before we were ready – we had only been out in the boat twice before we cast off. The lack of training was mostly due to the weather in Valdivia: twice the navy closed the port, which is a busy industrial one, including one instance where winds toppled trees that blocked the main road that leads past the boatyard to town. Another reason for the accidental release is my personality that leads me to jump in and start trying to solve a problem without thinking things through and double checking. I am somewhat impetuous and impatient, I admit, and can be like a bull in a china closet. I will endeavor to slow down and better consult with fellow crew in future critical moments.
My crew, John and Dale, are both from Texas, although John was raised in England and came to the US as a second-generation seaman in the British merchant marine. We have been on long camping trips several times over the years, and went on two sail training trips and one scuba trip this past year, and know one another well. They are both excellent crewmen, knowledgeable not only about sailing but also about machinery and gear. Moreover both are patient, modest, willing to share, positive in outlook, eager to compromise and work with others, reluctant to rant, and have excellent personalities for men living together in fairly tight quarters. Another personality trait they share is a sense of adventure and a curiosity about the world, a trait absolutely essential for crossing oceans in a boat this size. All three of us have our individual quirks, of course, but none of us get on the others’ nerves too much and we get along together very well.
I am glad that it was I and not either of them who made the mistake in releasing the jib. As owner and skipper it is a lot easier to have to pay for my own mistakes rather than for the mistakes of others. And when the time comes that the others make mistakes, we’ll have mine to compare against, and it will be hard for me to hold their mistakes against them.
Our first destination, Isla Robinson Crusoe, had a different name until recently when the locals, in an attempt to foster tourism, decided to change it to reflect the fact that it is the island where the historical figure on whom the story of Robinson Crusoe was based, Alexander Selkirk, was stranded for over four years. It is very mountainous with lots of trees and the home to about 600 people who depend on tourism and fishing, mostly lobsters, for their livelihoods. Because of the worldwide economic downturn there is a lobster glut, and the bins in the harbor are full of lobsters which are slowly devouring one another.
People here are not friendly as on the mainland of Chile, but once introduced they are polite and nice enough. I think they are inbred and suspicious of outsiders at first. There are fantastic hikes here and an internet café and several restaurants and they say that the scuba diving with the sea lions is exceptional. We’re here, though, in winter and no one is diving at present, and the tourist trade is nill.
Even though it lies about 500 nm off the coast of Chile, if Isla Robinson Crusoe were in the Northern Hemisphere its longitude would locate it east of Miami. And we’re sailing all the way to New Zealand, over 5000 nautical miles from here as the crow flies, and we are taking a much more round-about path!
Finally on Friday, a week after our arrival, a father and son pair of technicians from my boatbuilder flew in with the replacement turnbuckle and furling drum. The unusual occurrence of a broken turnbuckle has caused consternation with the Argentinian mast maker and the New Zealand company that produces the turnbuckles, as well of course as our boatbuilder, Alwoplast, so there was never any hesitation for Alwoplast to make the repairs themselves. The airstrip at Robinson Crusoe is atop a mesa on the opposite side of the island and is reachable only by boat. There are few roads on the island, and those only in the main settlement with paths elsewhere, so we motored Anna an hour and half to reach the airstrip. The mesa is above a bay that is the caldera of an ancient volcano, with water about 40 ft. deep. We anchored and went to the landing dock with our dinghy to fetch the technicians and all their gear. The landing strip above is two kilometers away by road, and you have to hire at expensive rates transportation to and from the dock, or otherwise walk. I arranged for transport because of all the gear the technicians were bringing.
Because of its peculiar bowl shape the bay where we anchored for the repairs, Bahia del Padre, was a maelstrom of wind. We kept one motor running all the time and one crew was assigned fulltime to anchor watch in case our anchor failed to hold in the tight bay because we were buffeted constantly by gusts that whistled through the rigging. Sea lions offered us a chorus of high-pitched squeals for even more audio background. The father and son team – Roni and Sven, of German ancestry but both born in Chile with Spanish as their mother language – worked hard without a break for four hours until the repairs were finalized.
I cannot speak highly enough of the management at Alwoplast, and these technicians in particular, for their service orientation and dedication to quality. Everyon I dealt with at Alwoplast, from the cleanup man to the managing director, is eager to please and wonderful human beings to deal with. This is my third boat to have built and the process with this one has been many times better than with either of the others, and it is due mostly to the can-do attitude and competency of the builder. While the Chilean Navy was checking the outfitting of our boat just before we set off from the boatyard, for example, I mentioned that on future boats it would be a good idea to add a light in a certain location in the cockpit, and the managing director said let’s put one in right now, and before the Navy was finished with their inspection, Alwoplast had installed the light.
After the repairs had been made, we deposited Roni and Sven and their tools back at the dock in our dinghy, and they were driven up to the airstrip while we raised anchor and departed to return to the main settlement at Bahia de Cumberland, 11 nautical miles away. We checked in with the Navy on arrival there and got our papers that allowed us to depart the next morning, Saturday.
Soon after leaving Robinson Crusoe and under sail Saturday morning, we put a hook in the water for the first time since leaving Valdivia and within ten minutes caught a 27-lb. tuna. It has some yellow in the fins, but is darker otherwise than the yellowfins I remember, so we are not sure of its specific variety.
We are now sailing wing and wing with our two headsails out on different sides of the boat having a wonderful, leisurely sail. We plan to try the spinnaker later, and are still testing and learning our rig. And though it is still overcast, we feel we have pasted a milestone and are on the way to a beautiful voyage.
Our log reads 532 nautical miles since we left. We have about 1700 to go before our next port, Easter Island.