Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rio de la Plata, River of Silver

The Rio de la Plata, river of silver, literally translated.

Tonight is one of those silver nights, there is no wind as we come the final miles from the tormentuous south, 172 nautical miles left to travel as we cross the continental shelf in front of the River Plate to our winter destination of Piriapolis Uruguay.

Not often do you get to see nights like tonight, especially where we have come from, the moon hasn't risen yet, but the clarity in the warm air as Xplore slides along, making wavelets of silver phosphorescence randomly from each side as we oh so gently roll along in the oily sea.

The stars are out, which just makes the romance of such a special night, they not only twinkle in the sky above, but they are perfectly mirrored in the water all around us.

The silver may have come from the mountains nearby, but tonight the oceans around are wearing it like a grand ball night.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

By the hair of my chinny chin chin

When I woke up in the morning and tried to clear my weary head, the low grey nimbostratus cloud that hung over Punta Arenas didn't help much.

I don't often sleep well before any major passage, so being awake at 5 am was nothing unusual, kettle on for a good tea, scrub the old toothy pegs and onto the computer to see what the weather was really going to give us this departure day.

The more I look and understand weather, the more I realize how much I really don't understand, its one of those conundrums which you just have to learn to live with when it comes to weather, because its so much greater and more complex than anything that one person can pretend to understand, the variables are immense.

The one thing I did see was that a newly formed low had set itself up on the west coast of Chile, WNW of our position, and even though there was an indication of a small system being there 24 hours ago, this new satellite image looked imposing.

We had arranged yesterday in the blaze of warm sunlight and the fare well fan fair of the Tall Ships leaving Punta Arenas for immigrations and the naval Armada to come to Xplore and do final clearance for us at 8.30am, the town had been enraptured with all these amazing sailing machines in port, and we had received so many comments that it was sad that Xplore couldn't continue with the fleet.

I turned on the boat electronics for departure, and within seconds the radio squawked with the words Xplore Xplore. After a brief conversation it seemed that the navy wanted us to to their office instead of them visiting us (grey rainy day, no wonder !! ) so we all grabbed our jackets, and me with the boat documents we jumped onto the dock, but there on the dock was the immigrations chap !! back on board we quickly did his paper work and once again jumped back off, and made a run for the navy office as we were now going to be late !

With the change of the main port dock it now takes a bit longer to get out, even the local dogs which are always hanging around haven't worked out the new escape routes. Finally at the navy office, a bit wet I open my bag to get the boat clearance papers finally stamped and we were told by the officer at the desk that the clearance team was there at Xplore on the dock ! well my damp head started to steam at this point, a few words under my breath and off we choofed again back to the boat.

There to greet us at the boat were two uniformed staff of the navy both shaking their heads and saying what a mess up this had all been. I only needed three signatures from them and we were all done, so what was meant to be a smooth start to the morning and voyage was all turned upside down and a bit of a kerfuddle.

A light southerly had already started as we threw off our connections with land, 1300 nautical miles would see us reach Piriapolis in Uruguay, the only things between us being the Striates of Magellan and the South Atlantic ocean.

The Striates of Magellan is a place that I am very careful, weather and the currents around here are unpredictable at best. Its about 100 nautical miles to the east from Punta Arenas to the opening into the Atlantic Ocean, there are two narrows which bottle neck the striates which give currents up to 9 knots in both flood and ebb tides, this means that if you want to travel non stop through this stretch the you have to endure at least one tide against you.

9.30am we departed, by 11.30 we had 4 knots of current against us, by 12.30 that had increased to 6.5 knots, Great ! with a boat speed of 1.2 knots over the ground we weren't going any where fast. but I knew that the most critical place that we wanted positive tides with us was in the narrows, so we just had to grin and bear it, we were nearly at the start of the first narrow and the tides were due to change around 2.30pm.

Slowly, bit by bit the currents started to ease, during the afternoon it was painful watching it until it went to slack water, and then into positive, now we were getting somewhere, and a hell of a lot faster. By the time we reached the second and tightest narrow the current was really hooting along, we all chuckled as we watched our 7 knots of boat speed through the water get turned into 10 knots, then 12, then 14.5 and to gob smack us all we hit 16.6 knots over the ground.

With an expected 3 to 4 hours more of current after leaving the final narrow we had a good chance of popping out in the South Atlantic that evening, not much else to worry about, only 15 to 20 oil rigs, passing container ships and general commercial vessels and a couple of cross channel ferries, all a bit like playing a pin ball machine, except we were the steel ball.

The winds freshened and we made ground, the final point to our freedom was Point Dungeness on the north eastern corner of Magellan, a shoal bank guards the corner which is only good to cross close to in fair conditions, with the wind already up to 32 knots it was touch and go if we could take this short cut.

Just south of Dungeness the radio came to life from the navy reporting station, who were we, how many people and where we were going, all the normal questions.3.6 miles from this cape I was a at the nav table and the wind suddenly dropped, from 32 knots it went to 18 and the boat slowed to crawling pace, then within seconds it all changed. As I so often see here in the south the sudden and fierce shift in winds on the fronts of low pressure it was all on us in seconds, the 70 degree shift now meant we were pointing directly at Dungeness, hmmm, time for a little action as the sails were now flapping and Xplore wasn't a happy girl

Audrey popped her head up from sleep and we quickly put another reef in the main sail, trimmed up the head sail and started the motor to give us better directional speed, this had all happened in the matter of minutes, but we had to clear the cape. With tide now against us, the winds hitting high 30's we crept our way along the edge of the bank.6 miles, 3 then 2, nearly there we had already planed out our sail plan for when we turned the corner.

The sudden change in wind direction and strength had come 3 hours earlier than forecast, but shit happens as they say in the classics, you just have to deal with it. We rounded the point and headed north, even the psychological fact that we turned north seemed to warm me up, but it would be a few days before we felt the heat of the north.

After 36 hours from leaving Punta Arenas we had covered over 300 nautical miles, the Fat English girl gets along alright. That first night was a tough one, as the seas were large and short, the winds peaked at 48 knots and it certainly was a washing machine ride on board, not a lot of sleep was had by anyone.

But every day is a different one, and tonight as I write, the seas have eased some what, the skies have lifted and there are stars all around, the boat is silent as she slips along at 8.5 knots. Its amazing how as a sailor we so quickly forget the tough, the rough and the cold, and revel in the golden moments that we have here at sea.