Monday 1 August 2016

“Most people go away for a vacation, I go home”

This title quote by travel writer Paul Theroux had always seemed foreign to me, but having been on the boat for 16 months this sentiment is now taking on greater meaning.

Whilst it might conceivably have been felt at Christmas when I returned to the UK, in reality nearly everyone goes to some version of ‘home’ at this time of year (even if it’s to the in-laws) so this didn’t feel unusual.

It was only when I recently visited home from Rio de Janiero that I felt a connection to the statement. Not simply because I was going home, but due to the deeper emotional undertow involved.

Living on a relatively small boat with three other people is intense. I’ve sailed with my own family enough to know that even with people you know intimately the close-quarters environment can become suffocating.

The Sea Wolf dynamic is interesting as the longest I’ve known any of the crew is a little under 2 years. But I already feel I know them better than people I’ve known most my life. I tend to think of it in terms of dog years, i.e. one year afloat is the equivalent to seven on land.

Work aboard Sea Wolf is rarely taxing or difficult. But whilst I get plenty of time ‘off’, there is still a physical attachment of elastic quality to the boat, and by extension the people on it. In 16 months I have been back to the UK twice. Both times this has felt overdue. For me it seems to be about the need to confirm the existence of the status quo back home, principally authenticating relationships with family and close friends.

But it did feel a little strange being in Rio, with all the possibilities this presented, yet yearning to return home. I had just grown tired of the boat and of my place amongst those I share it with. 

Sunday 19 June 2016

A Good Mugging

A mugging was a genuinely new experience for me, and in many ways it was an absorbing experience.

I had earlier that evening been discussing with two Belgian friends (who live and work in Sao Paulo) the perception of crime in Brazil versus its actual occurrence. Without doubt you hear some pretty bad stories; normally from the Brazilians themselves and stories I don’t doubt in the slightest. But on occasions I have been left wondering whether the dangerous Brazil people describe to me is the same country I’ve been moving around for the last two months. Ultimately until it happens to you the alarm feels rather abstract.
I wasn’t blinkered to the stories though, and had been taking what the FCO might describe as ‘sensible precautions’ – watch removed and carrying limited amounts of cash.

And so it was I came to be returning to the boat alone after an evening (and a fair chunk of the early morning) out with the Belgians. The taxi couldn’t drive me directly to the marina entrance because from early Sunday morning the authorities close the main road leading to it so that it can be used by cyclists in a traffic free environment (a policy I admire).

So I asked to be dropped at the nearest point on the other side of the rather broad dual carriageway. I then strode out for the footbridge which would deliver me to within a couple of hundred yards of the marina entrance.

As I stepped onto the unlit bridge I heard some whispered voices down to my left, and looking ahead I saw a young woman walking towards me which drew my attention as I wondered if the voices were in any way connected to her. As I passed the lady I could hear someone scampering quickly underneath me, and as the penny dropped that a trap was set, a stocky yet agile bloke emerged over the railings of the bridge about ten yards ahead of me, making a big show of a relatively small knife in his right hand.

As I raised my arms in a gesture that I hoped would be recognised internationally as “whoa, whoa, whoa” (think I probably actually uttered that as well for emphasis), his accomplice raced up behind me and pulled everything out of my trouser pockets before I even had chance to turn around. It was the single-most act of efficiency I have witnessed in Brazil.

There was then a slight stand-off as we all stared at each other and they tried to ease their way past me on the bridge to get back to their original starting position. No doubt because I’d had a fair bit to drink I don’t remember feeling scared, and in fact my impression was that they were more anxious than me. Rather stupidly I grabbed the guy who had my possessions by his PSG replica shirt and pleaded “mi telefono”, which resulted in me getting my shirt ripped in retaliation. But incredibly my foolhardy request was also answered, with my phone handed back as he jogged back across the bridge. I could scarcely believe it.

The only explanation I can think of is that they were delighted to get their hands on some ready cash, and as petty thieves / addicts they wouldn’t have known how to realise any value from the handset. 

So I made it to the other side of the bridge where I was approached by a friendly guy who had sensed what had happened and was coming towards me alternating shouts of abuse at my assailants with words of comfort to me. An unusual combination.   

At this point I did have a minor sense of the physical symptoms of shock, but the alcohol undoubtedly masked this considerably and I was able to get to sleep without difficulty.

The next day I reflected on being very lucky and it certainly underlined for someone who has been fortunate to experience very little crime that it is a very real threat.

Interestingly I didn’t have any of the violation feelings I remember experiencing many years ago when my car was broken into overnight in Spain, but that’s perhaps because on that occasion a number of personal items were stolen.

My belief in karma also received a significant upswing when the following day I got a free upgrade to Business Class for the long flight home. Nice one BA.  

PS: Whilst I was back in the UK for two weeks a group of Spanish Olympic sailors were held up at gunpoint on their way to the same marina (main sailing venue for the games). After this attack was widely reported the security in the area improved dramatically, with guards placed on the approach to the footbridges.   

Tuesday 24 May 2016

And I thought we were a Nation of Tea Drinkers

As soon as you set foot in Uruguay you are struck by the amount of people clutching a decorative handle-less cup with a long metal straw (bombilla) and a thermos tucked under one arm. This is mate (pronounced mah-tey), and to call it the national drink seems a gross understatement.

The process of making and drinking mate has many similarities to the British tea ritual; a degree of acquired taste, various available blends, the bridging of class divides and forming the backdrop to many social situations. The striking difference is the extent to which Uruguayans take it outdoors, and there is a strong emphasis on sharing an individual brew (often amongst many).

The next time I see Luis Suarez getting off the Barca team bus before a big game I’m going to be looking carefully for evidence of mate paraphernalia stashed inside his tracksuit top.

PS: Incidentally Uruguay is a fantastic country. Shouldered between the significant tourist destinations of Brazil and Argentina it is much overlooked (though ironically the Uruguayan coastal town of Punta del Este is the place for affluent Brazilians and Argentines to holiday). The country has miles of wild beaches, an interior of beautiful rolling hills complete with gauchos on horseback, and a gem of a capital city.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Omnipresent Waitrose

My affection for Waitrose has grown over time. Initially it was a rare sighting as the company tried to gain a foothold in a competitive market, whilst also being a little over my student budget. Fast forward a decade or two and they opened a medium-sized store ten minutes walk from where I was living in Bristol, and significantly, on my way to work. I’d also managed to pay off the student loan.

Like UK politics, the big supermarket chains all seem to have coalesced around the middle ground in recent years. Traditionally more budget retailers such as Morrisons and Tesco have introduced premium ranges (‘Finest’ and ‘Best’), whilst those at the more expensive end have introduced low-priced lines (‘Essentials’ for Waitrose and something like ‘Everyday’ for Sainsbury’s). This meant that shopping at Waitrose was no longer necessarily a rare treat, but somewhere I could just about justify (at least to myself) a regular shop.

Then they introduced a loyalty card which further cemented the relationship. This enabled me to pick up a quality fresh coffee every day, absolutely free. The idea obviously being that if you go in-store to get a coffee, you’d come out with a load of stuff you didn’t know you needed until the sophisticated marketing machine did its job. Whilst I did occasionally get reeled-in this way, I liked to think I held a healthy lead in the matchplay stakes.

There were a couple of low moments, such as when Waitrose discontinued my favourite pizza, but it was a pretty stable relationship. So it was with a hint of sadness that I removed the Waitrose loyalty card from my wallet before heading off on the boat.

Imagine my surprise then, two days after arriving in St Lucia I was provisioning for the boat in a medium sized, very local supermarket, when amongst the aisles were tins of Waitrose ‘Essential’ products. This seemed rather bizarre but I passed it off as some strange anomaly – perhaps a container of Waitrose items fell off a ship in the Atlantic and washed ashore in Rodney Bay? 

But then it happened again in Chile and Uruguay (as well as the Falklands but that was somewhat more anticipated). But not only canned products this time. Whilst Waitrose’s canned seafood chowder is not to be sniffed at, Belgian chocolate cookies got me particularly excited.

We do live in an increasingly globalised world, but Waitrose products in these places? Now I’m half expecting my favourite discontinued pizza to show up in the Azores.         


Tuesday 22 March 2016

Estrecho de Magallanes

I alluded to the quixotic history of the Magellan Strait in my last posting, and having anchored in Bahia Mansa off Paso del Hambre and spent some time ashore it is starting to really come alive.

This short stretch of coast contains several ruined pioneer settlements dating back to the 16th century. Until the mid 19th century this resulted in tragic consequences due to the inhospitable conditions and distance from any meaningful supply lines (Paso del Hambre translates as Port Famine) . The establishment of an independent Chile in 1818, followed by the introduction of steam driven ships, transformed the straits into an important trade route. It was only in 1849 that the settlement of Punta Arenas was founded, which today is the largest town in Patagonia.

My principle objective in going ashore was to visit the isolated grave of Captain Pringle Stokes, who was commander of HMS Beagle until he shot himself in the head due to the “effects of the anxieties and hardship incurred while surveying the western shores of Tierra del Fuego” (according to the inscription on the grave). This act of suicide precipitated the promotion of Robert Fitzroy to captain the Beagle and the subsequent appointment of Charles Darwin (all accurately disclosed in the historical novel This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson).

So with my head down into the breeze I struck out to find the cemetery. It felt good to be stretching the legs after several days of being cooped up aboard. Within this extremely desolate area there was a large, modern building on the ridge above the anchorage which had me wondering what this could possibly be. As I was pondering this I passed a four-wheel drive vehicle (all non-metalled roads in these parts) pulled over to the side of the road, and the guy behind the wheel beckoned me over.

“Where are you going?”

I was a bit taken back by the directness of the question, but the face seemed friendly enough. I explained I was headed for the cemetery of the English captain, making the link to the Beagle and Darwin to try and persuade him that I wasn’t completely bonkers. Just when I thought I’d totally lost him he piped up with the name “Harry Thompson”.

The conversation then transferred into English and Randy explained that the shiny building I had seen was in fact a new visitor centre that he had been project managing for the last 6 years. It was an even bigger stroke of luck when he pointed out I was actually on the wrong road to the cemetery and that he would give me a lift.

“Are you sure I’m not interrupting you?”

“Well sort of, but I need a break anyway”.

Apparently he had been monitoring an area where people often come to barbeque (it was Sunday afternoon) as he was concerned about fires starting in the vicinity of his precious development.

It turned out that the project was more or less unique in the whole of Chile, a privately funded “Strait of Magellan Park”, backed by a local businessman, along with banks and the various tiers of government. Randy said that such a scheme would have been beyond the resources of the Chilean National Park body.

By the time he dropped me off at the cemetery he invited me and the rest of the Sea Wolf crew up to the visitor centre on Tuesday.

“Till Tuesday then”.   

So come Tuesday the four of us arrived at the visitor centre which was deserted to the point where it was slightly embarrassing how many people were working there. Like someone showing you where to park in an empty car park.

Randy generously waived the entrance fee for us, and gave some interesting insights into the history of the project and what it was hoping to achieve. He saw the visitor centre as a means to open discussion on what this stretch of coast means to Chileans, and particularly those living more locally. His perception was that historically the narrative has been dominated by the European settlers, and it was only really in his generation that this view has been questioned, with more recognition given to the indigenous tribes that lived here for thousands of years before the white man began charting the Americas.

The visitor centre wasn’t completely finished, but I was disappointed in what I saw. Whilst no expert on the area I had read enough elsewhere to find the displays lacking in the depth I was looking for. But maybe that was the point, simply to spark an interest and open dialogue about a very unique place.  

Everyone's Heading the Other Way

The Magellan Straits is one of the most historic natural channels in the world. The 310 mile S-shaped link between the Pacific and Atlantic was discovered by the Portuguese in 1520. In the centuries that followed some of the most illustrious navigators have plied this stretch of water, including Bougainville, Drake, Fitzroy and Slocum. It does feel quite something to be down here in a small boat following in these footsteps, surrounded by the dramatic scenery and sense of isolation that remains largely unchanged.

Timing of our entry into the western approaches of the Strait was important as you are exposed to the full fetch of the Pacific and the prevailing north / north-west frontal winds. Once inside substantial protection is offered by the thousands of islands on our starboard side, so the waves which are the real danger any vessel become much less of an issue. That said, the orientation of the western side of the Magellan Strait means that the prevailing winds not only blow uninterrupted down its path, but the winds are in fact accelerated by the topography. In the bottlenecks the anemometer has shown readings of 60 knots before becoming so overwhelmed by the wind speed that it just starts blinking. Throw in some snow flurries and gets quite exciting.

But what a relief to be travelling west to east with the winds at our back. Nearly all of the other boats we have met are going the other way which seems rather masochistic. Many of them are forced to shelter for weeks at a time in the protected caletas (coves) off the Strait, until suitable weather windows allow them to continue. 

There is of course good reason why most of the boats we meet are going in the opposite direction; we are travelling at a similar speed as those heading the same way as us and so we rarely pass each other. Less explicable is the fact that the marine life also appears to be going in the opposite direction – humpback whales bobbing and blowing their way sedately past, while the seals pop out of the water like rubber torpedoes. Whether this is part of a well trodden migratory journey or just a short-term run for cover I have no idea.

Travelling by night is pretty suicidal in these waters so getting sufficient protection from the elements in a caleta for the night is of paramount importance. This usually involves feeling our way up a narrow channel in the lee of the land, dropping the hook and then reversing towards the shore before attaching two long lines to the sturdiest looking trees available. The next big test will be transferring from the Magellan Strait into the Beagle Channel, which requires crossing some very exposed bodies of water, including the Aptly names Desolation Bay at 55 degrees south.

Living on a Floating Canada

Sea Wolf is a Canadian flagged vessel on which I differ from everyone else because I’m not Canadian. Below decks there is very little that would give any clues as to the nationality of the boat. The keen observer might pick up on maple syrup stowed in the galley and a higher percentage of Canadian authors in the bookshelves. Without more physical clues one is forced to seek out Canadianishness amongst Sea Wolf’s crew.

The first striking thing is that they are very proud of their country, and rightly so. A nation that began with British immigrants has continued to take in a wide range of displaced people with considerable success. I’ve heard it said that Canada is the salad bowl to America’s melting pot, in the sense that in Canada immigrants are encouraged to keep their identity, as opposed to the expected level of assimilation in the US.

And this brings us on to the prickly subject of their neighbour, and you strongly get the impression that Canada wishes it could be transplanted somewhere else on the world map due to issues of association. Whilst anxious to appear different to America, it appears there is much more that connects them than separates them. Or in the words of Jonathan Raban, “Canadian differential more as absence than presence”.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the crude way in which the bulk of the border divides the two countries. The rigid parallel of 49 degrees north makes no attempt to assimilate the natural geography of rivers and mountains, which typically tend to provide a division between communities and hence a contrasting psyche.
If the agitation of being linked with America wasn’t enough, there are also the historical and cultural ties to Britain and France. Whilst the Canadians on board like to poke fun at the British (rich pickings there), it is ultimately where they came from and the Queen’s head still appears on their bills. Again, resemblances appear closer than they care to admit.

The Canadian province of Quebec serves up another dichotomy. Those Canadians outside Quebec seem to view it with both disdain and respect, much in the same way that France and England observe each other. I’ve yet to meet a Canadian who doesn’t revere the city of Montreal for its sense of identity and place. 

And this appears to be the crux of it. Canadians are to some extent envious of the strong identities of the triple influences of America, Britain and Quebec.