21 January 2010

el canal beagle


we reached the armada capitania this morning around eight, and our zodiac pilot was already there waiting for us. though the sun was shining, the wind whipped up the Channel into a seething, southeast-flowing whirlpool. Luis Castillo drove us out to scope out conditions at Punta McKinley, since a more detailed weather report was still forthcoming (I'm still not sure where that comes from). the drive was breathtaking. we left Puerto Williams and bumped along the narrow hills, climbing up and down rocky terrain surrounded by glacier-capped mountains, red-striped lighthouses, wild horses and the frothing cerulean waters of the Beagle, lined with shadows of purple kelp. there seem to be a number of cattle farms there, both active and abandoned. suddenly, we cross a last, steep hilltop, and the water becomes distinctly less violent, though not at all calm. this is the place: Punta McKinley. we park the armada jeep on a slope and clamber over clover littered with mussel shells to get to the rocky beach. the remnants of locos, sea urchins, mussels and other shells rattle under my feet. the wind whips sun-warmth across my face and I zip my Patagonia jacket against the chill. the distance to the lighthouse looks to be at least three times what they had assured us it would be. the crossing, despite the calm in the small area, seems suddenly far more difficult than we'd all planned. our idea of a double goes out the window; because of persistent westward winds and currents, it seems that we'll have to do a single crossing, from Argentina to Chile. I try not to pout. we stand and stare at the water for a few minutes, then return to the jeep. I resist the nausea building from the bumpiness of the ride. Luckily, we arrive back at the bat-cave before carsickness can get the better of me. as we consult with the meteorologists, rather at a loss about when we should decide to swim, the wind begins to die down. the whitecaps disappear from the harbour. a decision is made: the armada will take us by boat to the border of Argentine waters, where we will climb aboard our Zodiac and head for shore, and the start, in our suits. quick re-packing of shore and boat bags ensues, and we have a brief photo session with Captain Elvis, who is in charge of the port. the sun is shining brilliantly. we climb aboard the small boat-- I'm never quite sure how to negotiate an offered arm when I'm climbing over the slippery side of a fishing boat-- and settle down in the hold. Ronnie, our zodiac pilot, is still putting in his boat, so we sneeze around the Puerto Williams harbour for a little while. the radio is playing fun american songs from the 80s, and soon enough Patti and I strip down to our suits-- both by Kathleen Cook Swimwear-- for a mini photo-session with the armada, who are more than happy to oblige. it passes the time, and helps stave off the unbearable thirst, the nerves, the anticipation. and then we're off, finally, thumping across steep waves. I go up and sit in the navigator's chair near the open window; I'm already a little naseous. the Channel is still super rough, and the going is slow, as the armada zodiac's motor seems to keep stalling. every once in a while, as we fly eastward, the armada guys in one boat or the other make 'whoop it up' gestures to one another. they're almost as excited as we are, if not more, though we've got pre-swim jitters to handle. the motor cuts. Cristian and I peek out from the hold. it looks calm. then and there, we decide to try for a double-- one crossing seems more feasible now that the westward wind's scream has died to a harsh whisper. the return trip, as Cris puts it, will just be icing on the cake. the armada is at our service; the boat heads toward the Chilean shore, faced with rocky cliffs and yellow-lichen-covered rocks. we throw our bags into the zodiac before stepping carefully on board. the shore is just a minute away, and I can see the white rocks, crabs and urchins on the seafloor below the leathery layers of kelp. soon enough, we're ready. the sun and air and light are calming-- this is as wild, wooly and beautiful of a place as I'd ever imagined. more photos, and at 11.20, we're off. the first obstacle is a ten-foot-wide swath of thick, slimy kelp. we don't so much swim over it as drag ourselves across it, head-up. but I'm already over my kelp issues. the water is pure, clean, tasty and clear. I can see kelp stretched voluptuously below my hands, flagged northwest by the constant current. the waves are strong but I feel them carrying me across. I relax and swim into the waves, at a diagonal, so as to avoid being swept east beyond the end of the point by the wind and current. we all had the same idea, but it worked against us: the current carried us far further west than we intended to swim, since it changed direction, despite what the armada had advised. thus always for swims and crossings.

to be continued...

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