We are happy to be sitting on a mooring built for a 260 ton vessel here in Beaver Island, one of the westernmost of the Falkland Islands. I say happy, since the weather outside seems to be amping up to its normal 40 knot level and we are being forced to sit tight and wait for a break in the wind long enough to sprint back across to South America to take the reins of this season’s projects. Thanks to Jerome Poncet, whose harbour we inhabit, we can use this time to relax, reflect on what we have done over the last couple of months, play some music, and start installing the mountain of equipment that we picked up in Port Stanley just before Christmas.
This sojourn to the Falklands was a necessary part of our overall vision of studying the lives of sei whales in Patagonia, for reasons which I’ll explain later, but now its high time to recap the events since we left our haulout spot in Puerto Natales. Our exit from the boatyard there was as precipitous
as has become usual for all our South American boatyard visits. The haulout facility in Puerto Natales is brand new, aimed at servicing the large fleet of brutish looking fishing vessels which regularly prosecute the centolla (king crab) and alga (seaweed) fishery in these southern waters. The management of the haulout had been somewhat equivocal about accepting sailboats into their yard.
“Un poco complicado” was the general attitude at first, when we had asked about the possibility of beaching Saoirse there for some long overdue maintenance. Loosely translated, that means we are a total pain in the arse, our long keels and relatively flimsy construction means that they have to take special care when hauling yachts, far more complex than the usual trade of hauling ashore the fishing boats. Saoirse was clearly going to be one of the bigger challenges, we were definitely in unknown territory with her 3.3m keel and deadweight approching the 50 ton limit of the
travelift. Still, the yard was virtually empty when we arrived there and we decided to give it a go, with the proviso that we would make ourselves scarce when the centolla season finished in early December and all available space would be taken by the fishboats. That was good, sine we had anticipated the occasion by building a massive cradle for her to sit in, strong enough to resist the powerful winds prevalent in this season.
The problems started when we approached the travelift dock for the first time; with the minimal tides on offer we could only bring the nose of the boat to the inside of the lifting dock. With some proficient juggling though, the travelift was coaxed into hauling the stern bodily into the dock, from where it could be lifted, Saoirse’s massive keel plowing a route through the soft mud. All was to no avail though, since the hauling straps proved to be too long and we had to ask for some shorter ones to be sent from Punta Arenas some 250km away. Two days later we were set for another try, a virtual replay of the first, but this time we were rewarded by seeing Saoirse’s keel clear the edge of the lifting dock by a mere 2 cm, with her boom touching the crossbar of the travelift at the top. “Cuarenta tonneladas” (40 tons) intoned the crane driver. Clearly, she is about the maximum size sailboat which will ever be hauled here, and we were extremely relieved to see Saoirse snugged at last into her cradle
Puerto Natales is a very dry place, which should be perfect for painting. The dryness comes at a price though; this is a fohn type wind and it whips across the bay here almost daily at storm strength. By the end of the month we had registered winds of up to 69 knots blowing laterally across the decks. Even with the mast tied to the comcrete ramparts of the dock wall, the boat quivered nervously in her cradle. Still, we managed a huge amount of work, enough antifouling to last several years, anodes, topside paint, engine overhaul, new transducers and new 12mm lexan windows in the pilothouse to replace the aging 6mm panes. All ready to gracefully descend into the water and head for our rendezvous in Port Stanley. Which, of course, is the point where Robbie Burns descends into the fray with his immortal line “ The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay”. To re-enter the water it is necessary to try to engineer the confluence of several factors: zero wind, high tide, daylight, absence of Chilean public holiday, engine recomissioned and tested,short straps, garbage cleaned away and bills paid and permission obtained from the Port Captain. In other words, the situation is completely out of your control, expect delays. On December 2nd, , after 10 days of careful engineering we finally managed to convince the crane drivers to lift Saoirse in the middle of their weekend and set her down into the water which was unfortunately only
2.5m deep. Unable to escape the dock, they left her partially suspended in the slings and went home, promising to return at 2am on Sunday morning to see if the tide would rise enough to set her free. At that point a fresh 20 knot wind piped up and hurled steep little waves at us, directly into the mouth of the exposed lifting dock, the water level refusing to budge as the keel hammered its way further into the mud. Finally the crane drivers showed up again, and under the glare of the lights of their pickup trucks they managed to pull the keel clear of the mud by the stern and, assisted by full engine power, “urged” the boat into deeper water. We were free. Or so we thought.
Keri’s voice rose amid the chaos, “The engine is overheating!”. Sure enough, as we accelerated away from the dock into the rising sun, the high temperature alarm was screaming its warning and she shut down the engine immediately. I dumped the anchor and 60 m of chain into the water which luckily bit deep into the mud and we swung there wondering what had gone wrong, since we had carefully tested the engine before launching. After some hours of deep thought I opened the coolant tank to check again the level of antifreeze, perhaps to add a little more. Twenty litres of glycol later, the tank was finally full. And so, off we went.