A ROVing We Will Go

Dr. Vreni Haussermann oversees a ROV exploratory trip to the Messier channel, (the deepest channel in the world outside of Antarctica) using SRV Saoirse as a base to launch the MV Noctiluca with the ROV and equipment. Photo- K.Pashuk

The Perfect storm…..Since then, we have remained stuck. At first I thought, “That’s it, expedition is over”. With the boat disabled the gut reaction is to go into survival mode and put into action your “get home at all cost” plan, if you have one that is.
After a bit of a cooling off period though it was blessing-counting time. First amongst those, we were perfectly safe for the foreseeable future; boat tied in to a snug cove, lots of food (even some beer left!), lots of fuel, dolphins and seals, even the occasional otter cavorting prettily in the bay, fine scenery and lots of fresh air. All other boat systems working perfectly, which almost never happens on any boat. We had also managed to get ourselves stuck in almost the perfect position, even if somewhat immobile, to still be able to support the activities of the ROV by acting as base camp. After a flurry of emails and phone calls to Vreni and the ROV team ready to board the ferry in Puerto Natales, we managed to convince them that we could still pull off almost all of the remaining expedition goals and return safe to Puerto Eden.
That’s when Patagonia itself stepped in to assert its hegemony over the paltry affairs of men.
“I suppose you already know this, but the ferry hit a rock and had to return to Puerto Natales” came an email from Vreni and her team the next day. Another round of phone calls confirmed it. At the beginning of the voyage from Puerto Natales, the ferry must navigate a very narrow passage called Canal Kirke through which floods a current of up to ten knots, complete with a maelstrom of whirlpools and back-eddies . Prone also to violent crosswinds and williwaws, it has already claimed one ferry which sank a few years back when a rock in the centre of the channel opened up a fissure in the hull of one of the Navimag Ferries which forms part of the essential connection to the north of Chile. This time, the new ferry had side-swiped an island to one side of the narrows, putting several holes in its hull. It had limped back to Natales to be repaired, thus stranding our ROV team 350 miles south of us. All other ferry sailings were canceled for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile the ROV and its support launch “Noctiluca” was still stuck 600 miles north in Puerto Montt, waiting for its ride down to Puerto Eden. Clearly there was going to be some waiting to do. Rodrigo, one of our divers from the first part of the trip was getting anxious to get home and this is certainly no place from which one can just whistle up a taxi; we hadn’t even seen so much as one other boat for some weeks.
Some days later, during a particularly nasty windstorm, we woke to the rumblings of a several- hundred horsepower engine churning the waters of our placid little inlet. Around the corner came a tug towing an enormous salmon-farm barge, looking for shelter in the bay. Rodrigo was off like a shot, and the barge captain agreed to give him a lift as far as Puerto Eden from where he could wait for the next ferry, if one ever arrived.
Meanwhile the ROV team in Puerto Natales had managed to find a small tourist boat who would take them to Puerto Eden, and they duly arrived there, albeit without any fuel for “Noctiluca”. Gasoline in these parts is like gold, and is used almost the instant it arrives for the local people to pursue their shell-fish harvest, both an economic and subsistent way of life. Taking up residence in a house we have rented there, Vreni, Fossi and their two kids settled in to wait for the arrival of Noctiluca and the ROV. A week later it was delivered on a ship of opportunity, undergoing tests in the local bay. But how to get it the last 40 miles to where we waited?
Vreni and Fossi canvassed around the tiny community a found a boat which just might make the trip. Them, and the 800 litres of gasoline which had by now arrived on the replacement ferry from Puerto Natales. Shoe-horning themselves into the rustic little wooden vessel, they tied Noctiluca with the ROV on behind and headed up into the English Narrows, but the wind again stiffened against them and they were obliged to shelter not far out of Puerto Eden. By the next night, we were beginning to get worried for them, as we had overheard a flurry of talk on the radio which seemed to us to indicate another suite of problems assailing them in the windy dark. We learned later that the little towboat had not been able to make more than 3 kn against the wind, had taken on water and somehow the rudder had become stuck hard-over to one side. They had circled around out of control for a while in the darkness, another fishing boat had arrived to assist the tow-boat and they cut the Noctiluca free to finish the journey under its own power. Much later, we heard that this little towboat had actually sunk from unknown causes on its mooring, not long after returning to Puerto Eden.
Well, we were all together at last, on location for one of the world’s most unique film shoots; the quest to get video from the depths of the Messier Channel. AROV-in’ we will go!

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