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Sailing Lessons for the Sangha

Wat Pah Mollymawk - Part Three

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Day Two – and the forecast showed a strong headwind pumping down the Beagle Canal. Glad to have the chance to set some sail and to show our guests how a boat is really supposed to travel, we set forth from our night’s refuge at first light. Oswaldo had planned on leaving at the same hour, but when we weighed anchor there was no sign of life aboard Polarwind.

Mollymawk on the wind in the Beagle Channel
Mollymawk on the wind in the Beagle Channel

Even before we left the shelter of the cove we could see that the channel was smothered in white-capped waves, but we pressed on regardless. Ajahn Asoko helped coil down the mooring lines and then make sail. Luang Por Sumedho had decided to remain in his snug cabin, and as the boat began to heel to the wind and to gallop over the ploughed sea I began simultaneously to hope that he would remain there for the time being. Lying in the aft cabin bed, feeling the boat pick up way, and hearing the foam gush past beside my head – for me this is a delightful thing. Somehow it never occurred to me that the experience might be less than pleasant for someone unfamiliar with the motion.

Mollymawk trotted across to the opposite side of the channel; and then, when the mountainsides of the further shore loomed large, Nick put her about. The sails slatted and crashed about in the wind. Then, as they began to fill again, we set off towards the same shore which we had lately left.

Mountains in the Beagle Canal, seen from the yacht
Mountains in the Beagle Canal, seen from the yacht

Perhaps an explanation is in order. For the benefit of readers who might be as unfamiliar as our two Forest monks with the intricacies of sailing, I should point out that a sailing boat obviously can’t head straight into the wind. It can blow downwind, and it can sail across the wind, but if it wants to go where the wind is coming from it must proceed in a series of zig-zags, or tacks. On our previous passage along this channel we had needed to make 14 tacks in order to get from Caleta Borracho to our next anchorage, and it had taken us 19 more tacks and another full day’s sailing to get to the next place; and even that second place was ten miles short of the fiord which was now our destination.

While I made porridge for those of us who were up and about, Nick did a spot of maths. Not that any calculation was necessary; even a dunce could see that this wasn’t going to work. Even with the engine also giving us some thrust, Molly was making up at less than one knot. No wonder Oswaldo had decided to stay put. One glance at the white horses dancing in the channel had told that experienced local sailor all that he needed to know.

Rather than put back into Borracho, we opted to sail into the bay of Yendegaia, on the opposite side of the water. As soon as we came within the shelter of the mountains the sea fell calm; and Luang Por emerged on deck just in time to see a colony of fur seals which had hauled out on a beach in the entrance to the bay. “There were waves just outside the window!” he told his assistant breathlessly.

Luang Por chats with Nick as we sail into Yendegaia
Luang Por chats with Nick as we sail into Yendegaia

I thanked heavens that we hadn’t followed Plan A and taken Luang Por round Cape Horn, for if the wavelets of this sheltered channel could prove so exciting then the ocean itself might actually be scary. But then again, someone who’s spent 50 years watching his mind and unravelling his Self doesn’t get scared… does he?
I would have liked to ask – like a traveller setting out across the desert, I feel the need of a few way-points – but it seemed impertinent. Best stick to discussing my own inability to peel back the layers of my own Self.

Fur seals frolicking in the bay of Yendegaia
Fur seals frolicking in the bay of Yendegaia

As Mollymawk trotted over the sheltered waters of the bay of Yendegaia – now able to proceed without recourse to that clackety-bankety beast in the bilge – we spotted the spouts of two whales. We identified them tentatively as humpbacks – and after they showed us their backs, with their dented fins, the ID was confirmed. Two more of their family were fishing and blowing just another mile or so further up the inlet. Luang Por had no interest in looking at them through the glasses but he talked about their awareness. Did he say that it was the same as ours, or did I misunderstand?
Is there only one universal Awareness? And what do I mean by that, anyway? What are the implications of that idea?
My head was reeling, but there wasn’t time to ask more. I must get on with my cooking. Whatever else happened, I must make sure that the monks’ meal was always ready before midday, in accordance with their rules.

At the head of the bay we came upon a big black yacht by the name of Abel Tasman – another ‘expedition vessel’ which currently had a Brazilian film crew aboard. We dropped our hook nearby, had lunch, and then proposed a stroll on the beach. To my surprise, Luang Por Sumedho was not keen. I’d thought that after two days aboard a small boat he might appreciate the chance to do some walking meditation; but perhaps he didn’t fancy another ride in our dinghy.

Mollymawk and Abel Tasman in Yendegaia
Mollymawk and Abel Tasman in Yendegaia

The rest of us piled in, with Nick at the oars. Ashore we found three abandoned cottages – mere tin shacks which must have needed a lot of heating in the snowy winter – and we also found a trail. Ajahn Asoko went striding off along it on his XXL legs, and the rest of us had to just about run to keep up with him. I would have assumed that he wanted some time to himself and would have fallen back, except for the fact that he was still tossing comments and questions over his shoulder!
The track led ultimately to a glacier, but we knew that it was a long way away, and after an hour or so we turned back.

Day Three

The following morning saw the hardier members of the crew rising at 03.00 and setting off into the cold blackness. We still had 50 miles to travel to Seno Pia, the crown jewel amongst the many gems of the Beagle Canal, and with a big blow forecast for tomorrow this was our last chance. We absolutely must be in a safe harbour before the storm; and we absolutely must turn around and begin the journey back to Puerto Williams on the day after that – otherwise our travellers would miss their flight to their next destination.

I was not numbered amongst the hardy. I’d spent the previous night talking Dhamma with Ajahn Asoko until the witching hour, and although he was happy to rise again three hours later, I wasn’t. That’s the monastic training for you. Even the lay visitors to the monasteries are required to rise in time for the first meeting, at 05.00, and the monks are all up and meditating long before that.

I rose when I felt the motion of the boat change and knew that she’d left the shelter of the bay and was now back in the Channel. We were motor-sailing into a light headwind. The sky was overcast, and it remained grey all day. Nevertheless, Luang Por, seeming to have settled in now, spent several hours in the cockpit, chatting to Nick.

Roxanne joins the Sangha in the cockpit
Roxanne joins the Sangha in the cockpit

We pointed out the various glaciers as they slid past: First, the one known as Holanda (but more properly called Frances, according to the glaciologists), which lies in a valley overlooking the waterway. Then comes Italia – a wall of ice which tumbles directly into the sea. After that came lunch… And then we hauled our guests on deck again to see Alemania – a spectacularly big glacier some distance from the water and one which (there being no anchorage nearby) is inaccessible to passing yotties. Close after Alemania comes Romanche, so named for the French ship which explored these waters some 30 years after the Beagle.

A century ago Romanche surely must have reached to the water, like Italia, but now it clings to the cliff just above. A glacial river gushes from a tunnel under the ice and comes thundering ceaselessly down the cliff.
“Such a waste of water, it seems!” I said to Luang Por, and he listened while I explained how precious every drop of water is when you have to carry it around and then, when the tank runs dry, go and fetch some more – sometimes from a stream or a waterfall. I can never see a cascade or hear the rain tumbling down without wanting to turn it off.

By the time we reached the Pia fiord our guests had both retreated to the warmth of the cabin and were resting. Or perhaps they were meditating. We made our way past the rather dramatic moraine (a line of rocks dumped by the retreating glacier) and proceeded up the inlet beneath the ever more spectacular cliffs. Previous acquaintance had not dulled my appreciation of the handiwork performed by the ancient glacier. Or was it so very ancient? Perhaps it was only a thousand years ago that the ice, with its cargo of abrasive rock, sculpted and smoothed the jagged volcanic rocks? At any rate, it may be only a thousand years ago that the glacier dumped that moraine and retreated up the valley, gradually revealing the gorge.

Cliffs carved by the glacier in the Pia fiord
Cliffs carved by the glacier in the Pia fiord

Those awesome cliffs would still be there when we left the fiord in a couple of day’s time, but when the dog sighted a dolphin and gave voice, I didn’t hesitate. I opened the companion hatch and – interrupting whatever might be taking place inside the meditative mind of a monk – bawled, “Dolphins, Ajahn!”
We’d pretty much promised that there would be dolphins in the estero, and I’d hardly uttered the word before the curtains flew open and Ajahn Asoko came hurrying forth from his cabin. Mind you, his eagerness was not such that he had to come rushing on deck without first informing Luang Por. His priorities were never in doubt.

Ajahn Asoko and Poppy watching dolphins
Ajahn Asoko and Poppy watching dolphins

Meanwhile it was hard to say what Luang Por thought of being called on deck to see the lively Peale’s dolphins slicing under the bow and darting to and fro. While his assistant displayed unabashed delight, the venerable elder betrayed no emotion. Perhaps he has gone beyond the need for such demonstrations of personality – perhaps such things are merely tiresome once you know that they’re only an act performed by a puppet – or perhaps he was focused on sharing the universal awareness that he’d seemed to speak of before.

The dolphins left us when we reached the first chunks of ice. As we continued towards the glacier the number and size of these ‘bergy bits’, or ‘growlers’, increased.
We passed the little bay where we would be spending the night, and we saw that Polarwind was already ensconced therein. We called Oswaldo on the VHF and learnt that he had just arrived. He had not yet been up to the glacier; he would do that tomorrow or the day after.
That was all very well, but at that rate his guests would only get to see just that one wall of ice – and there were two more, equally spectacular, in the adjacent arm of the fiord. “Considering those guys have each paid 4,000 Euros for a ten day trip…”
But what was that to us? We had only to mind our own business. Having motored flat out for two days we were jolly well going to show our ajahns every inch of the fiord.

Estero Pia
I’m not going to say another word about the fiord, because I think that the photos tell the story reasonably well. It’s true that they can’t capture the majestic scale, but neither could a string of adjectives.


When we reached the glacier, the monks stood on the foredeck and simply laughed with delight…


… and Nick and I breathed a sigh of relief. The first objective had been achieved – we had shown Luang Por the very best glacier in the Beagle Channel, and he was happy. Now all we had to do was get him home again in good time.

Follow the link to the final part of this article: Wat Pah Maha Somut
or return to PART ONE or PART TWO

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