This is the second of a series of three articles about the Rio de la Plata. Click here to read the first article in the series.
The Argentinians are very friendly people.
For example, the other day, while Nick was buying wood and struggling to lash it to his bicycle, a complete stranger asked if he would like to put it in her car, instead. She didn’t mind the fact that she would have to go out of her way to take it to our dinghy. And just yesterday, while we were shopping, another woman approached us and asked if we would like to borrow her supermarket “club card”. This saved us the equivalent of 32 Euros!
Argentinian yotties are a friendly bunch, too. Four years ago we had a letter to the website from one Zeek Sundblad, a native of Buenos Aires who had relocated to Patagonia. Zeek and his wife had just finished building themselves a steel boat and, together with their three kids and their dog, they were about to set off and cruise the world. “We are the Argentinian version of the Mollymawks!” he told us. We looked forward to running into each other, but our paths never quite crossed – until now.
Zeek’s yacht, Ypake, is currently in Europe but he and his family happened to be visiting their folks in BA, and when he heard that we were heading this way he said, “Come at once to San Isidro [on the Rio Luján, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires] and I will arrange a mooring for you.”
So we came; and he did.
Club Náutico San Isidro
Finding a free berth in this part of the world is no easy matter because, as we have seen, anchorages are few and far between. Dropping the hook in the River Luján itself is forbidden, and the suburban shore is completely lined with yacht clubs and marinas. We had already learnt that a berth in a marina in the heart of the city costs 140 US dollars per night… The moorings on the Luján would surely not be quite so extortionate, but they would definitely still be beyond our means. Thus, the help of a well-connected local would be essential in resolving the problem.
Through Zeek we met Charlie Vilar, a long-term member of the Club Náutico San Isidro. Not just a long-term member, indeed, but one of the leading lights. Now in his 70s, Charlie has spent his whole life racing – in national and international championships and in the Admiral’s Cup, at Cowes. Racing, and winning too.
Under Charlie’s patronage we were welcomed into the domain of one of the oldest and most illustrious clubs in Argentina.
In this part of the world most of the marinas are owned and operated by an association of members – which is a very good idea, by the way – but the CNSI doesn’t just own one of the nicest marinas, surrounded by tall trees and spread out along the banks of a creek. They also own an entire island. In fact, they own two islands, one on either side of the Luján.
The island on the suburban side of the river is largely occupied by a golf course and by an imposing three-storey club house which boasts its own restaurant, bar, library, and gym. There are also tennis courts, swimming pools, playgrounds… and, of course, there’s a dinghy park with a fleet of Optimists and Lasers for the up and coming sailors of Argentina’s future. All of this is nicely set out amongst mature trees and spacious lawns, and features notices with instructions such as Silence, please – Golf in Progress! and No Cycling, and (my favourite) Please Respect the Rules.
In this setting, moored between an immaculate German Frers classic and an antique riverboat, Mollymawk stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only was she the only cruising yacht, and the only vessel with liveaboards (and decks covered in bicycles and laundry, and everything else that liveabaord life entails). She was also the only bright yellow boat – or so it seemed.
The other boats were all discreetly, traditionally white.
And then we met “Black Ant” – another elderly and renowned member of the club. The first Argentinian to sail to Antarctica, he, too, has a yellow steel boat; and it’s almost as scruffy as ours; and he pads around the deck in his underwear. So…
Someone once said that the Argentinians are Italians who speak Spanish and think that they are British. Well, that may be stretching things a bit… but a great many of them do have Italian grandparents, and Italian surnames abound; and perhaps their spontaneous enthusiasm for life stems from this source. Then again, not a few of the people have English sires and English surnames, and the majority of the yacht-owners speak fluent English; so, perhaps this explains the typically British acceptance of eccentricity.
In any event, regardless of the fact that we were clearly complete misfits, the CNSI took us to their bosom, and we were provided with a free “courtesy mooring”.
However, when the time came for us to get stuck into our lengthy list of chores and begin work with the grinder and the welder we decided that we had better move far from the Farrs and Frers…
And so we returned to the little muddy ditch which was our home two summers ago.
Eighteen years ago, when we first visited the Rio de la Plata, there was more water and less land. Whereas the rest of the world fears losing out to rising sea levels, here they’ve got new land arriving daily, courtesy of the Rio Paraná and the Rio Uruguay. Those two rivers wind their way through more than a thousand miles of fertile soil, carving twin highways throughout much of Brazil and all the way across Argentina. On reaching the estuary of the Plate, the rivers encounter the tide. On being slowed, they drop their cargo of soil, stolen from that vast hinterland; and the result is “La Delta” – the alluvial islands forming at the back of the River Plate estuary. This new territory is so popular that the land is sold before it has even formed!
Since the channels running through the Delta are fragments of those same silt-laden rivers it comes as no surprise to learn that they are shallow – and, one assumes, getting shallower. There are not many places where one can travel with a deep-keeled, oceanworthy yacht… but there is one that we know of.
The wind in the willows
In this top secret location there are no lawns. The willows grow wild on either bank and trail their trains in the water, and the reeds whisper to one another in the breeze. But our friends from the CNSI still come and see us – they have another home-from-home on their other island, just a little further along the creek – and people also come from the other clubs and marinas.
Welcome to Argentina
Everyone who passes by in the little creek calls out, “Hullo! Where are you from? Welcome to our country!”
Nobody says, “What is this ruddy great yellow barge doing, cluttering up the channel!”
If there is a more warm-hearted nation – well, I can’t think of one, offhand.
In Spain, in the Canaries, in Brazil, we made plenty of friends – but not from amongst those nations’ yachting fraternities; or at least, only in a very few cases. Here, on the other hand, it seems that every passer-by whether he comes in a classic yacht, or a speed boat, or a RIB, or a kayak… All are our friends:
“Lovely boat! … Did you really sail all the way from England? … Amazing! … You live aboard! You don’t even have a house! … Can I do anything to help you?”
Black Ant came past one morning and tossed an English newspaper into our cockpit. Perhaps one day someone will deliver milk or bread…!
There’s always a kettle on the boil
In fact, these curious visitors don’t just pass by. Many say, “Can we visit you?”
Sometimes they just come alongside and step aboard.
We like this. Well… Provided we’re not in the middle of a late lunch or a shower we like it; we like it a lot!
Liveaboard cruising is not just a long drawn out holiday. It’s an opportunity to meet people and swap stories; a chance to share information, ideas, and home-made chocolate cake. Oh, and mate (pronounced mat-tay) – the Uruguayan and Argentinian national beverage and passion and pastime. A lot of mate has been passed around Mollymawk‘s cockpit in the past few weeks.
Open-minded and welcoming people such as these Argentinians provide us with ample opportunity to interact, and to inspire, and to be inspired. Over the course of the past month we’ve met college students; a family who breed polo ponies; an agro-forester, whose sustainably farmed trees provide forage for cattle and for bees; a fellow Buddhist; Argentina’s junior sailing champions and their coach; a soya-bean farmer who thinks that GM seeds are perfectly safe; a GM soya-bean salesman who told us, confidentially, that he thinks otherwise; and a reformed yacht designer and erstwhile capitalist who has now converted to hippyism.
There are a couple of disadvantages to being moored in this muddy ditch, amongst the trees. Firstly, it’s a long row to the shops. And after we’ve rowed along the creek and across the river (risking life and limb amongst the power boats) nobody wants to let us ashore. Their members are as friendly as could be, but the people managing the various clubs and marinas don’t want tramps passing through their property; not even when those tramps offer to pay. To be sure, the CSNI would still welcome us, but their HQ is more than two miles down river.
We land on the only accessible public wall, but we can’t leave the dinghy there – the wash from the passing motor yachts would swamp it – and so one or other of us must play ferryman, and row back home.
In the summer the insect life in the creek is a something of a problem. We don’t mind wasps nesting on the boat – indeed, we rather like it – but we’re not keen on the swarms of mozzies which arrive with the dusk. In the winter, however, the insect world sleeps, and our only remaining problem is staying afloat.
The Rio de la Plata is tidal, but the comings and goings of the moon are not the main driving force around here; the main force is the wind. When the wind is in the south-east and blowing strongly the sea drives into the estuary, holding back the rivers and flooding the islands.
On days like this Mollymawk could travel all over the Delta.
Alas, in this region the south-easterly blow is inevitably preceded by a northerly wind – and the northerly wind holds back the sea and pushes the water out of the Delta. Thus, the flood-tide days are always preceded by days when the water pretty much vanishes from the creek. If you scroll back up to the photo of Molly and Pequod (the other yellow yacht) you will notice that we are aground.
Generally speaking, when God pulls out the plug and the water vanishes, Molly just sinks into the mud. We’ve known her to sink her entire keel into the mud and to create a wallowing hole for the hull. Lately, however, something down there has changed. Lately, when the bathwater all goes down the plug hole Mollymawk leans… And that’s not so good.
It’s strange being so far from the sea, but on the whole we’re very happy tucked up in our creek. Mind you, we wouldn’t be – not at this time of the year – if we didn’t have a nice, new, log fire in the main cabin. We’ll tell you about that another day.
Our main preoccupation now is to get the boat ready to go South, but in between beefing up the hatches and improving the insulation we still have all the usual chores – plus the new one of finding food for that fire. Our polo-playing friends brought us eight big sacks of wood from their farm, but we supplement this by foraging on the riverbank.
The life of the river-dweller is very different from that of the ocean traveller. In fact, right now we are campers rather than sailors. We’ve learnt to use the rip-saw and the axe, slicing fallen branches into manageable pieces and chopping up kindling. We’ve also started to save the vegetable waste which formerly went overboard. Mixed with the ashes from the fire it makes good compost (or so we have been told), and we bury it under the willows. It’s nice to be able to give something back to the environment, even if it is only a very small something.
Non-returnable plastic bottles should be banned!
By the same token, we also take a dustbin bag with us on our gathering expeditions. The river bank all along this side of the Luján is littered with plastic drinks bottles and with other waste. In some places the refuse is literally knee-deep.
Perhaps Argentinians don’t mind this kind of sight – perhaps, to them, it isn’t an eyesore – but whether or not one finds the rubbish ugly, it represents an environmental problem. The trouble with plastic is that it degrades, and although they may be out of sight, and therefore out of mind, the molecules of plastic which result from this degradation are still around.
Those plastic molecules don’t vanish; they get taken up by plants, and birds, and fish, and other animals and thus they enter the food chain. Every being on this planet is already being poisoned by the chemicals which leach from degraded plastic bottles and so forth. Our bodies already contain traces of dioxin and other zeno-oestrogens which mess up reproduction and cause birth defects and cancers. It’s vital that we stop using plastic; and it’s essential that we clear up the mess that’s already been made before these bottles, too, become part of the food-chain and part of our own flesh.
Tackling the whole foreshore of the Rio Luján would take one family many years; but it would take one yacht club football team just one afternoon to clean up their stretch of the river. And if someone were able to motivate and mobilise the whole community into joining together for an annual Clean-Up Our River campaign, then the entire area could be beautified.
Someone… But who might that someone be? Well, if you live in this vicinity, perhaps it might be you! As someone recently said, “The greatest threat to this world is that we’re all waiting for someone else to save it.” Things won’t get better until those of us who are more awake than most realize that we are the someone.
In any event, we’ve started work on our own little patch, alongside the boat, and we hope to have it rubbish-free before we move on. There is a plastic recycling bin, on the other side of the river, about a mile from the place where we go ashore. It’s the only one that we’ve been able to find. And so, after we’ve filled a sack (which only takes about five minutes) we take it with us on our next run ashore; and then Nick wobbles off along the road on his bicycle, with the sack slung from one arm.
As I say, with a little bit of organisation this eyesore could easily be cleared away in one weekend, if one had the volunteer man-power, a bigger boat, and a lorry.
This is the second article in a series of three about the Rio de la Plata.
The next article takes a look at the wildlife on this stretch of the river.