I knew, as soon as I got the message from Mikael, that something bad had happened.
“Look at our website” – that was all he said.
Thinking back, there seems no reason why I should have suspected a calamity. Thinking back, I wonder why I didn’t assume that Mikael wanted to share some happy news or some information about a favourite island. But, as I say, I knew.
“They’ve lost the boat,” I thought to myself as I opened the link. I was ready for the worst – or so I thought. And then the words on the screen hit me like an icy wave coming over the bow:
“My best loved little friend, wife, and life’s companion, Lena, has tragically passed away in a drowning accident … My life also feels like it has come to an end right now. Can’t find any more words.”
No! No! NO! Impossible!
And the web-page dissolves in hot, wet, wavy lines.
Mikael and Lena.
We met them for the first time in Puerto Eden, in the Chilean Channels. Throughout the previous week we had been the only foreigners in the Yaghan village, and before that, for almost two months, we’d had the Channels’ wilderness all to ourselves. Then, one morning, we awoke to find ourselves at the heart of a small cruising community. There was a wooden motorsailer, which we were to see again in Valdivia; and there was Otra Vida, a British yacht whose skipper we were to get to know very well; and there was Fortune Light, a Swedish-flagged Bavaria.
For those who don’t know the scene, I should explain. A Bavaria is a production boat and the marine equivalent of a caravan. Indeed, I’m told that Bavaria started out making caravans. Part of me wants to tell you that, of course, there’s nothing wrong with a floating caravan – but I was brought up to think scornfully of ‘tupperware’ yachts, so there’s also a snob part which turns up its nose when it sees one (and this despite the fact that a well-kept, well-appointed Bavaria such as Fortune Light is probably worth twice as much as a home-built ‘tin can’). Piggy-backing on that snobbery, there’s a part of me which yells, “Fin keel! Not safe in a storm! And if you survive the storm, it’ll fall off if you whack it on a rock.”
As it turned out, Mikael knew all about this aspect of cruising in a Bavaria, for he had already whacked the rudder and damaged it, a few miles further south. He was also au courant with the reaction that he would get when he answered my question about his past life.
“What did I used to do? I was in the Swedish army. I was trained to kill – and that’s not a very useful thing.”
Meanwhile, Lena was probably hoovering the carpet, or loading her washing machine, or getting a piece of meat from the freezer.
On the face of it, these two were unlikely friends for a family of scruffy, vegetarian, peaceniks travelling in the equivalent of a beaten-up Landrover – but such is the way with the cruising lifestyle. Unlikely friendships are the norm in this community. If circumstances had been different – if we’d been thrust together on terra firma – then Mikael would have been commuting to work in his all-terrain Volvo, to sit behind a desk (or whatever middle-aged commandos do); and Lena would have been shopping for blouses in the mall; and they’d have been living in suburbia. We, meanwhile, would have been hanging out in an earth-built round-house and growing our own spuds. And never the twain would have met. We would have derided their lifestyle, and they ours. As it was, however, we were living the same dream, and it was instantly obvious that the similarities between us far outweighed the trivialities of what we wore and ate and sailed.
We had the couple over for supper, along with the rest of the new arrivals. And then, the next day, we left. But we knew that we would be seeing more of Mikael and Lena.
We were tacking north up the Mesier Channel, a couple of days later, when Fortune Light hove into sight under engine. She overtook us; and then, perhaps inspired by our efforts, Mikael raised the sails – and the boat went dancing away. The construction of the Bavaria may not be the very best, but the vessel was everything that he needed. The ‘mod cons’ had won Lena over to what, I suspect, was primarily her husband’s dream, and the fin-keeler’s sailing performance provides an exhilarating ride. I will not deny that we watched with envy in our hearts as the white triangle soon became a little dot and then vanished into the Patagonian murk.
A few days later, we found Fortune Light at anchor off the glacier in Seno Tempano – and this time they invited us over for supper. We Mollymawks had spent the day clambering on the glacier, wearing our new crampons, and we were at least an hour late for the dinner date; but not a murmur of criticism did our new friends make. Eager to satisfy our whims, Lena had found a recipe for spicy vegetarian patties which she served with a delicious Thai curry sauce.
A week or two later, we ran into the boat again in Tortel.
“Where have you been?” cried Lena eagerly, as we rowed across to renew our friendship. “I’ve been looking out for you every day!”
There is nothing which warms the heart quite so much as being eagerly awaited!
After that – after a fortnight in each other’s company – we again went our separate ways, and this time it was to be six months before we were reunited. While Fortune Light ambled up though the Chonos and past Chiloe to Valdivia, Mollymawk travelled along in her wake at the speed of a geriatric tortoise; a tortoise bent on exploring every inch of the pen.
For example – sensible folks like Mikael and Lena wait for a good window and then go whistling across the Golfo de Penas as quickly as they can, but we devoted three months to examining its intricacies. (“I just asked the armada where you are,” Mikael told me in an e-mail, “and their position puts you in a land-locked lake at the head of the gulf”.)
After the gulf, we crawled up to Chacabuco; and then we ambled through the remaining islands and eventually wandered over to Chiloe. To be honest, we had planned on going to Puerto Montt to slip the boat, but Mikael was clear: “Valdivia is nicer. And we’re here! We’re waiting for you.”
So, Valdivia it had to be.
Mikael and Lena were there to look after the cat and the dog while we made our journey to the Atacama; and they were there to celebrate the wedding of our daughter, Xoë, to our Brazilian friend, Gean. And many were the times that we all got together for a beer or two in our favourite Valdivian watering hole, the Growler. Before we arrived in Valdivia I’d been off the bottle for six years, but El Growler’s home-brewed ale is so good that I gave in to pressure and suspended this anti-social abstinence.
Mikael and Lena. So close that they seemed as one. If I remember rightly, they met when she was only 15 and he had just turned 18. We used to joke about the fact that their relationship didn’t seem to have moved on. Mikael was still the mature elder, ticking Lena off when she drank too much; and they were still all over each other.
“What’s that bruise on your neck, Lena?”
“Tcha! Mikael did it.”
“What? I can’t believe it! Mikael would never hurt you!”
“Of course not. It’s a love bite.”
They left Valdivia while Mollymawk was still out of the water. We said that we’d be right behind them. “We’ll be afloat, and away from here, in a month. Or maybe two…”
We arranged to meet up in the Marquesas for Christmas, and in the interim, Lena posted pictures on Facebook of beautiful white sandy beaches overhung with palm trees. “I’ve found paradise,” she said. I couldn’t wait to join her there.
In November, Mikael wrote to ask whether we were still on schedule – and I had to write back, explaining that the work had been going slowly and we weren’t going to make it to the Marquesas in time for for Christmas. But by the time he got that e-mail, our friend’s world had been turned upside down.
When I read the words on Fortune Light‘s website, I simply couldn’t believe it. There must be some mistake. It must be a sick joke; I wanted to believe that their account had been hacked. Or I must have misunderstood.
And if I was in denial, Mikael’s own shock and disbelief have been unbearable. Lena’s sudden termination is, for us, a tragedy; but for him it was like a bomb going off. Mikael and Lena were one, and now half of the equation has suddenly vanished.
We take our lives for granted. We take each other for granted. Sure, we know we’ve all been issued with a one-way ticket; we know where this road leads, and we know that our beloved ones might make their exit ahead of us. But… we close our minds to that little problem.
For a long time we had no idea how Lena had drowned. Mikael was evidently distraught, and we didn’t want him to have to write about what had happened. The words on his website merely told us that Lena had drowned in an accident near to the north pass of the Fakarova atoll; and so we assumed that she had fallen overboard while the boat was entering or leaving the lagoon. My mind created all sorts of likely scenarios – and then it dismissed them. I’ve learned that imaginings spun from slender threads are seldom accurate.
In the event, we finally learned that Lena had fallen overboard while the boat was on a mooring. She had cooked supper and the couple had enjoyed a few glasses of wine… and when he awoke at dawn, Mikael found that Lena was not in the bed. She was not on deck either, but the dinghy was still hanging astern.
He found her floating in the shallow waters close to the white strand.
Seemingly, Lena went on deck during the night, perhaps to gaze at the moon rising from the sea. If I’ve understood correctly, Fortune Light had only just arrived from another atoll, earlier that same day, and her passage had been downwind. The boat is fitted with runners – pieces of rigging wire which aid in supporting the mast while the boat is beating but which get in the way while the boat is going downwind; and thus, on that point of sailing, they are allowed to hang loose. On arrival in an anchorage, Mikael would ordinarily have tightened the runners again in order to keep them from banging around, but on this occasion he had neglected to do so. If I’ve understood correctly, he believes that, in getting to her feet after a time of peaceful contemplation, Lena stumbled, reached out for the wire… and went tumbling over the side as it gave way. Perhaps she hit her head or winded herself as she fell.
How suddenly our lives can be derailed. Up-ended. Ended.
Lena Bergström. 21st August 1963 – 24th November 2018.
The body is now lying beneath sand and flowers, and being recycled by Nature. But where is Lena? Where is the affectionate, caring, generous, funny, life-loving spirit which animated that pretty face?
Live life to the full, amigos. But above all, love to the full. Cherish one another to the full.
As the Dalai Lama says, “We are always only one breath away from our next life”.