Passage to Juan Fernandez

Our passage to Juan Fernandez was expected to take a week, but in fact we covered the distance in under three days!

When we set out from the Rio Valdivia, on the morning of the 2nd, there was no wind – and nor was there forecast to be anything more than a force two in that vicinity for the foreseeable future. Outside the rivermouth, at about midday, we shut down the engine and waited to see which way the current would carry us. If it sent us back towards the land or set us south, then we would have to use the engine again, but since the current is supposed to run north up this coast it was likely that we would drift in roughly the right direction.
Caesar tweaked the sails. “I think I’m going backwards,” he said, glancing now at the sea and now at the land.
Nick watched the GPS. Before we had a GPS we used to take bearings on the land, and it might take an hour for us to be able to ascertain which way we were drifting – but the satellites let us know in seconds.
“You’re not making up,” said Nick, “but you’re not losing ground, either.”

Two minutes later, the sails began to fill and the boat began to move through the water. A minute after that, she was over on her ear; and thirty seconds after that, while Nick was fastening the forehatch and I was gathering up some books which had flown onto the floor in the aft cabin, a waterfall came tumbling down the starboard hatch.
I heard the water, I hurried out of the aft cabin, and the water was still pouring in by the time I reached the galley.
It was pouring all over my brand new cooker.

Wafts of deja vu were coloured by whiffs of wisdom regarding the impermanence of all things, but my main sensation, as I rushed to save the cooker, was fury. Exactly the same thing happened to our first cooker! On our passage from Africa across the ocean to St Helena it was repeatedly swamped by water gushing down from this same hatch; and that was why it immediately began to rust (salt water and heat are a disastrous combination); and that was why it needed to be replaced after a mere 17 years.
At that time, when the boat was new, we hadn’t managed to invent leakproof gaskets and fastenings. Now, the hatch is watertight, but human error caused the same result anyway.
“Is there no hope for us?” I asked myself crossly, as I mopped up the sea and then bathed the cooker in freshwater.
“No,” said the voice of wisdom. “This is samsara. This the way life is. You’ll never be able to carve perfection aboard this ball of dung and defilement.”
“Oh shut up!” said the voice of frustration and resentment, as she dried the cooker.

Aside from this small disaster, our passage to Juan Fernandez was delightful – or, at any rate, four-fifths of us thought it was delightful. The sun shone; the sea was blue; the birds swooped and swung around us. We even received a brief visit from a small family of dolphins.
And the wind blew unceasingly onto the port quarter – just as it should in a well-regulated world – sometimes at force seven and never at less than force five. These are the sort of conditions for which our boat was built. With the second reef in the main, the genoa half-furled, and the full mizzen, she romped along at an average of seven knots.

Our Chilean pescador loved every minute of the adventure. This was Yona’s first taste of sailing, and he couldn’t have received a better introduction. When Mollymawk kicked up her heels, he laughed aloud with glee, and for the following three days he wore a permanent grin. He had evidently not suspected that the wind, alone, could propel a hefty, overloaded boat at seven knots.

The seas averaged about 3-4 metres in height, but amongst them were some which towered over their fellows. When they happened to arise on Mollymawk‘s stern, these monsters sent us rolling along in a whoosh of foam; and when they happened to arise and roll and break against the hull, then the officer of the watch had to jump up onto the poop. The poop-deck only once took a wave, but slow-footed watch-keepers lounging by the wheel frequently got a dunking.
Yona shared our thrill, as the waves pushed Mollymawk along, now lifting her high, now dropping her down so that she trailed banners of foam – but not so our other Chilean crew member, Manu.

The rollercoaster ride ensured that, on our first night at sea, Nick was the only one not to feel even remotely queasy, but whereas the rest of us soon found our equilibrium, Manu never did. Even so – even though she kept on puking, and even though she was unable to eat or drink anything for three days – our fifth crew-member also wore a permanent smile. I think Manu doesn’t know how to be anything other than happy; and after all, if you’re feeling grotty there’s not much point in making things worse for yourself by feeling sad and hard-done-by as well!

As the sun fell towards the sea, and our third night at sea approached, the island lay just 50 miles away. Thus, at the speed we were travelling, we would arrive long before daybreak. Since we didn’t want this to happen – partly for reasons of safety, but also because we wanted to actually the see the place to which we had come – we dropped the reefed-main and furled a bit more of the genny. This increased the rolling, of course, and this made things even less comfortable for Manu… but it slowed our speed to about 5½ knots.

At 03.00 on the 5th, the island lay 20 miles away, so Caesar furled the rest of the mizzen. One might have expected that Molly would be rather unbalanced under just the mizzen, but in fact she proceeded gamely, still making 4½ knots.

At 06.00, dawn began to unwrap the island. At first it was just a dark grey smudge gluing a bunch of clouds to the sea, but then it became a mass of jagged grey peaks. I gybed the mizzen and Nick helped me to put out some of the genoa. Mollymawk picked up speed and surged towards the right-hand end of the mass. As we drew near, it was revealed as the usual pile of orange-brown cliffs and crumbling slopes. If ever it was green, goats and lumberers have long since ruined the place.

We bowled along the coast, opened Cumberland Bay, and rolled down towards the village. We anchored off a mass of small fishing boats. There were strong gusts sweeping down off the mountains, but the water was flat and calm – much to Manu’s relief.

“How was it?” the fishermen asked us as we went ashore in the dinghy. “It must have been rather rough…”
“How was it?” asked the port captain, in the armada office. “We’ve been recording gusts of more than 50 knots”.
“It was great!” we replied, to their evident surprise.
It was the very best return to the sea that we could ever have received.

Coming Soonish: Articles about the ocean birds and about Isla Juan Fernandez.
But due to the lack of internet service on the island, these will be delayed…….

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