Sailing Patagonia – Part 1
I have never piloted a boat before. The criterion of experience in this instance is irrelevant. The situation merely dictates a fast getaway. In the division of labor to that end, I am the best suited for this task because I don’t know shit about boat mechanics but I can follow simple instructions:
“Push the tiller in the opposite direction that you want the boat to go.”
“Don’t hit anything.”
So, here I am, anxiously putting distance between us and Puerto Natales before anyone notices that we just banged up the boat launch slip in a brazen demonstration of ineptitude.
How did I come to be piloting a forty foot sailboat through the Gulf of Almirante Montt?
I sometimes like to play Chicken with the Multiverse.
Two years ago…
Me: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a sailboat to work on in exchange for passage down the coast of Chile?”
Sasha: “Um, yeah but don’t you have to know how to sail and maybe speak Spanish?”
Sasha: “There’s a captain looking for a crew person to sail to Puerto Montt, no experience necessary…”
When the Multiverse serves you up this caliber of ice cream sandwich, you take it. The only thing that could have waved me off of this opportunity was if the captain put off a skeevy rapist alpha-male vibe. He doesn’t. If anything, John gives off an asexual nerdy professor vibe. The man is obsessed with weather charts. He likes to geek out over the physics of highs interacting with lows and he mutters words like sinusoidal and millibar.
What I’m now realizing is that not being a rapist is a somewhat low and completely irrelevant bar to set for evaluating a person’s ability to captain a sailboat.
In the last ninety minutes, I have been witness to a series of near calamities worthy of Stooge comedy. The boat had been dry-docked for seven months undergoing repairs and an engine replacement. Today was the boats first test of those repairs and the sole focus of John’s attention. I had busied myself with deck clean-up and organization. Running out of productive things to do, I wandered down into the cabin where I found John working a big pump lever in a space under the floor.
“We’re sinking”, John said matter of factly.
Before I could digest this information, John continued speaking but he was no longer addressing me directly. He was leveling a tirade of curses, insults, and excuses at the world at large and maybe himself as well. It seems a valve or plug for a seawater hose was missing. The hose had been pumping seawater into the bilge since we were put in the water. He had pumped out fifty gallons so far.
Up until that point I had not regarded John’s absentmindedness as potentially dangerous. I had concluded that John had a hole in is time bucket and an inability to manage environmental conditions such as clutter and cleanliness. I viewed these things in a bygones/you-be-you sort of way and accepted that I would need to marshal my own prejudices regarding filth because people live how they live. Rejecting the adventure over a fear of discomfort seemed ridiculous to me and I would just need to get over myself.
But my perception shifted in that moment. I was seeing everything through a new lens and what I saw was unsettling. I had no time left to re-evaluate my situation. I was committed. Everything I own was below in the forward berth of the boat. Sasha was on her way to Argentina and in the cabin was a man who supposedly knows how to sail and just needs a little help because this is a big boat to negotiate alone. I agreed to be that help. But what else did John forget to check before putting his boat in the water? My brain jammed. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t make a decision and I couldn’t stall for more time. So, when I was told to untie us, I did. When the boat started moving backward out of the big metal boat slip and I was yelled at to get on the boat, I did.
The moment my feet hit the deck I both accepted that my decision was made and realized that I made the wrong one.
As soon as the stern peeked out from the end of the slip the current caught it, forcing the boat to pivot. We weren’t clear of the slip yet and were being pushed up against the opposite side where we had no bumpers. The only thing keeping the boat from slamming into the end of the slip was the inflatable dingy that was tied to float alongside us. Instead of addressing the direction and speed of the boat to counter the effects of the current, John hurried to where the dingy was being crushed and tried to push the boat away from it. He seemed terrified that the dingy would pop and was completely indifferent to the fact that we were motoring backward with no control and in proximity of hitting things.
Remarkably, the dingy survived. We had finished our pivot and were continuing backward towards the cement pier when John realized that while the little boat survives the big boat was about to crash. The look of genuine surprise on John’s face was cartoon worthy. I’m pretty sure I saw his eyeballs leave his head. Maybe he forgot that the boat was still in reverse. Either way, he didn’t seem to notice anything outside of whatever he was actively focusing on. I had been yelling for his attention, trying to get him to drive the boat, but he seemed completely oblivious to my presence.
John’s response to being about to crash was to run back down into the cabin. WHAT THE FUCK, MAN?! I was standing near the stern and the pier was getting close in a hurry. I immediately began estimating my probability of success if I jumped for it at the moment of impact and was a little disappointed when the boat stopped short and began moving in the opposite direction. Going forward was good but there was still no one at the helm. The change in direction had been enacted from below.
We were motoring right at the boat slip. There was no magical direction change this time. John emerged from the cabin just in time to see us ram the side of the slip. In a delayed reaction, John yelled “PORT!” and grabbed the tiller. The motor kept driving us forward, scraping the bow of the boat against the slip. Then a wave lifted the boat and dropped us on top of it. We were stuck. The front end of the boat was out of the water and most of our weight was being supported by the bowsprit from which we were suspended. Shit was getting super real. I just stood there and watched. What could I do? John actually went to the front of the boat and pushed against the cement to see if he could push us off. Again, where are this man’s problem-solving skills? For all of his calculations and formulas, he seems genuinely surprised at how physics works. Also, why can’t he control the boat? Backing out of a boat slip shouldn’t have been this complicated.
After a few minutes of cursing and useless effort from John, another wave came along and dislodged us. No one had thought to take the boat out of gear so when we hit the water we immediately went forward. John hurried back to the helm and pointed us in an outbound direction. We were getting away. As I watched the port get smaller I saw my last opportunities for escape evaporate.
I’m in this now. I’m driving the getaway car. I’m complicit in the wreaking of havoc.