Sailing Patagonia – Part 3
“You can’t leave with those fishermen.”
“You can’t go back with them.”
My stomach and everything it is attached to just made a break for the nearest emergency exit. Surely this hapless old man isn’t attempting to thwart my bid for freedom, for safety. Surely he doesn’t think that I will continue to pilot his boat after he denies me the opportunity to escape it. But then, his reality is not my reality. I failed to make his reality my reality.
I’ve been standing here with my packed bags, on the deck of this sailboat, for about an hour now. I’ve been holding a vigil of sorts; a lamentation of my failure to communicate and a silent, desperate plea to the Multiverse to give me another chance.
The focus of my attention is two fishing boats anchored less than a hundred feet from where I’m standing. They are here to rescue me. They just haven’t figured that out yet.
The fishermen arrived in our isolated cove as if summoned by my own will. It had been less than an hour after I had tried and failed, to convince John to either return me to Puerto Natales or radio a passing boat to come pick me up. Our conversation had not gone well.
My communication with the fishermen had not gone any better. When I hailed them and waved, they waved back. When I yelled my request, in clumsy Spanish, asking for passage to Puerto Natales, they said they couldn’t. When I asked for help, they said that they were staying for the night.
I hadn’t been ready to sound the alarm yet. I wasn’t prepared to escalate this situation to that of woman-held-hostage-by-lunatic-in-need-of-rescue. I was trying to be casually desperate in a don’t-call-the-Armada-just-please-please-please-get-me-off-this-boat kind of way. The sentiment was lost in translation.
It must have been the yelling that brought John up onto the deck, or maybe it was the silence that followed. The crew of the fishing boats had stopped coming within shouting range, hence my silent vigil.
Now it’s just the two of us, staring each other down from across the length of the clutter-strewn deck. He has declared that I can’t leave. I’m trying to subtly shift my position, without slipping on this fucking oil-lubed deck, to be closer to where the dingy is tied up. That partially submerged rubber vessel with a slow leak may end up being my life raft.
Is this really happening? Do I have to decide, in this moment, to do something as dramatic as trying to escape in the dingy? I’m not physically afraid of John. I know that he means me no harm. What I am afraid of, is John’s incomprehensible obliviousness to the mayhem and calamity that he causes just by existing. I’m terrified of being blown up.
It began as a confluence of little things…
Everything about John and his boat is a challenge. Both set a stage that incites anxiety and cautious paranoia. Both are filthy and both reflect the squalor of a lifetime of hoarding and dumpster diving. Clutter in the extreme, along with all of the regular staples and furnishings of a boat cabin (food, dishes, seats, tables), is coated with a pervasive stickiness of grime collected over forty years and primarily made up of peanut butter and jelly, mayonnaise, a variety of engine, transmission, and cooking lubricants, diesel fuel, antibiotic ointment, and snot. I knew going in that I would have challenges to overcome. The stickiness is distracting.
John is exhausting. Being in the same room as him requires a patient attentiveness normally reserved for grandparents. Important nuggets of information can be gleaned from the constant and pedantic volley of words issuing from John’s reader-board stream of consciousness but the mining is laborious and requires a constant panning of random facts, memories, and free-floating thought-posits. John doesn’t converse, he talks at you and to himself and after a while, if he notices that you’re still there listening, he’ll tell you to do something like ‘eat a cookie’.
I have found it difficult to stop paying attention. He doesn’t need an audience but I’m paranoid about missing important disclosures. John has a knack for casually stringing a confession between two nonsequiturs. It was during a dissertation on why a tiller is better than a wheel that John disclosed that he broke the gear shift lever. The boat can only be put in gear manually, at the transmission, below deck. A piece of information I wish I had had before we began our escapade of crashing into things.
Yesterday was a boat maintenance day. Wind, rain, and fog provided adequate motivation to stay put and fix things. For me, this meant spending the better part of my day cloistered in the cramped stickiness of the cabin. So I cleaned. I scrubbed. I gagged and nearly lost my breakfast. I made progress and then I watched it all be undone. I cleared stacks from the table. John filled the space with a collection of hoses and clamps. I returned all of the lids to their rightful condiment jars and then put my hand in mayonnaise that was dripping from a handrail. I found cooked potatoes in a pan of dark water being stored in a cupboard full of dishes that all had dried food on them. I took John’s shoe off the sink and removed all of the burnt plastic from both the bread loaf and the hot kettle that the bread loaf kept being set on. I soon reached a point where I was merely following John around picking up after him and wiping things off after he touched them.
Just before lunch, John launched himself down the cabin steps and nearly knocked me over. He had just emptied the tortillas bag that he’s been using to catch the oil that leaks from the transmission. He apparently spilled some on the steps. This mess John cleaned up himself using an extremely flammable alcohol-based solvent. He made a point of showing me the bottle and telling me how dangerously flammable it is and that I must keep it away from the stove. Ok, I thought, John’s using a flammable liquid to clean the wooden steps that sit next to the uncovered engine and are only three feet from the propane stovetop which he keeps burning constantly for heat. Well, at least alcohol evaporates quickly.
Moments later the stove ran out of propane. John was trepidatious about switching the tanks and that made me incredibly nervous. John has a very narrow sight where danger is concerned. If he’s nervous, I’m downright scared. Switching the tank should not have been a big deal but John had been unable to get his spare tank re-filled in Puerto Natales. His only option had been to buy a new tank which required a new regulator specific to that tank. John, apparently, does not like change.
To swap out the propane tanks we first had to clear out the swap meet of random things that had been stacked on top of them. This proved to be more difficult than expected because the deck was now as slick as a bowling lane. John’s oil spill had not contained itself to the cabin steps. After much Laurel-and-Hardy-like slipping and sliding around and John dropping his wrench overboard, we managed to excavate the tanks and discovered that the new regulator hose was a different size than the existing one. John needed to re-fit the connectors. Fortunately, there was already a big pile of hoses and clamps spread out on the galley table for John to choose from. The fix went smoothly. We turned the valve until we heard gas and then John told me to go light the stove.
“You go light the stove. I’m staying up here,” I said without a trace of a joke in my voice.
John gave me an exasperated look and went below to light the stove.
A moment later John was yelling, “Turn it off. Turn it off!”
I could see a huge flame from the cabin hatch. I quickly turned off the propane and hurried back to the cabin. The big flame was gone but there were still little fires burning. The new regulator had pushed too much gas to the stove and the gigantic flame had ignited all of the food debris and small bits of garbage that littered the area. The fire was so intense that the burner knob melted off in a river of molten plastic and burned right through the pile of oily rags piled on the floor. The smell was revolting. I grabbed my inhaler and went back up to the deck. It started raining again.
Through trial and error, we managed to find the sweet spot on the regulator dial that allowed us to cook food without setting the boat on fire. The downside was that we could not leave the gas on when it wasn’t in use. Every time we needed to use the one remaining functional burner, one of us has to man the gas valve up on deck while the other lites the burner and yells directions for more or less gas to get the flame where it needs to be. Again we are faced with functionality that requires being in two places at once.
The inclement weather brought with it a big drop in temperature. As evening dug in, the boat cabin became frigid enough for John to decide to light the furnace. The boat’s furnace is a diesel-fueled heater that resembles an old wood burning kitchen stove. It has an oven compartment and a cast iron top surface that gets hot enough to keep your kettle warm but not actually cook. The metal exhaust pipe that runs up through the deck is missing its vent cover and has been wearing an old PVC elbow joint to keep the rain out. Smartly, John removed the plastic hat before commencing in lighting the stove.
From all of John’s rumblings and muttering it was clear to me that John had some cleanup to do before he could light the stove. He hadn’t used it in quite some time and there was a copious amount of crusted over carbon deposits and soot to deal with. This made John grumpy and impatient. He was cold and being whiny about it. Not wanting to deal, I went to bed. I had been freezing most of the day and had spent a better part of the afternoon standing on deck in the rain because the air in the cabin was unbreathable.
I awoke in a panic. I couldn’t breathe. I was choking. Reaching for my inhaler I realized that I also couldn’t see. My eyes were open but everything was black and my eyes burned and watered. It was smoke. Thick, black, acrid smoke. I stepped barefoot into my boots, grabbed my coat and pulled back the curtain that separates my berth from the galley. What I saw on the other side of the curtain was so surreal and disorienting that I faltered for a moment and considered whether or not this was just a vivid nightmare. In the center of the galley, the furnace was glowing red and flames were licking through the gap around the lid and through the top edges where the welds were not holding so well. Thick black smoke billowed from every gap and seam. Next to the furnace sat John, bathed in its eerie soft red glow, looking a little nervous but not doing anything.
“WHAT THE FUCK, JOHN?”
The effort I put into yelling at John cost me my lungs. My coughing intensified and I doubled over with the effort. Not waiting to understand what was going on, I kept low and headed for the closed hatch. As I made my way up the steps I heard John say, “It’s alright, the fire is contained. It’s just burning off the carbon and soot.”
Un-fucking-believable! A tirade of curses issued from me in fits and spurts as I hacked and coughed and tried to catch my breath. I pulled the hatch back and stuck my head out into the freezing night air. Thankfully, the wind had died down and the rain had reduced to a light drizzle. I emerged the rest of the way out of the cabin and immediately slipped and fell on my ass. The rain had conspired with the spilled oil to make the deck even slicker. Giving over to the ridiculousness of my situation, I sat there, on the deck of the boat, and laughed and mused at the wonder of John. How is it that he is so immune to the chaos he causes? My laughing turned to violent coughing and hacking. Black tar was being expelled from my lungs.
When I recovered my voice, I yelled down to John to turn off the stove. I couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t yet. He said that the gunk just needed to burn off and that it would get better soon. That was bullshit. All of the smoke was coming from the hatch. The stove pipe wasn’t smoking at all, it wasn’t even warm. Obviously, John had lit the stove without bothering to clean it or check the exhaust. It was hours before the air was breathable again.
Fresh perspective did not dawn with the new day. Sleep had eventually come but it had not been restful. The boat was cold and reeked of smoke. My nerves were shot. Paranoia had planted its seeds in my brain and I was on high alert. My senses were stretching out to find danger around every corner. We were going to push forward today. My confidence in the boat and its captain have dwindled to their snapping point. Cognizant of my paranoia, I started questioning everything. I really wanted it to be a figment of my imagination when I thought I smelled propane permeating through the stink of stale smoke.
It wasn’t my imagination. The kitchen stove was on fire again.
“TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!” I yelled through the open hatch.
John, not wanting to wait for me to get up to have his morning coffee, tried to light the stove himself. On the one remaining functional burner, he built a small tower of kindling out of paper towels and then lit it on fire. He had just opened the valve on the propane tank when I emerged from my berth. The entire stove was engulfed in flames. Once again, the food debris and bits of garbage from whatever John cooked for himself last night had ignited. Once again, the black plastic knob melted and ran molten down the front of the cupboard scorching everything in its wake.
I was not feeling optimistic about the trip. Putting more distance between us and civilization just seemed like a really stupid thing to do. But, all of my reservations had more to do with John than the boat itself. He was fixing the things that made the boat run (sort of) but he was destroying the things that made the boat livable. I didn’t think I had a good enough argument to press my perspective, especially because my argument would be an attack on John himself, rather than the boat. So, I held my tongue and steeled myself for the adventure. The weather had encouraged me. The sun had come out and had some warmth to it.
Our trip got off to a fine start. Casting off had, for the first time in our journey, gone smoothly thanks to the string and pulley system John devised for putting the boat in gear from the helm. I was dubious about the fix at first. It seemed like a crackpot stupid way to fix the problem but it worked. I practiced a few times to get the feel of finding each gear as I pulled on the appropriate string. John got the anchor up and we were on our way. Knowing which direction to go, I was left to piloting the boat and John took up his post at the engine, checking gauges and whatnot.
As soon as I had motored out from the protection of the island the wind hit us and the sea got rough. I looked up the channel at where we were headed and saw nothing but a solid wall of darkness and tall, white-tipped waves. I could no longer continue my left turn into the channel. The wind was pushing me towards the rock cliffs on the opposite side. John was still below, monitoring his engine and not paying any attention to my calls for assistance. I had the tiller as far to port as I could go and I was still headed for the cliffs. I couldn’t get John’s attention without letting go of the tiller. All I could do was yell and hope. Finally, John’s head emerged from the cabin hatch and he yelled, “slow her down and turn around!”
That was exactly what I had wanted to hear. I didn’t care why he made the call, I had just wanted out of there. I reduced our speed and let the wind have its way. Instead of fighting for port I brought the boat around in the other direction. Of course, I got an ear full for getting too close to shore.
“Fuck you, John! I’m doing the best I can driving this shitty boat!” I screamed in my head.
With my outside voice, I shouted a request for instructions and was told to just circle and circle I did. It was 180 degrees of calm Patagonia wilderness and 180 degrees of 6-foot seas, gale force winds, and abject terror. Eventually, John returned to the deck and told me to head back to our anchorage. He was accepting defeat, over what, I did not know.
What I did know was that John was pissed and I was frazzled and this made parking extra fun. John gave the order to put the boat in neutral as we entered the cove. I pulled on the string and nothing happened. John yelled at me. I pulled harder. The boat skipped neutral and shifted directly into reverse and the string snapped. We both started screaming at each other at once. John was at the bow of the boat preparing to drop anchor and I refused to go climb behind the engine to change the gears. The whole thing was a fiasco and I am amazed that we didn’t run aground.
FUCK THIS GUY AND HIS STUPID FUCKING BOAT!
I was pissed. Adrenaline and rage were mixing up something volatile in me. Steam was literally emanating from my head — mostly because the sun was still shining warmly on this side of the island but the wind and the waves I had just sailed through had bested my sailing gear, freezing me and soaking me to the bone. It was a cool effect that really drove home the fact that I was about to go nuclear. I had had enough. My threshold for stupid FUBAR had finally been met. It was time for me to get off this boat.
I decided to wait until we were both a little calmer before making my case. I needed John to cooperate. I couldn’t just leave. I either had to convince John to return to Puerto Natales or radio a passing boat to come pick me up. That was a tall order. John was determined to move forward. I would need to not look hysterical. I would need to present a logical evaluation. Panic induced overreactions from a silly girl would not be taken seriously. This train of thought just made me more pissed. I surrendered to my need to get warm and went below deck. Maybe John would start another fire. At least it would be warm.
“The engine is spraying fuel all over the place,” John said when I entered the cabin.
“Great. That’s really great, John. I was just wondering what we could set fire to next.” I let my sarcasm just hang there between us. My diplomacy had gone AWOL.
Having no patience for John’s rhetorical problem solving, I retired to my berth to change into some dry clothes and comfort myself with snacks. The afternoon passed in relative silence. John had the engine manual out and was working the problem. I retreated into my head for debate camp. I was getting ready.
“John,” I said his name with deliberate directness.
A couple of hours had passed and we were both just sitting in the galley staring off into space, wiped out and defeated. I needed to get his attention which is very difficult to do. When John didn’t respond, I took a deep breath and prepared to speak again but then he stirred and looked at me.
“Did you hear something? Is someone out there?” he asked.
“No John, that was me. I said ‘John’.” I looked at him as I spoke. He made eye contact with me and then half-smiled, there was almost a blush to it.
“That’s me, isn’t?” he whispered in a slightly guilty voice. I think he was embarrassed by how deep he had fallen into the rabbit hole of his own thoughts.
“Yeah, that’s you,” I said, trying to be gentle. “Listen, John, I need to talk to you, I need your attention.”
I had been as direct as I could be. I was afraid of patronizing him but I needed him to hear me. I needed him to see me and I needed him to recognize that his blind determination was putting us both in jeopardy.
John failed to see my point or even understand where I was coming from. He reacted to my statements with confusion and exasperation, making it clear that his reality was not my reality. All of my arguments had failed. I was dealing with a man who can perform complex math equations in his head but doesn’t understand how physics works and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. There is no way to win an argument about danger with someone who doesn’t recognize the existence of cause and effect.
I was still reeling from the defeat when I heard the boat horn and realized that we had visitors arriving. I did not hesitate to act. I had all my shit packed and hefted on deck before the fishermen had finished setting anchor.
So here I am, staring down a boat captain while plotting a daring escape. Can I get myself, my gear, and the oars into the dingy without falling overboard? The dingy has a leak in one side. Every morning it has to be re-inflated and bailed out before it can be used. My success will most certainly hinge on how far along it is in its deflating and sinking process.
“If you leave with them there will be an investigation,” John explains. “You’re part of my crew, you’re listed on the manifest.”
“I’ll go straight to the Armada to notify them that I got off your boat,” I argue.
Trying to keep the panic out of my voice, I explain to John that I am not trying to fuck him over. I just want off the boat.
“No, that’s not good enough. There is no guarantee that the information will make it to Puerto Montt. If I show up without you, they’ll be all over me,” John said in a paranoid voice.
He’s staring at me beseechingly as if pleading for my understanding and cooperation. I reciprocate his stare, my resolve unwavering.
“Your boat is broken, John. It’s not going to make it to Puerto Montt and you know it!” I shouted at him.
There was a marching band drum line happening in my chest. My internal monologue was playing that whistling gunslinger tune from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. This was a staring contest I had to win. I really didn’t want to enact plan B.
Finally, Lowering his head and speaking to his feet, John says, “I’ll take you back. I’ll take you back to Puerto Natales. We’ll go in the morning.”
There it is, the answer to the riddle of what penetrates John’s bubble of oblivious determination — fear of investigation. I had tried to sway John by running away from the feminine gender role and leveling with him in a pragmatic, unemotional way. I thought he would take me more seriously if I acted less like what I thought his expectations of a woman would be. I was so wrong. The only outside force that penetrates John’s will is that of law enforcement intervention. Being a woman, as it turns out, was my strongest weapon.
John returned below deck. The sun is setting. The fishing boats are dark and quiet. I’m all alone on the deck, just me and the evening bugs. If John is lying to me to get me to stay on the boat, I’m in real trouble. These fishing boats will be gone at dawn. The engine is spitting diesel fuel everywhere. Can this boat even make it back? I guess I’m going to find out.
Looking over the edge of the boat I spot the dingy in the fading light. Half of it is underwater.