Tilting At Windmills

Sailing Patagonia — Part 4

The dingy is tolerating the weight of me and my bags. An old life vest is keeping my big duffel out of the persistent puddle plaguing the bottom of this sad little boat. The Señoret Channel looks immense from this perspective. Crossing it seemed so simple from the deck of the boat. Scale is weird. I know the channel is not even a mile wide right here but the shore isn’t getting any closer. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. My freedom is tied to that land in the distance. I need to get there and then I can walk away.

Four days ago…

I waited until I could hear John fumbling about before getting up myself. I hadn’t really slept. The events of the night before had left me with a victory that wasn’t totally in the bag. Nevertheless, anticipation had set in. My thoughts were consumed with fantasies of being rid of this adventure. I was anxious to get moving.

Gone was my patience for John and his rambling. I didn’t give a shit about what he thought was wrong with the engine nor did I feign any interest in his plans to fix it. My focus was singular; start the engine, get going. I was irritated by the notion of waiting until after breakfast.

John seemed genuine in his intention to return to Puerto Natales but I needed proof, something John was in no hurry to provided. On the contrary, his actions were slower and much more deliberate than usual. He was being extra mindful of things. There was no haste for departure. Caution would no longer be thrown to the wind. He was twitchy and nervous. I couldn’t tell if he was worried about the engine or just embarrassed about being such a fuck-up. I think my pissy, unforgiving attitude harshed his mellow. His newfound fastidiousness certainly harshed mine.

Castoff was delayed by a series of chores that included emptying the tortillas bag used to collect leaking transmission oil, clamping strips of rubber around the parts of the engine that spit fuel, and machining a metal lever to properly connect the gear shift to the transmission — where the fuck was that fix four days ago? John’s sudden uptick in responsible boat mechanics made me want to punch him in the throat. The gear shift alone was worth at least eight near calamities, one actual collision, and a metric fuckton of severe anxiety. Was he trying to make up for something or was he planning a campaign for not returning?

When we finally got underway, I made it very clear to John that he was in charge of piloting the boat across the channel that I had failed to navigate the day before. I had no intention of repeating that scene. We took it slow. John pulled up the anchor and hoisted the sails, then took over the controls. The weather coming off the channel had become more severe. John had the tiller. All I had to do was hang on and keep my feet under me. That proved to be a tall order.

The boat pitched and swayed. Waves rammed the side of the boat, tipping us sideways until the deck nearly met the water. John pointed us into the wind in an effort to heave to. The bow of the boat rose up at a neck-bending angle as we scaled the mountainous waves.

I had to smile a little in spite of my fear. I was exhilarated by the wind and the raging sea. It was an utter lack of confidence in my captain and his makeshift floating contraption that made me nervous. In the hands of practically anyone else, it would have been a spectacular ride.

As if on cue, John interrupted my musing with an outburst of loud cursing. He had heard a noise from below deck.

“What? What is it?” I shouted to be heard above the roar of the wind.

“I DON’T KNOW, I DON’T KNOW!” He yelled.

The look on his face was plain enough. He was grappling with the question of whether or not to investigate. Seeing the warning did nothing to prepare me for what came next.

John let go of the tiller and abandoned the helm. He gave no instructions. With two sails up and no resistance on the rudder, the wind took to the boat with violent glee. Rolling seemed inevitable. I let go of my handrail and slid across the deck to the gunwale which was getting uncomfortably close to the waterline. Grabbing the tiller, I tried to pull it to port. I needed to turn the boat back into the wind. It wouldn’t budge. My weight was no match for the force being put on the rudder. I needed to put my weight behind it. Getting to the other side of the tiller meant going uphill. Twice I lost my footing and slammed my knees and elbows into the wet and oily deck. The boat was swaying violently. Gravity kept changing direction. I tried to get to my feet and instead launched myself head first into the boom. Stars popped in front of my eyes. My knees buckled and slammed into the deck, again. I ended up having to slide up the deck on my ass, pulling myself along using whatever I could grab a hold of. Making it to the other side, I crawled over the wadded up sail covers, random coils of rope and the bag of trash and put myself between the gunwale and the tiller. I pushed with my legs, extending my body. This was as far to port as I could make it go.

It worked, sort of. We turned into the wind enough that we didn’t tilt sideways as much. I could bend my knees to let the wind take us a little starboard and then extend to correct. This action became the singular function of my existence. From my strained position, I could lift my head and spot the shore and steer well enough to not hit it.

John returned after a handful of minutes that felt like the unspooling of time. I was relieved of my steering duty and eventually learned that the engine manual had been pitched off the navigation table. It landed on the uncovered engine. A quickly rotating belt made efficient work of chewing it up and spitting it out like a Marti Gras confetti canon.

The engine ate its own manual. An act of protest through symbolic cannibalism. At least we didn’t blow up.

We did not make it back to Puerto Natales that day.

We didn’t even make it halfway. After reaching calmer waters, I took over piloting the boat so John could monitor the engine. It was overheating. We had been forced to slow down.

By the following day, returning to Puerto Natales had become John’s idea. Clearly, the engine had issues that couldn’t be dealt with in the wild. So far, not a single one of John’s engine fixes had worked. The rubber bandaids failed to contain the fuel spray and the cooling system had stopped working. I didn’t need to know dick about boat mechanics to know that this was the little engine that couldn’t.

The only things that were working properly on the boat were the gear shifter and the furnace. We had heat… finally. John thoroughly cleaned out the furnace before lighting it again. As it turned out, there was a shirt stuck in the smokestack. Of course there was. John had wanted to protect the stove from the rain after its vent hood was accidentally knocked off and run over. Of course he did. What could go wrong with a fix like that?

The second day of our return was slow and laborious. The weather was turning colder and windier. The sea had been just rough enough to make everything difficult. John had removed the broken thermostat control to keep the engine from overheating. Without it, the engine couldn’t warm up. So we limped onward at a turtle’s pace and again did not make it to Puerto Natales.

We anchored seven miles from our destination in the same cove where we had spent our first night on the boat. I had pinned my dreams to the long shot that I would be disembarking at the end of the day. My disappointment was severe. I knew another night on the boat was highly probable but I just couldn’t deal with the thought of it. I wanted off. Every minute spent aboard this boat felt like a double-dog dare to the multiverse to brutally teach me another life lesson. I had learned enough for one adventure. I had learned so much, in fact, that I hadn’t been able to keep up with the processing of all of the new information. My mind was reeling from it. Or maybe it was just the goose egg on the top of my head. It had stopped bleeding but it still throbbed a lot. Either way, I was done.

When Puerto Natales came into view my phone dinged a couple of times. It was just then that John had slowed us down and pointed us towards our anchor spot behind a small peninsula. Puerto Natales disappeared from view. Sadness settled on me and I deflated like a dingy with a leak.

It took a few minutes to realize that I was alone on the deck. This cove doesn’t support ship-to-shorelines so John just dropped anchor and went below. I wasn’t ready to surrender to the confinement of the cabin yet. I pulled out my phone. There were two messages from my partner, Sasha and no cell service. I climbed up into the rigging to see if I could get a bar or two but there was nothing up there but a view of town and a cold breeze.

The first text from Sasha was from the day we parted. We had said goodbye at the dock as the sailboat was being put in the water. She had a bus ticket bound for Argentina that day. The text said, “Want to come hop a bus with me?” If only I had done that instead.

The second text said, “Resisting the urge to send you constant messages is hard. You make my world go round.” Loneliness consumed me.

The wind started to pick up, rocking me back and forth. It was cold but soothing. I wanted to stay up in the rigging all night. This was as far as I could get from the boat without leaving it. Finally giving in to the chill of the wind, I went below.

John was cutting up a raw chicken on a filthy cutting board. I passed on dinner and went straight to bed. I should have been hungry. I hadn’t been eating much and most of what I ate had little nutritional value. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat John’s cooking. I had witnessed too much. Food, like everything else, had been bled dry of any enjoyment and mutated into something unsavory and gross.

By the third day of our return I was regarding land as a mirage, a wishful delusion meant to torture me.

Time slowed down and sped up as if its progression was controlled by a turn crank manned by a malicious toddler. John had become the Mad Hatter. Everything about him, his appearance and his actions, appeared ridiculous and manic. I had switched to autopilot and my perceptions were all being filtered through the foggy glass of an old porthole to my brain. I was detached.

Lack of sleep and proper nutrition were taking their tolls. The wind had whipped at the boat all night. Without shorelines, the boat was free to wander the length of its anchor chain. John worried that the single anchor wouldn’t hold but he didn’t want to do anything about it. Setting another anchor would have meant starting up the engine and doing maneuvers in the dark storm. To ease his mind, he set an anchor perimeter alarm on the GPS. The alarm was set to beep whenever we floated beyond the distance of the length of the anchor chain. The only problem was, we were not directly over the anchor when the alarm was set. Geometry is a bitch. The alarm went off constantly.

The roar of the wind, the banging of heavy chain against the boat, the thwanging of sail lines being strummed against the mast, a persistent beeping accompanied by loud cursing and the sounds of fumbling around in the dark, and the constant bobbing and tilting of the boat all made for a sleepless and nerve-racking night. I spent the morning in a semi-catatonic state, sipping instant coffee and watching John electrocute himself over and over again. From the porthole of my locked down brain, I smiled and giggled every time he did it. I didn’t care that he could blow up the boat. That possibility had lost its shock factor. The threat of explosion was just part of sailing with John.

The spraying of fuel from the engine had gotten worse. None of the rubber bandages had worked and everything within spitting distance of the engine was now saturated with diesel, including John’s bedding and some of his clothes. John also discovered that fuel was now leaking into the oil, diluting it to the point of needing to be changed, something John had never done on this engine. Finding the drain plug without the manual was challenging. It turned out to be in the one place that was unreachable. To get to it, John had to disconnect the batteries and remove the starter motor. That’s when he discovered the bare wires of a disconnected battery cable that had apparently been flopping around ungrounded for who knows how long. The cable was hot, the shock severe. John’s hair took on a comical Einstein-do. In his effort to re-fit and ground the loose cable, he electrocuted himself two more times, each time dropping the cable on the metal, fuel-soaked engine casing, sending sparks everywhere.

Strangely, we didn’t blow up.

We had seven miles left to go. I packed and brought all my stuff up on deck. If we were going to sink this close to our destination, I wanted to be able to make a play for the dingy.

It was after four by the time we arrived. John’s plan was to pull up alongside the boat slip and go find the lift operator. He wanted to get the boat out of the water right away. I thought that meant he was actually going to tie up to the outside of the boat slip so that we could disembark. It would be the equivalent of double parking but we wouldn’t be there long.

There is no visitor or short-term dock parking available in Puerto Natales. You either anchor in the channel and dingy back and forth, get hauled out and dry-docked, or you buy a long-term spot on the fishing boat pier. John split the difference by anchoring between the fishing pier and the slip. We were twenty feet from land.

When John climbed into the dingy and started pumping the air back up, I grabbed my stuff and carefully navigated my way towards him. The deck was still really slick and full of obstacles to step over. As I came around the mainsail I spotted John already rowing towards the boat slip. He had left without me.

“JOHN!” I yelled. I was livid.

“Stay with the boat. I won’t be long”, he yelled back.

He tied up the dingy and walked off. John was on land, I was not. He was free, I was not. Stunned, I just stood there holding my bags. I don’t have a word for what I felt in that moment. I cried a little. It was under-dramatic and pitiful. I really didn’t have anything left. Several curious fishermen paused in their activities to watch me stand there like a statue with my pack on as if waiting for a magic bus. Noticing them notice me, I hefted the heavy pack off my back, slipped and body slammed into the deck. That made me cry in earnest. It hurt. I laid on the deck until I could hear the laughter dissipate.

Two fishing boats were put in the water before John returned to the boat.

“The lift is broken, they can’t pull us out today,” John said as he fired up the engine.

“Bullshit, two boats just went in,” My voice cracked a little.

“Yeah, well, it’s not acting right,” he said gruffly.

“You’re gonna get me off this boat, right?”

John looked right at me, something he rarely did and studied me as if trying to gauge something.

“Yeah, yeah, in a bit.” He muttered while surveying the horizon.

He pointed across the channel and told me to steer for the big orange boat. We would anchor and then dingy to shore.

The bastard knew he wouldn’t be able to anchor effectively on his own. That’s why he ditched me on the boat, to ensure that I couldn’t abandon him prematurely. He still needed my help.

The anchor got stuck and would not descend. We had to keep circling to get back into position and try again. It was getting dark by the time the boat was anchored. My trip to shore was postponed until morning. John radioed the armada to let them know where he was anchored and to say that we would formally check-in the following morning. My emotions shut down, torpor set in. I even ate the rubbery, re-cooked chicken.

The drastic change in my personality had not gone unnoticed by John.

I’d barely spoken for days. I hadn’t been eating much. It was obvious that I hadn’t been sleeping much. I had even stopped trying to be clean. I didn’t wash up or brush my teeth before going to bed. I didn’t even change out of my sailing gear. I couldn’t bring myself to unpack. When morning came, I emerged from my berth and headed straight for the deck with bags in tow.

John, of course, was not prepared to leave right away. He had things to see to first. He disclosed every chore in advance of doing it and then looked at me to see my reaction. He was waiting for me to unspool. He recognized the signs and it was making him twitchy as fuck. Clearly, John has experience driving people to the boundaries of their sanity. My quiet, zen-like patience was freaking him out.

Having no fucks left to give, I sat quietly on the deck in the weak sunshine and waited to go. I had cell service so I made a reservation for a private room with a private shower at a hostel that I had stayed at before. There was nothing else for me to do.

It was just after noon before John and I got ourselves and my stuff into the dingy. I had been totally relaxed up until that point. I wasn’t afraid of the dingy but I was afraid of cosmic FUBAR. This was it, a final shout-out to the prankster gods. The last chance for calamity.

I walk into the front office of the Chilean Armada carrying all of my belongings.

I’m wearing bright red sailing bibs and a dark grey Gortex rain jacket. My knit skull cap hides the fact that I haven’t washed my hair in eight days. My left boot makes a squelchy sound every time I take a step, leaving a small puddle of seawater in my wake.

We have arrived.

The comedy of our arrival is not lost on the young sailors. These men are well versed at dealing with John and although they know that the sailor working the counter is now stuck in it for the long haul of John’s extensive communication manner, they’re being good sports about it. We are here to communicate John’s intention to leave his boat in Puerto Natales and more importantly, to get me off the manifest. I will no longer be a member of his crew. This takes a bit of time. John doesn’t get anywhere fast.

In the meantime, I have to get out of these sailing bibs. They don’t belong to me.

John drones on, in his loud and terrible Spanish, describing his various mechanical problems but the sailors aren’t listening. They’re distracted because I’m behind him taking off my pants. Watching the progression of facial expressions in the room as I remove my jacket and shoes, unzip the bibs and slowly shimmy out of them to reveal wrinkled and slightly damp blue jeans is the most fun I’ve had in days.

Barefoot, I go outside to empty the sea water from my boot and ring out my sock. Putting myself back together, I roll up the bibs and stuff them in John’s backpack.

Finally, someone asks me for my passport. Satisfying that duty, John immediately recommences with his pedantic description of how he located the oil drain plug on his lemon of an engine. When he starts drawing diagrams, I interrupt.

“Está bien? We good?”

I am cleared to leave but John doesn’t stop talking.

“John,” I say. He doesn’t respond or deviate from his conversation.

“John.” I put a hand on his arm. He’s looking at me as though surprised to see me standing there.

“I’m leaving, John.” The room gets quiet. Everyone is watching us regardless of their ability to understand English.

“Oh, well yes, Ok. Let me call you a cab,” he says, looking a little flustered.

“No need. My hostel is just up the street.” This a lie but I want to go. I have a shower and a cheeseburger in my immediate future.

I shake his hand, wish him luck and walk away.

One thought on “Tilting At Windmills

  1. OMG Jen!!!! Such a great story, I couldn’t stop reading it until I had to pee and then came right back to it. Sounds like a complete and utter nightmare!!! I am so glad you survived and that John didn’t kill you! Gene read it too and said you gotta have a near death experience every now and then, especially in another country. I bet being on land and walking away felt like a miracle. WOW!


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