Patagonian Sailing Adventures, and all the unwinding blah necessary to enjoy a break


1. New passport

I paid £107 for the pleasure of not being seperated from my passport for more than four hours. Reunified with my freedom, I left the office with a spring in my step, complete again.

Would it really be such a sacrifice to be imprisoned in the entire United Kingdom for the three weeks that it takes for passport renewal by post? It is true, I haven’t been in the country for a full three weeks since my job started in May, but my aversion to passport seperation ran deeper than that. And is perhaps also linked to a national mistrust of Royal Mail.

Posting my passport, putting my trust in the system, risking it not arriving at destination A, or being returned to me at destination B, made me very nervous. And reunification with it, or better, introduction to my new and empty pink key to the world, made me feel whole.

The UK process was extraordinarily efficient. I was given a time, a time window, no queue, an empty waiting room, almost sterile. For some reason I had expected the place to be thronging with last-minute travellers, each having only just realized that their passport had expired. Or was that just me?! (To be fair, my passport expires next May.. but I was to be entering the US in December and they require six months grace.) Ironically, this was in stark contrast to the chaos I experienced trying to renew my German passport.

I felt mixed emotions as I left the UK passport office. Sadness, that I no longer had my faded inkblot book, soft like leather, full of penguin stamps and exotic icy locations. Excitment of the blank pages yet to be filled. Annoyance with the blurry thirty-something photo that probably represents me quite accurately, if not flatteringly. Ready, for my travels ahead. Two months away, a combination of work and play. And a good excuse to avoid the boat in the rainy months of England.

2. Unwinding

I had work-related dreams for the first week of my holiday. The International Polar Year, and saving the World, or at least the people on it, from imminent doom. I love my new job, but have been somewhat ambushed by it too. And for the last couple of months it has seen me in a different country every week. Every time I step on a plane I wrangle with myself. How can it be justifiable to burn so much carbon in the name of increasing global awareness about climate change and the importance of the polar regions? How will I ever bring to peace my love of travelling and exploration, with the transport needed to get there?

During the second week, I had successive nightmares about about urban hell. One night I was stuck in Stansted Airport luggage collection, never getting out, continuously not getting the bags I was waiting for, continuously leaving the trolley with the bags that I had somewhere where I was not. Two nights later I was driving a double decker bus, from the top floor, with no brakes, down the wrong way of dual carriage-way in a big city. The town centre was sponsored by a confectionary company and each hill was made of a different sweet. Apart from pedestrians, only buses and taxis were allowed up these hills, private cars had to go around. So up I drove, left the bus, and returned to the hill to try the toffee. Then I lost the bus. I had lost someone else’s double decker bus, I looked for hours, round and round, trapped in the same circle, never finding the bus, panick increasing. Eventually I found myself at a friend’s workplace trying to get a wifi connection on my laptop. Someone had kindly given me a new graphics software and I spent the next few hours in screensaver hell, hours and hours of trying to get out of this software that was apparrently brilliant but currently preventing me from doing the thing I really wanted. To wake up.

I hope in my third, or fourth, week to have purged myself from the entrapments of my daily life. To be left free to dream, free to not dream, free. Surely a world in which three weeks continuous holiday is an indulgence will never give it’s members the opportunity to truly leave, to reflect, to look at that chosen life from a distance and gain some perspective, decide if really, you are doing what you want to be doing. And I truly hope that in most cases, people will smile at this view of their life, and return content. Content and comfortable, so that when the daily overtakes the monthly, or yearly, you know in yourself that you are where you want to be.

2. Global Warming Optimism

Andy says that sailing has nothing to do with sailing, it is all about fixing things in exotic ports.

Rhian says that sailing is not about sailing, it’s about learning to tolerate your own company on the absence of distractions.

A sailing master we met here, who has lived and travelled on his boat for the last 27 years, says that sailing is about self-sufficiency. I guess both of the above fit into this. Others say it’s about being at peace with yourself. I’m certainly not there yet, nor wish to be, but do wish I could sometimes just Accept.

How does bread work? Why does the winch go round different ways on different sides? Why is air getting into the diesel? Would a life at sea be utterly fulfilling, totally gratuitous, or pointless? Does there need to be a point? Is it possible to save the world? Can this be done by individuals? If not, why don’t we all give up? Is this a revolution? Is climate change really happening? If so, how can we increase awareness of this, globally, without patronising or preaching? How do we make the information accessible and digestible, and then leave it to the recipient to digest and decide for themselves?

I feel very hopeful, excited even, about the future, our future, on this planet. About being in this generation, or the one to come. About witnesing global change in society. It has happened before and must happen again. Sooner or later. I’d rather sooner than later, but ultimately when the big changes start happening, then that is when it will be. More exciting, more urgent, the challenge of Sooner. To see a global, cooperative, move, by the nations of the world, driven by the people in the world, towards ensuring that this planet remains habitable for humanity. For our children.

Am I a dreamer? Absolutely.

Has this got anything to do with sailing in the channels of Patagonia? Quite possibly. A solution, for me, a way to see the world, to follow my itchy feet, nurture them even, without flying to a new country every week. It must be possible for us to each find a way to do the things that make us who we are, who we want to be, without damaging the environment around us. It must be possible. Through lateral thinking and technology. The technological advances of society are always unimaginable before they happen. Look at the last decade alone and the era of internet. Truly, the technology to have meetings, to get to know each other, to work together, remotely, is here. International meetings must become the luxury rather then the norm, and taxed appropriately. Then we would find alternative satisfactory solutions. What has scared me more than the amount of flying I have done recently, is the realization that this is a business norm. That infact, compared to many, I travel comparatively little. And I stay for longer in each place: long enough to meet a local and taste the beer at least.

3. Rabbits, Trees, and Usefulness

I stick out my tongue when I concentrate. Or suck on it, I’m not sure which. It’s something I remember since childhood, and remember being gently teased for. My brother couldn’t speak without waving his hands, I couldn’t think without sticking out my tongue.

There has been a lot of tongue-sticking-out-concentration lately. Rowing the row-boat, tying knots, watching how sails get done and undone, looking inside engines, sorting out washers from nuts, bread baking.

The only job that I was forewarned about was the need to tie a rope around my waist, row a boat, run around a tree, and tie a bowline. How hard can rowing be, I thought, that it really warrants practice?! And bowline tying, well, I tied up my narrowboat with a full five bowlines before leaving just to make sure that I knew how to do them. Rabbit goes up the hole, ’round the tree, and back down the hole again. Any girl scout worth her dibs knows that.

And so it was that on day two of our Sailing Adventure I was charged with tying my first bowline. Not a critical one, mind you, more a useful one to link us to the next door boat. Keith, a friendly kiwi yachty, came out to say g’day and admire my bowline like the proud uncle of a seven year old. I’d done it wrong, I was mortified. Rabbit-hole-tree. How hard can it be?

The tree has to come from the boat.

The tree takes the weight, the rabbit runs around it.

No-one ever told me that the tree mattered, I was all about the rabbit.

Well, since then, Uncle Keith has become my newest hero. Not only does he understand trees and rabbits, but he sailed solo from New Zealand to Patagonia, has travelled the world as a vehicle mechanic, and has a recipe for bread baking that uses only cups.

On Day Three of our Patagonian Adventure Holiday, I was reasonably dejected at my complete lack of Usefulness, which is not the same as Uselessness. A Useless Person is no good at anything, whereas a Not Useful Person might be good at lots of things, just no Useful Things. And on boats, it’s all about being Useful. So here I am, after years of training to become, ironically, both relatively unemployable and very choosy about employment, sticking my tongue out like a seven year old crossing her first assault course. But this time, the knots matter. And if I fail to climb the wall, to reach the tree around which the rabbit runs, I will fall into the glacial ocean. So I have learnt my bowlines, my stopperknots, and my truckers and clove hitches, remarkably quickly. Because they matter. At last.

I decided to be Useful. To do contribute something other than clumsiness and quizzical expressions. To contribute. I decided to make bread.

Out came the recipe books. Out came the flour, the water, the yeast, the sugar. The oil. (None of them asked for oil but I’m sure there’s always some fat in bread… and surely I know better than the recipe writers?) Every bowl was covered, every pot filled, not a utensil missed. The directions all used pounds or grams, pints, litres, and spoonfuls, none of which we had a measure for. So I made it up and converted into handfuls and approximates. Scalded the yeast, forgot about kneading, got bored, didn’t have a warm place for rising, and after about an hour had created one brown lump and two white ovaloids of Dense Material.

Devastated, less by my dough failure and more by my complete lack of utility, I sought solice at a large beach fire hosted by a neigbouring french yacht while my rocks baked. The warm company, easy-going Caparinha’s, smiling faces, and rich language barrier did, however, create the perfect recipe for a colourful tale of woe and plenty of advise about How to Cook on a Boat.

The next day the sun was shining, we hiked through gnarled and ancient beech forest, across bogs and beaver dams, and up a small mountain to a stunning lake at the mouth of a glacier. A glacier, up close and personal, calving icebergs into the lake, crumbling, grumbling, groaning and creaking. Retreating. Up front and personal. Close, huge, massive, melting. Water pouring out of every edge. Bright sunshine, hot day, frozen mountain. Beavers. Cheese and honey sandwiches on dense, eastern-european style, bread. Everything in perspective again.

4. The Moment

The third and fourth weeks sailed past, in the present, in the channels of Tierra del Fuego, through the rain, the choppy seas, the hail, snow, sun, sleet and ever-lengthening days. I may not have fully escaped the rain of Britain, but I had atleast travelled far from the 3pm dusk. The light was magical, the air fresh, the glaciers, the waterfalls, rivers, wildlife, lakes..scenery, wonderful. Snow-topped mountains and glaciers looming out of a mid-latitude island backdrop (scotland, cornwall, falklands).

I found the sailing hard and not particularly enjoyable at times. Certainly not natural. But worth it for the places we got to. And probably worth it for the experience too, with hindsight. On the worst days the clag weather would chase us down the channel, you could almost time it’s arrival. But these were, magically, also the days that the dolphins would play around the bow, and all was well with the world.

Days became identified by bays we were harboured in, walks we went on, or other boats we met. The latter was one of the nicest surprises. The intrepid nature of accessing the area means that there are still relatively few yachts around, and they’re all friends. Rather than feeling we were encroaching on someone else’s space if they got their first, we were time and again greeted with open arms and warm invites aboard. And stories.

The characters ranged from hard core salty to moderately saline. (On which scale, I am River Cam all the way.) Pretty much everyone has sailed there, which meant they had crossed several oceans. Many had travelled solo or as a couple, some returned in the northern summers to an abode elsewhere but for most, their boat was their home. And for all the many twinkly eyed, adventure rich, warm hearted souls I met, only a couple of exceptions fulfilled my dreaded stereotype of a ‘yachty’. No, these people aren’t rich, aren’t swanning around the world collecting stories for stories sake, they’re living the life as the life that has called them. And they live in the Moment. If the weather’s bad, they stay safe, if a piece of kit snaps, they change their agenda. The agenda, the calendar, the plan, is defined by local conditions, resources, and gut instinct. You don’t need three weeks to wind down from this, though you might need three months to wind up to the pace anywhere else.

5. Sudden Transition

The truth is, it took about three minutes to wind back up.

Catapultation to New York and JFK sees me waiting in line for a yoghurt. Amidst grumbles about the long wait, a policeman behind me describes his new gun to his colleague. The low recoil factor, the weight, the other models he tested. As I sit down, the man next to me tells his companion that he hasn’t had a vacation in five years. I don’t think he’s proud or pleased with this, but he clearly doesn’t feel it to be a particular injustice either, just a simple fact of life. I wonder what he would do if he did get a week off. Or, god forbid, a year.

To coin an old phrase, I am sometimes really not sure if we work to live, or live to work. I had naively hoped that a healthy middle ground might be possible. Is it so unreasonable to want a job that you love, and dedicate yourself to, while still retaining some of the essential ‘me’ essence and energy for your off-work hours? Does it really have to be all or nothing? Job or friends. Work or holiday. Is it not possible to have one life that embraces all these components fairly?

In the space of a week, the previous four have dissolved into a time capsule. Can I can swallow that pill again later to relive the memory? Will it leave me with the same sense of wonder? The same appreication of Time? Is it possible to achieve that sense without allowing three weeks to remove yourself from the system first? These are things I have been battling with.

My brother and his wife joined us in Patagonia. In fact, they were there first for an Antarctic cruise, followed by a few days camping with a salty sibling. It was a nice, lightly planned, coincidence of vacations. They had an amazing time. They loved the Ice, they loved penguins, they knew everything there was to know about the Peninsula, they were excited and inspired. They would do it again.

I really struggle with Antarctic tourism. Having heard so much about the White Continent from me, and invested so much time and love supporting me while I was down there, I was happy they could go and see it for themselves. But in the big picture? Something doesn’t sit right. And I know that’s hypocritical. I am concerned. Not just about the physical impact of tourism on this delicate environment. I also wonder about the experience of the individual. A selfish part of me feels that people should only go to Antarctica if they can really invest the time to truly be immersed in it’s wonder, and digest it afterwards. But maybe a short trip, and a memory pill, serves the same purpose. Tourists could be both Antarctica’s greatest danger, and strongest ally.

6. Home

It feels surprisingly good to be back in Britain. All the familiarities rush back with nostalgia. Home is the grey, plain, and drab.

While on the boat I read an essay by George Orwell about Being British. Everything he described sixty years ago, in wartime, still rings true. The buses, taxis, bad teeth, penchant for sauces. The self deprecating humour, importance of hobbies, need for privacy.

My flight to Manchester was full of Brits, mainly northerners, and yes, you could tell us a mile off from the polished and sparkling americans. And somewhere inside me, to my surprise, I was glad to be a Brit, to be one of Them, waving my new pink pasport, for once not cross-examined at immigration. I was glad to be home.