Wave After Wave, Sailing Through The Magellan Straits And A Chuckle In Chile

As I waded through the sea of dried pasta, biscuits, bottled water and other goods at five thirty this morning I briefly allowed myself a moment to yearn for sturdy ground. While the everyday civilian morning consisted of showering, tea, breakfast- mine consisted of putting up chairs and lashing them to tables, mopping up split milk cartons and sweeping up smashed glass. Placing books back on shelves, tucking away cupboard doors that had swung open and snapped clean off their hinges, searching for a missing computer monitor that had flown across the room at some point in the night. Everyone smiled wearily at each other, a deep sigh being the only necessary form of greeting as we all yawned and sought out the damage to our areas through swollen, sleep deprived peep holes. I zig-zagged through the galley to the forward store where I hesitated behind the door for a second, keeping one eye shut in cringe worthy anticipation as if the whole room was going to empty its bowels on top of me. Upon seeing the carnage I quickly shut the door, a problem for future me- I decided, definitely not something I want to be worrying about at this time of the morning.

I’d spent the previous evening bundled in a dark room, squished on a small single bunk, trying and failing to keep myself entertained with films that I couldn’t get into, with volume that wouldn’t sit right and with themes I felt so detached from. With one leg propping me in place I rolled from side to side with the motion of the waves. Each time I thought sleep was finally arriving the ship would take a huge blow and I would, suspended on one side, listen to judge the scope of the damage done by the tell tale signs of the galley equipment crashing to the floor. The movement is a taste of what I imagine space to be like, as you walk down the stairs you feel the heave and you have two seconds in mid air before you come crashing back down, sometimes you float down whole staircases.

Other times as you’re coming up you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you’re fighting against ten rhinos; each step feels as though you’ve got a ton of rocks tied to each foot. If you’re lucky enough to overcome the rolling from one side of your bunk to the other and somehow fall asleep, you’ll not be for long as sooner or later every one of your personal belongings will decide it’s time to relocate and fly haphazardly across the room in reckless abandon. You’ll sigh, and you’ll stare at your now trashed cabin with your leaking hair products dripping down the walls, your books fanned out with the bookmarks laying limply beside them, and sheets of paper- so many sheets of paper you’ve never even seen before have been spat across the carpet like a crime scene and you’ll wonder why you ever decided to work at sea.

And then on other days you’ll wake up and all will be flat calm. You’ll brush your teeth and wash your face, come out of your cabin and jog up the stairs you’ll shortly be mopping just in time to see the first blink of sunrise. The guys in the galley will say good morning and you’ll say it back and you’ll prepare your mop bucket while yawning and stretching out the tension that has accumulated in your spine during last nights’ sleep. As you start your morning routine people will pass you by and as they will do every day- apologise for walking on your freshly mopped floor and you in return, like you do every day, will say nah no worries on you go. The same start to every single day, but days like today will be slightly different because you’ll be going somewhere and doing something that barely anyone, if anyone, you ever meet will do or have done. It’s roughly eight o’clock and the galley phone rings, it’s Colin on the bridge and he’s calling to tell me that there’s a pod of whales on the port side, then the few lucky bystanders get to observe as I attempt to hurl myself up four flights of stairs as quick as I can in order to catch even just a blow hole spurt.

I stand on the bridge and with a sturdy pair of bino’s peer into the distance, a dorsal fin here- a bit of rubbery black back there. I get distracted by a dark dot and turn my attention onto it, some sea lions chilling in the soft white peaks of the waves, their chubby little flippers seemingly waving at us as we pass by. A few weeks ago in the warmer weather I sat right on the tip of the bow and peered over the side as a pod of twenty-something dolphins danced in the wash, dipping and diving from out of the blue. But surprisingly it’s not the wildlife that has my full interest today, for barely a mile away on each side we are surrounded by snow capped mountains, the jagged range that borders this particular part of the Magellan Straits.

For all my pals who haven’t recently brushed up on their knowledge of 16th century explorers (shame on you) this strait is the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, separating mainland South America to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south. Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer whose expedition (1520) eventually completed the first circumnavigation of the world. The initial purpose was to reach the Maluku Islands, a key location on the spice route, avoiding the route of the African coasts and the Cape of Good Hope. Continuing down south along the Atlantic coast of South America searching for a passage to reach the West Indies the five ship expedition reached a bay which they named San Julian Bay. Due to bad weather Magellan decided to stay there until the spring to allow the worst of the weather to pass and to continue looking for the passage.

It was during that stay on the coast of what we now know as Patagonia, the sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America shared by Argentina and Chile, when the first contact between Europeans and Patagonian American Indians happened. They were Tehuelche Indians and the first sign of them were some huge footprints found in the sands along the beach, thus Magellan naming them ‘Patagones’ from the Portuguese ‘Pata Grau’ or ‘Big Feet’. Tierra del Fuego on the other hand got its name from the campfires tended by one of its early settlers, the Yamana tribesman, Tierra del Fuego translating to ‘Land of Fires’. Hard to reach and isolated, it’s no wonder that early explorers such as Magellan and Darwin refer to it as the end of the world. Magellan was the first to use the name TDF, thinking that the fires mean that the Indians were waiting to ambush his armada.

So, with Patagonia on one side and Tierra del Fuego on the other I sip my hot mug of Twinings English breakfast and I gawk at the scene around me. The skies mirror the waters in a surreal blend of glassy blue, clouds low and fluffy as they are mistaken for glaciers in between the rocky terrain. I sit on the stairs looking out, the air so clean and fresh that my lungs are laughing and the only noise apart from the familiar groans of the ship are the sounds of my shipmates chatting and the subtle clicking from cameras that were trying to capture the view. Just a few days before I had been sitting in a bar in Punta Arenas drinking Pisco Sours and triple Gin and Tonics, revelling in the normalcy of the real world. It’s always the strangest thing when you’re suddenly re-immersed back into society after a period of being at sea and I often find the sudden stimulation really overwhelming. Shops become a claustrophobic jungle of noise and colour; the people on the street are unfamiliar and intrusive. The smells are too strong and the light too bright and I have to resist the urge to run back to the familiarity of my cabin.

But I did enjoy Punta, the gateway to Antarctica and one of the southernmost cities in the world. Usually the places we berth are ugly and industrial, filled with petrol stations, monstrous lorries and badly cobbled roads. There’s usually not a lot else to do except seek refuge in the nearest bar, which works just fine as long as the alcohol is cheap and they’re open till late. Even if you’re not a big drinker like me observing the booze-infused mariner in his natural habitat is a sight to beyond and highly recommendable. The little town centre itself is sweet and quite westernised, it has that outdoorsy feel that all base-camp-esque areas have and is well supplied for the adventurous traveller with a North Face and other top o’ the range activity shops. It’s bustling with locals going about their everyday lives, barely noticing the flustered faces of foreigners who arrive every so often on cruise ships or research ships such as ours. I don’t particularly feel like I had a true taste of Chile during my little stay in Punta Arenas but I did go in a casino for the first time in my life and rub the bronzed toe of statue Magellan for good luck on my travels.

In other news, we have taken fun trivia to another level and are now the most intelligent group of academically uneducated school flunkers there ever was and have created an account specifically for the Discovery. In fact we are currently quizzing as I write this blog, the starfish belongs to the Asteroidia family and someone who studies flags is a vexillogoist… smallest landlocked country in the world? Gaaaan test me

C.J.R xox

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