Closing the Circle
Looking back, the highlights and lowlights seem as vivid and indelible as the snapshots in a photo album: the unforgettable (yet unsettling) glaciers in the Canal Beagle; the awful night in Chile's Golfo de Penas; the massive, deadly earthquake off the Chilean coast; El Niño and the non-existent trade winds; diving among hammerheads in the wondrous Galápagos; the jarring Baja Bash; golden California; the Columbia River bar; and finally, downtown Seattle, right where it all began. The images from the last 9,500 nautical miles of the voyage "Around the Americas," from Cape Horn to the Pacific Northwest, were quite different from those recorded in the 18,000 miles that preceded them.
Take, for instance, the feather.
First mate Dave Logan and I had been paddling our Little Wing carbon kayaks along the primeval northern flank of the tiny island of Cocos-a Costa Rican national park roughly 250 miles off the Central American mainland-when a pair of frigate birds, soaring on the high thermals, caught our attention. It took a moment to grasp the fact that they were playing a game of catch. One bird dropped a feather from its beak, the other wheeled around to snatch it out of the air. I realized nobody was going to believe this far-fetched tale, so I yelled over to Logan for confirmation.
"You're watching this, right?" I called.
"I sure am," he replied.
After a couple of rounds, they missed connections, and the long, brown feather wafted down from the sky and landed in the water precisely an arm's length from my kayak. Astounded, I scooped it up and snapped it under the shock cord just forward of the cockpit. Up until then, most of my souvenirs of the trip had been memories and photographs, but now I had something tangible and real to show for our travels, as well as a pretty good story to go along with it. In many ways, it crystallized the entire, amazing voyage aboard our 64-foot cutter, Ocean Watch, where extraordinary things seemed to happen almost every day.
Captain Mark Schrader, who launched the Around the Americas odyssey with old sailing mates David Rockefeller Jr. and David Treadway (who in turn co-founded the ocean-conservation group Sailors for the Sea, one of the primary backers of the expedition), likes to say that when he's confronted with a problem or challenge, he draws a circle around it. On a charter cruise through the Mediterranean several years ago, the three friends agreed that the oceans were under assault on several fronts, so Mark found a map and encircled the continents of North America and South America. Ultimately, the trio hatched the plan to circumnavigate the Americas to underscore the notions that the landmasses are one large island surrounded by a common sea and that the problems and challenges are also interconnected.
In late January, having already sailed through the Northwest Passage and down the eastern flank of both continents, Ocean Watch rounded Cape Horn and set a northerly course back to the Pacific Northwest, where the journey began on May 31, 2009. Over two-thirds of the circle was complete.
For most of the clockwise voyage, we'd been incredibly fortunate, and our luck had held at the Horn, which we negotiated under spinnaker before a rare easterly breeze. (See "Cape Horn to Starboard," June 2010.) The skipper's original plan had been to forge on "outside" to the Chilean city of Puerto Montt, some 400 miles to the north, but with a series of powerful gales lining up from the west, discretion overruled valor, and we altered course for the inside via the Canal Beagle and the Strait of Magellan.
Navigating the distant waters of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, and the Chilean channels proved to be a visually arresting, fortuitous choice-but also one that brought to light some disturbing facts. After a brief layover in the Chilean navy town of Puerto Williams, we pointed Ocean Watch west past the sprawling Argentine burg of Ushuaia, then on into the Northwest Arm of the Beagle. The primary feature of this broad waterway is called the Darwin Cordillera, a jaw-dropping range of nearly 8,000-foot mountains that's chock-full of ventisqueros, or glaciers, such as Italia, España, and the most famous of them all, the Romanche.
As in the Arctic, where diminishing sea ice has permitted two-dozen cruising boats to traverse the Northwest Passage in recent years, the ice in the Chilean channels is changing. Of the 48 glaciers in the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, all but two are rapidly shrinking. The rapid runoff from those receding glaciers-the rivers and waterfalls that left us spellbound-are increasingly becoming an alluring prospect for dams and hydropower.
And as Ocean Watch ranged northward up the west coast of Chile, the empty inlets and coves were filled with ever-increasing frequency with enclosed, penned-in salmon farms, the "harvest" therein nourished with pellets of proteins and antibiotics that are causing pollution and infectious salmon anemia. The fish farms are the direct consequence of offshore waters that have been seriously overfished, and the bad news doesn't end there. Seals and whales that were once in abundance have disappeared, and a red tide has ruined the formerly prosperous shellfish yield. For all its remarkable beauty, fragile, gorgeous Chile seemed, in so many ways, dauntingly at risk.
So the last thing the good people of Chile needed was a deadly, 8.8-magnitude earthquake. As far as the quake was concerned, again, our well of good fortune aboard Ocean Watch was overflowing.