A Safe Haven

"Passage Notes" from our December 2006 issue

DecPassNotesHP

Cruisers who'd bonded in Mar del Plata, Argentina, were all disheartened to hear that Antoine Duguet was lost at sea while trying to return there from Ushuaia.Vicky Jackson

Certain harbors are crossroads for cruisers, places where boat crews congregate to swap stories and charts and undertake maintenance and preparations before setting off on voyages in different directions. Mar del Plata, Argentina, is one such haven. My husband, Tom, and I arrived in August 2005. We chose Mar del Plata, some 250 miles east of Buenos Aires, because of its safety. For the first time in our cruising life, after eight years away, we were flying home to England. We've lived continuously on Sunstone, our 40-foot S&S, for the past 25 years, and we've cruised some 75,000 miles since our 1997 departure from Hamble, England.

We're always concerned about leaving our boat, but we really had few worries when we left Mar del Plata in early September to fly home. We knew that Luis, Salvatore, and Alejandro would be walking the docks at the Yacht Club Argentino more than twice a day and keeping a watchful eye on Sunstone. We wanted to leave her in the water and be sure of her protection, both from the weather and from theft. Talking to others and having cruised part of that coast, we felt that Mar del Plata is the safest harbor on the whole eastern coast of South America.

The majority of visiting boats pass through Mar del Plata from late November to December. These boats, primarily from Europe, are heading south with plans to cruise the Canal Beagle, the strait that separates the islands of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, then sail north through the Chilean channels before crossing the Pacific. Each season, more cruisers are choosing this challenging southern route into the Pacific. Almost all pass through Mar del Plata, a good harbor and city for boat repairs, food, shopping, and rest. Coming in the opposite direction are those who've already cruised the channels and doubled Cape Horn. Some have taken the relatively easy two-to-three day nip around the Horn from Puerto Williams (the most southern city in the world). Others have really sailed around Cape Horn. We met up with two yachts that had set sail from Australia to round the Horn. After a passage of 6,000 miles, they completed their nonstop voyages at Ushuaia, a large Argentine town on the north shore of the Canal Beagle, before continuing northward to Mar del Plata.

Our stay in Mar del Plata extended into January 2006. The Christmas celebrations were lively, with a diverse group of cruisers representing six nations and cruising boats ranging in size from 21 feet to 59 feet and made from fiberglass, steel, wood, and composite. Three had come north from the Canal Beagle. Two were continuing north, three were heading south, and two-including us-planned to sail east to South Africa. For each of the seven crews, their reasons for cruising, the length of the voyages, their budgets, their experience, and their dreams were different. What was the same was the desire to sail and to voyage, and we mixed together with the ease of a group that had known each other for five years instead of just five days.

Antoine Duguet simply loved sailing. He'd grown up near the water in France. His Moustique was a 21-foot Pogo Mini-Transat that he was singlehanding. At 28, he didn't mind roughing it, and he was eager to pick up some big waves on his way south. Antoine always wore a smile and picked up conversations easily with anyone passing by. His budget was tiny. Over the past two years, Antoine had spent just $200 a month to cover his needs and those of his boat. He supplemented his income selling woven bracelets and necklaces he made on board. He was a romantic who was very much in tune with his small home. With a one-burner Primus cooker, Antoine wouldn't be spending much time below cooking his meals on the passage south toward Puerto Williams. He didn't want to weigh down his light-displacement boat. He carried mostly powdered and dried food-milk, soup, rice, and beans. We all made sure that Antoine had some substantial meals before he left during the afternoon on Christmas Day. Two New Year's gifts-a cake and a can of beer-would have weighed him down for a few days. He told us he'd take no tins or canned drinks. He said, "I'd feel ashamed to be in a bigger, drier boat. While I'm young, discomfort isn't a problem."

Antoine knew he wasn't sailing the easy way. He was doing what he loved, but he was sailing on the edge. Sadly, we learned later from other cruisers that when trying to return to Mar del Plata from Ushuaia, via the Strait of Magellan, he was overtaken by a deep low and 70-knot winds. His boat was found by the Argentine navy, but Antoine wasn't.

There was one couple we'd known from our days in Nelson, New Zealand, back in 2000. At Dickson's Marine, in Nelson, Sunstone had been treated to a new teak deck. Next to us in Mar del Plata, along the pontoons of the Yacht Club Argentino, was Sarau, the elegant, 55-foot cruising home of Malcolm and Joan Dickson. After selling the boatyard, Malcolm and Joan completed Sarau, which has a composite carbon-Kevlar hull, in an apple orchard near Nelson before setting off on their second extended cruise. Malcolm has been a sailmaker and a yacht designer, and both he and Joan have built wooden, steel, and composite boats. Earlier in their lives, on board a 29-footer, they cruised the Pacific Islands with their 14-month-old son. Having worked many years to build up their boatyard, they were now cruising with more space and grace on Sarau.

Sarau, with Malcolm and his son, Hamish, on board, had rounded the Horn the hard way, completing a 6,000-mile passage in 35 days from Hobart, Tasmania, to Ushuaia, arriving there in February 2005. Joan joined Malcolm in Ushuaia, and they wintered in the Canal Beagle, enjoying some calm, sunny, but cold cruising. Like everyone, they had some strong winds heading north up the Argentine coast, but like us, they decided to spend many months in Mar del Plata after their arrival in August 2005.

Sarau was a great party boat, and Joan and Malcolm were always most hospitable when cruisers wanted to gather together. In true cruiser fashion, everyone brought along food and drinks. If we were still awake at 2200, it was time to party in Mar del Plata. The Argentines are night people. They eat dinner at 2230, then go to a nightclub until 0500! There's a good reason for siestas in Argentina.

Roger Adcock's boat was a design we knew well from England, but not one we would've expected to see in the South Atlantic. Herschell is a South Coast One-Design, a timber boat built in 1965 and intended for coastal cruising, primarily on the Solent, the stretch of sea that separates the Isle of Wight from mainland Britain. Roger bought her in Newhaven and kept her in Falmouth. He'd been sailing for the past 25 years, always as a singlehander. He'd cruised in Ireland and twice in the Caribbean before his latest Atlantic circuit. In the previous season, Roger had sailed south down the Brazilian coast, wintering at Punte del Este, Uruguay. Roger was happy puttering on board Herschell and often kept to himself. But when there was a big get-together, he was always present. Like all of us, he enjoyed a drink at the cafe right by the marina. The owner was a young Brazilian woman, so we were treated to that potent Brazilian drink, the caipirinha, made from Brazilian white rum, fresh limes, sugar, and ice. In the hot weather, they slip down far too easily.

Ron Llewellyn, a retired Australian special-forces officer, had worked very hard to make it to Mar del Plata, and he was out to enjoy himself. Another singlehander, he'd set out from Australia in December 2004 after spending two years preparing Sula, a 38-foot Roberts, for this, his second circumnavigation. On February 5, 2005, some 600 miles from Cape Horn, Ron found himself in survival conditions, as a deep low passed close by, bringing 70 to 80 knots of wind and huge seas. In the middle of the night, Sula rolled and was dismasted. We first heard of his disaster the next morning on the Patagonian Cruisers Net, when Sunstone was anchored in Caleta Notch, in the Strait of Magellan. We remember that morning very well: We'd only heard his voice five times before, but suddenly, he was the center of our lives and in our thoughts daily.

Ron reported that he'd been rolled and that the mast was down but retrieved. He said he was OK and trying to sort out the boat to start the engine, which he did. Twice a day, radio contact was made with Ron, and this became an important part of his routine and the routines of all of us cruising in Patagonia. Sula eventually rounded Cape Horn under motor and made it to Ushuaia. Despite his love of sun and surf, Ron had to suffer a winter down south, repairing the damage to Sula, particularly to the mast and rigging. The last we saw of Ron, he was taking up kiteboarding in Mar del Plata and relaxing on the beaches and in the local bars.

Nick and Jenny Coghlan were also on a second circumnavigation, sailing on board Bosun Bird, a 27-foot Vancouver built in 1981. They emigrated from the United Kingdom to Canada in 1981, and they'd set sail from British Columbia on their first round-the-world trip in 1985 on a 27-foot Albin Vega. Nick, a linguist who was fluent in Spanish, was called on a few times to help us beginners when there was a tricky language issue. Over the previous two years, Nick had been the Canadian consul general in Cape Town, where they'd acquired Bosun Bird. We were planning to sail for South Africa, and Nick and Jenny were heading for Puerto Montt, in Chile, from where we'd come. We swapped stories and information over a number of sundowners.

Cor and Petra's Simon de Dancer is a 16-ton, steel, Colin Archer-type ketch. She was built in 1985, and they bought her in 1998. She was in poor condition, and they worked on her evenings and weekends for six years in preparation for their extended cruise, which began in 2002. They cruise until the cash runs out, and they've already been back to Holland for some months to refill the kitty. Cor is an electrician, a skill much needed on board a cruising boat. However, Petra told us, laughing as she did, "He'll never tidy up all the wires on our boat-only on other people's boats." They'd originally thought of going to the Caribbean, but then they decided that Brazil was a must. Dreams of Argentina and Chile slowly took shape. Now they're sure they want to go south. Like everyone in Mar del Plata, they were buying parts and checking their rigging, sails, and engine.
Mar del Plata comes alive a few days before Christmas. By the end of December and into January, the roads are busy, the restaurants packed, and the hotels full. Thousands of Argentines flock from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata, the main seaside resort. There's a wonderful market in the port area, selling superb Argentine beef at a price most Europeans would pay for dog food! Excellent fruits and vegetables are grown on local farms. Whatever was in season was there, and it was cheap. You can choose from a huge variety of wines, too. We even found good-quality French champagne, made under license in Argentina, at $5 a bottle. At that price, special occasions came quite often.

Our plans were to head east, across the South Atlantic, to Cape Town, South Africa. We did our usual preparations, varnishing the hull and just about all of the on-deck woodwork. We checked the sails and the rigging and filled the diesel and water tanks. Tom cleaned the hull and checked the prop. A week or so before our planned departure, we took Sunstone out for a trial sail for the first time in six months. We always feel it's wise to test out the systems on a short sail after she's been tied up for so long.

Many of our Christmas friends were on their way, and it was time for us to be going, too. We left Mar del Plata, on January 26, 2006, with memories of a wonderful stay, sociable parties with the other cruisers, and Argentine friends we'll not forget. Ahead lay our longest passage yet-almost 3,800 miles to South Africa.

Vicky Jackson and her husband, Tom, left South Africa in October 2006 and headed for Western Australia.