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Writer’s Voice–Patagonian Misadventures (#1), by Willi Prittie

by KTNA Staff ~ August 24th, 2014

Willi

In the first of a two-part story, Willi Prittie tells the tale of how two bicyclists and a ferry-load of Chilean truck drivers find themselves stranded on the coast of Chile.

You did what with the captain?” I asked incredulously. I was a little unsure if I had made the Spanish language translation properly in my head! “We locked him in the cleaning closet and took over the ship,” my Chilean truck driving friend explained! “But . . . how did you get off the boat?” I exclaimed.

****

I suppose I ended up here in part because growing up on a rural farm in the foothills of Washington State’s Olympic Mountains, I loved riding the ferries while going on local trips. Washington State Ferries, the Black Ball Lines commercial ferry from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia, the B. C. ferry system, and the Alaska Marine Highway system: I became acquainted with them all as I grew up journeying and exploring farther from home.

 

On these occasions, I spent quite a lot of time observing the ferry-boat crews and how they managed everything. I found it all a rather fascinating process, although I took the speed, efficiency and professionalism of these operations for granted. Or at least I did until I started riding South American ferries.

 

In the early 1990s, Ellie and I began a series of annual long-distance bicycle tours in the Lake District and Patagonia of southern Chile. These eventually culminated in thousands of miles of self-supported bike touring and camping, and the completion of the famed Careterra Austral or “Southern Highway”. This narrow mostly gravel highway traverses very sparsely settled country with only a very few small towns along the way. It terminates abruptly at the world’s third largest icecap, the South Patagonia Icecap. It arguably has some of the most stunningly beautiful road-accessed scenery anywhere in the world as it winds back and forth through costal fjords, rushing river valleys, high passes, glaciated mountains, and giant interior glacial lakes. But I digress, and that is all the subject of a different tale. . .

 

Many of these small, widely separated communities in southern Chile are also served and connected by a very extensive ferry system that we came to know. Our early Chilean ferry experience was on very short crossings in small, open ferry boats. It was later, when we started taking the bigger boats on the longer runs crossing the large bays, sounds, and the open South Pacific Ocean that things started to get interesting.

 

We duly showed up eight hours ahead of time on a rainy, grey day and watched in fascination as the day slipped by while the deck crew and vehicle drivers shoe-horned as many trucks aboard as possible. I found myself thinking that a good Alaska or Washington State ferry crew could have completed this inside of a half-hour!

 

Late for our scheduled departure, we finally left Puerto Montt en route to the important small regional town of Chaitén. This is where we had terminated our bike touring the previous year, and our rough plan for this year was to carry on where we had left off and see how far we could get continuing southbound.

 

The several hundred-kilometer route we were on traversed Reloncavi Sound, the Gulf of Ancud and the Gulf of Corcovado. It is a very scenic area, but as this particular trip unfolded we only had views of dark clouds, heavy rain, and a storm-swept sea-scape.

 

Many of these older ferry boats have very minimal if any lounge space, and they do not have large, comfortable observation windows and spaces. Being on bicycles, we were still very happy being in a dry space given the weather.

The first clue that the weather we were experiencing was not just “normal” bad weather came when the captain announced that we would be skipping the first scheduled stop because the seas and winds were too high to negotiate this site. The next clue came from watching the small TV playing in the tiny galley and cafeteria area that passed for a lounge. All of the local news coverage was of widespread flooding and the risk of many of the few roads that existed in the region becoming impassable. This greatly concerned the boat-load of truck drivers. If they got stuck somewhere and couldn’t make their deliveries, they wouldn’t be paid.

 

We arrived off the town of Chaitén and finally, the boat slowly nosed into the small bay that contained our port of call. We could see that it was a concrete ramp on a sloping beach. Though it did have some protection from the unquestionably bigger seas running just outside the protecting peninsula, there was still a big surf running on this beach. I was out on a steel catwalk forming a good observation walk around the top of the 12-foot-high steel sides, and was fascinated that we actually seemed to be going in, given the conditions.

 

The deck crew started up the hydraulics and began to drop the big, heavy steel bow loading ramp that formed part of the upper bow or front of the ship, but stopped the lowering operation with the ramp still up at about a 40° angle. At this point, the vessel slowed as the captain applied reverse thrust from the two powerful diesel engines through the twin screws. The boat came to a stop and we slowly backed away from the head of the little bay and our landing.

 

It became obvious that there was some discussion going on amongst the officers in the “wheel-house” or “bridge” about the advisability of proceeding with the landing. We held our position for a while stern-to the wind and the big seas rolling in. Then we slowly turned away and started out of the cove. As we approached the unprotected mouth of the little bay directly into the wind and waves, a 40 to 50-foot fishing trawler also came into the bay.

While watching this new vessel approach, I fully appreciated the size of the seas rolling in: A good 30-feet, which also means that there are some substantially bigger. I was personally doubting the advisability of heading back out in these conditions, especially with a partly lowered bow ramp, when we turned back in toward the cove.

 

For a while, we went back and forth slowly in the bay, and eventually I got tired of standing in the strong wind and being lashed by the rain, so I went back inside. I joined Ellie and we talked about what was going on, and about my uneasiness of being out in the heavy seas with the bow ramp partly lowered. I am far from a professional mariner, but I have been off-shore on enough sailboats and fishing boats that I understand very well and have great respect for the power of moving water when the wind pushes up such rolling mountains!

 

I assumed that the ferry-boat captain was waiting for a change of tide or dropping wind or both to moderate the seas before attempting our landing. We continued slowly cruising back and forth in the bay for some hours. The boat would begin to pitch and roll heavily as we approached the open water outside, and then slowly subside as we returned deeper into the bay.

 

And then it happened: Out in the bigger seas, I felt the boat pitch forward sharply as if coming off a much larger wave, then suddenly there were three or so fast large shudders or stutters which racked the boat as all forward speed came nearly to a halt. I looked at Ellie and said, “That was not good, nor is it normal. It felt like we pitched off of a big wave and caught the partly open bow ramp in green water” (green as in deeper, solid water rather than the “white water” of spray or a breaking wave top).

 

I quickly donned my raingear and returned outside to the catwalk to take a look. Sure enough, the bow of the boat was wide open where the ramp had once been! Looking down at the open-air vehicle deck below, I could see about a meter of sea-water flooding it was slowly pouring out, mostly over the now open bow as we pitched forward with each big wave rolling under our hull. “Not good” I was thinking, though this was a serious understatement! Although we were stabilized for the moment with the bridge holding the ferry stern-to the waves under power, here we were on a broken boat on a very inhospitable coastline of a very sparsely-populated region. There were little or no possibilities for actual repairs here. The principal port of the region was 14 or 16 hours under power to the north back across the open sound. . . do that with a vessel missing part of its bow? Even in calm conditions, I couldn’t see that, nor could I see actually off-loading the ferry given the conditions, and the minor detail that now our ferry boat was missing its loading ramp!

****

“What?” the Chilean truck driver asked with a quizzical expression.

 

I repeat, concentrating and trying to use my best imitation of the nearly incomprehensible south coastal Chilean accent, “How did you get off the boat?”

 

“Oh, that was easy,” he explained. “We just ran the boat up on the beach, scrounged a bunch of big planks, and drove our trucks off! When all of you foot passengers left by climbing over the sides on the rescue ferry, the captain decided that they were going to affect a temporary repair by welding some big steel plate over the hole in the bow that the other boat had brought with them. Then we would head back to Puerto Montt with all the vehicles aboard to deal with repairs there. That would have meant at least two weeks of lost income for all of us, and after another night of drinking and cards, we decided to take matters into our own hands.”

 

“Well . . . do you have any idea if you are all going to have trouble over that?” I asked.

 

He shrugged his shoulders and affected a look of unconcern. I wondered, though. In general, Chile is a very developed country, and very correct in its legal and social dealing with its citizens. This is one “developing” country where you do not try and bribe the police or customs and immigration people unless you want to end up in jail! To mutiny and take over an entire government ship here? That seemed to me to be placing a giant target on one’s back. . .

 

“Any idea how long you are all going to be stuck in this mess here?” I ask.

 

Again he shrugs his shoulders. “I hope they get things cleaned up and opened up soon, because I still am not making any money sitting here,” he explained.

****

 

“This mess here” was a closed road—the only road—going out of town, now washed out for miles and with several river bridges also taken out en route. What now?

 

Find out “what now” and how it led to further misadventure when I read part 2 of Patagonian Misadventures.

 

This is Willi Prittie for Writer’s Voice on KTNA Talkeetna.

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