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South Atlantic - Falklands

With the days growing shorter on 19 March, just before the solstice, we departed from Puerto Williams. We planned to make a couple of stops on our 120 mile trip to the Straits of Le Maire, the gateway to the South Atlantic, between the tip of Tierra del Fuego and Isla de los Estados (Staten Island). Having spent several months doing nothing but coastal cruising, we looked forward with some trepidation to the passages in the area of the Falklands. Several well known sailors have suffered nasty knockdowns, or even been rolled in the seas between Staten Island and about 45S and eastwards to the border of the continental shelf. The Straits of Le Maire have a nasty reputation for suddenly shifting and strong winds with vicious tide rips and seas. We saw it at its most pleasant and had a fast close reach on a neap tide almost all the way to Puerto Hoppner on the northern coast of Isla de los Estados.

We had debated whether to visit Hoppner. Many other cruisers recommended it as a striking Patagonian anchorage and a good jumping off point to head north. On the other hand the weather was fair for the Falklands and might - probably would - change in a day or two. We decided to make one more Patagonian stop. The entrance to the inner cove at Hoppner was even more daunting than advertised, the usable channel being only two or three metres wider than the boat and less than a metre deeper. We made it in with hearts in throats and managed to secure ourselves - after a couple of hours - in the very tight, but secure anchorage. Already the next day, it became clear that we had let ourselves into something of a trap. With a rising NWly and increasing tides at the beginning and end of the day, getting out was going to be a lot harder than getting in. Though there is an outer bay which gives northerly protection, swell still works its way in during stronger NWlies, which are quite common. This swell makes the entrance impassable, even at high water. In the photo, the right hand gap is the entrance - or in this case exit!

 

 

As so often, patience solves many problems, and we made our escape a few days later than we had originally planned. The pay back was a fast passage to Stanley, if somewhat wet and bouncy for the last 50 mile beat up the SE coast of East Falkland. We dropped our hook in Stanley Harbour in the dark and had our first exchange in English with port authorities over the VHF in well over a year. We had to resist the urge to say 'Cambio' instead of 'Over'. We were cleared in on Easter Sunday morning by Robert King, the senior Customs Officer. We soon found that his friendliness and helpful attitude were typical of almost all the islanders we met. We had heard dire warnings about Falklands weather and were perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by our first few days. Easter Sunday in Stanley was exactly as Easter should be in an English village. The sky was pure blue, the temperature mild. Families wandered along the street or picked their way among the upland geese across the green, teenagers loitered in groups - but smiling and pleasant. Groups chatted just outside the 'cathedral'.

 

As we wandered around Stanley, met and chatted with a few people, the universal opinion among both in-comers and those coming from settled Island families was, 'Why would you want to live anywhere else.' Unlike many island communities, it was not aging, there were young people and children everywhere. Perhaps part of the reason people were happy is that virtually everyone was employed, usually in several jobs or roles. The town population is only about 2500, but it has to support the infrastructure of a nation, politically, economically and socially. So everyone has to have several roles and perhaps as a result everyone feels valued. It certainly seemed that way.

You can't talk to anyone in Stanley without mention of the 'war' or 'conflict'. Ironically, those we talked to with military or political connections admitted that prior to the conflict in 1982 there was every likelihood that the Falklands would have been transfered by some process to Argentine sovereignty within a handful of years, whatever the Islanders felt about the matter. Argentina already had a strong hold on and connections with the Islands' economy and the British Government had no particular desire to maintain its administration. The Argentine Junta's attack was a gross miscalculation, both because of the lives lost in a completely unnecessary war and because the Islanders are now adamant that they will never live under Argentine rule. The British Government now takes the view that any change must be by consent of the population on the basis of self-determination. Effectively the attempted annexation of the Islands has meant that there is virtually no chance that they will ever become Argentine. In fact, the country with the closest economic connections to the Islands is now Argentina's old rival in South America. Chile, to whom the Islanders have turned for supplies and air links.

Apart from the 1982 war, the Falklands Islands are most famous for their wildlife, particularly the penguins and its hundreds of thousands of sheep. Keith, a native Islander and former sheep shearer took us to see both. Such treks are not for the potentially car sick, as there are lengthy stretches truly 'off-road' and when on-road you might not always recognise the fact. At the Volunteer Point reserve, you can see three different kinds of penguins. The king penguins are undoubtedly the most attractive and largest. There is a permanent colony on the site, with hundreds of birds and at this time of year scores of fat, beige, dumpy-looking chicks. It is hard to imagine the frankly ugly chicks becoming the elegant adults. On the ocean side of the point there is a beautiful, wide, white-sand beach across which the kings march in groups to the sea to go fishing. It is quite a sight.

 

 

 

 

We had seen lots of magellanic penguins in the Canales, but only in small numbers. Here they were at their breeding site, which is littered with their burrows. Many had already set off on their annual migration, but a few remained to complete their post-breeding moult, looking somewhat forlorn and abandoned, as well as disheveled.

 

 

There was also a large flock of gentoo penguins, standing on what appeared to be a field of down, in fact the detritus from their moulting process. They too were preparing for their migration.

The kelp and upland geese were also a constant feature around the shores of Stanley Harbour.

 

 

 

When you didn't go to see the wildlife, it came to you in a manner of speaking. For several days in a row, we woke to find that the steps up to the dock from our little float were covered in what looked like cooked shrimp, but were in fact lobster krill, the tiny crustaceans on which many whales feed. We were told that there were times when the waters of the Harbour were red with krill.

 

 

Tourism is a steadily increasing aspect of the islands economy. There are now nearly 100 cruise ships a year stopping in Stanley. Though many of them are of the smaller variety, they still have a considerable impact on the economy. The primary source of revenue at present is the issue of fishing licenses for the area around the Falklands. These bring in millions every year. The other primary source of income is from sheep. At one time wool was virtually the only significant source of income, but with the decline in demand for wool, mutton and lamb for export is becoming more important. When Keith took us on a second trip to 'Camp' - the Islanders term for anywhere in the countryside away from Stanley - we saw 2000 lambs being prepared for shipment to the abattoir.

 

 

 

Many Islanders were kind and helpful and we even managed a visit to Government House to have tea with Carolina, the Dutch wife of the Governor General. The two met and were married on the Falklands, the first such marraige of a Governor General ever.

 

 

Having been away from England for nearly eight years, our visit to the Falklands made us somewhat nostalgic for the pattern and texture of British life. Stanley is very like an English village in many ways, with its pubs and fish and chip shop. Of course, it is not necessarily like contemporary Britain, which makes it even more appealing. And then there were things which we could acquire which we missed, such as Heinz Baked Beans and Cadbury's Fruit and Nut. Vicky's major disappointment was that there was no draught bitter and she had to settle for canned John Smiths. The Falklands also must have the highest density of Land Rovers in the world. All this was at a price, literally. The cost of things in the Falklands is generally about 20% higher than in England, which is already vastly higher than any other country in the region. This is partly due to transport costs and partly to the fact that Stanley remains something of a 'company town', where most goods are shipped in and sold by one company, the FIC (Falklands Islands Company).

 We stayed longer in Stanley than we had planned, partly because we enjoyed it so much and partly because we wanted to leave on a pattern of weather which gave us some chance of getting well clear of the continental shelf before the next spell of heavy weather. In the meantime, Bob and Betsy on Belair came in and kept us company while they made a crew change. Much as we enjoyed Stanley and the Islanders, we were glad to get away. Stanley Harbour has few really sheltered spots for yachts to moor and when it blows, which it often does, the wind and seas do shriek down the five mile length of the harbour. In addition, despite the enthusiasm of the Islanders for their home, it is a very small community, even when you include the 2000 people at the Mount Pleasant military base. We also felt that the bleak sameness of the rocky, tussock-grassed countryside would be wearing after a time - quite apart from the still present mine fields.

 

 

 

Our intended passage north to Rio began well, but after a couple of days the weatherfax showed a crush zone developing between a low to the SE and a high to the NW. It was clear that we would be in for a spell of strong winds for 24 hours or so, but fortunately from behind. When they came, we had 45+ knots for a night and part of a day, but with the wind behind, we could take down all sail when we started going too quickly under jib alone. With bare poles we were still doing 5-6 knots. Previously, on our way to Alaska, we had adopted similar tactics, but found that at slower speeds we had more seas boarding from behind. This time the seas did not seem to build as much and so we had a relatively dry ride.

Just when we thought that things were settling back down, Vicky reported that the Monitor's paddle had broken loose. Our first thought was that the break-away tube had gone, but when we recovered the paddle, it was clear that the damage was more serious. A critical weld had failed This was probably not surprising after 70,000 miles of use. Though we carried numerous spares for the Monitor, this was a large piece for which we had no spare and it was not mendable at sea. Clearly we had a choice of hand-steering 1500 miles to Rio or 500 miles to Mar del Plata, where we could, with luck get a repair. It was not a hard choice to make. The remainder of the passage to Mar del was fairly uneventful, though we did heave to for a time when we decided that it was unfair to make Sunstone beat into 25 knots for more than 24 hours in a row. Fortunately Neptune blessed us with some of the elusive Falklands current so that we actually made 21 miles toward our goal during that night. After that we only had to negotiate the 50 strong squid jigging fleet 150 miles offshore before making our landfall.

There is as much serendipitous luck at sea as there is misfortune. Our visit to Mar del Plata fell into this category. Though it is a resort city, the port area is just the kind of working town that we like and out of season the resort is not too bad either. The Mar del branch of the YCA (Yate Club Argentino) was very friendly and welcoming and the marina was well protected. In fact, on consideration, it looked more and more like a good, secure place to leave the boat when we had to return to England in September. On one of our last days in the Falklands we had received the news that Vicky's right hip was recommended for hip resurfacing and that the operation was tentatively scheduled for early October. We made plans, explored the town, got the Monitor part repaired, visited the amazing collection of seashells in a local museum and got ready to head off once more. Though the waves were breaking fiercely on the shoals off the harbour breakwater as we left, our passage to Rio could hardly have been quieter. In an area where NElies prevail, we had Wly or Sly winds all the way, rarely more than 15 knots and mostly a good deal less. We put away our thermals, got out our shorts and started to work on our tans. We sailed past the Sugar Loaf in the dark having first smelled that unmistakeable odour of any modern city - fast food. It wasn't until we woke the next morning that we could take in the visual splendour of Rio's Harbour.

 

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