We have always enjoyed sailing and decided to buy a boat. We actually signed the contract three years before after much research and many boat shows. We chose a 44-foot catamaran made by Antares. They were a Canadian builder but around about that time moved all their operations to Argentina under new management.
They typically only build four boats a year, so there was a waiting list. In addition, our boat was delayed and was about a year behind schedule. The factory is in the small town of San Fernando, close to Buenos Aires and on the Rio Plata. Although the delays were somewhat frustrating, they gave us an opportunity to explore the area.
Buenos Aires is a city of 14 million people of Spanish and Italian descent. Argentina is a huge country but approximately a third of its population live in Buenos Aires. It has been described as the “Paris “of South America and has much to offer. Most of the architecture is a mixture of European and contemporary. The beautiful Teatro Colon is a world class opera house.
US dollars are scarce in Argentina due to restrictions imposed by the government. This has created a huge black market for US currency. The official rate of exchange was around five pesos to the dollar, but we were getting eight. Hotels could not take credit cards and would only accept local currency. For us his was a huge bonus.
The locals, or “Portenos” are predominantly catholic and are passionate about politics, the Tango, soccer and meat! They have a distinct Spanish dialect, different from other Latin American countries. There were numerous choices of Tango shows and Tango dancing in the streets at night.
The best beef in the world comes from Argentina; however, they don’t export the good stuff. They keep it for themselves. Argentinians apparently consume 127 pounds of beef per person each year.
Bakeries were both ubiquitous and tempting. Their distinct aroma became obvious many yards away and only the strong willed could pass them by without at least taking a look.
One of the most interesting places we visited was the cemetery in Recoleta. There is no doubt that the grave of Eva Peron was a popular site amongst both tourists an locals. Her life story is fascinating and Argentinians hold her in the highest regard. Born Eva Duarte, illegitimate and from a poor family, she became a famous radio actress and later the wife of the president. Affectionately known as Evita, she became a champion of the poorer classes. She died of “uterine cancer” at the young age of 33. Her doctor replaced her blood overnight with alcohol and glycine and she was perfectly preserved for years to come. When her husband died some 20 years later, she laid in state with him, still perfectly preserved. There on her black marble gravestone we noted some of the words of the popular song “Don’t cry for me Argentina”.
Meanwhile, back at the boat factory things were progressing and the boat was ready to be launched. The factory is a mile from the launch site and bringing the boat though the narrow treed streets was a nerve racking experience to watch. Parked cars were moved, trees trimmed and overhead electrical lines were held up with brooms and thick rubber gloves. It was a sweltering hot day, but of course Sheila enjoyed the view from the air conditioned truck that was doing all the manoeuvring! The experienced driver came around corners that did not seem possible. An hour later the boat arrived at the ramp without a scratch and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was quite an emotional experience after the years of preparation.
The latest Furuno touch screen satellite navigation and radar were installed. Essentially everything is controlled by two large 14 inch iPads at the helm. Other luxuries included a generator, air conditioning, washer/dryer, water maker, fridge, freezer, microwave and more. These boats are built for circumnavigation. We did, however, lack good Internet availability, which we planned to install in Trinidad.
Our plan was to head north to Trinidad some 4.5 thousand miles away. A day prior to our departure we noticed a bilge pump to be constantly running. After further investigation it became obvious that there was a hole in one of the keels, which was now full of water. There are numerous public holidays in Argentina and the following day the factory was closing for an extended five day weekend to celebrate Carnival! It seemed like a serious setback but within hours the 29 ton boat was brought out of the water just prior to high tide at 1800 hours. It was a rather remote location close to Tigre, but the factory workers came to the boat with all the necessary equipment. Everything had to be fixed before the tide dropped, otherwise we would have been stranded! Several holes we drilled into the keel and gallons of water drained. By now it was pitch black but a generator provided adequate light. Within a couple of hours the fibreglass repair of a small defect was completed; just in time to catch the falling tide.
True North was now launched for the second time and by morning after a good night’s sleep we were sailing down the River Plate heading for Uruguay.
We left Argentina well provisioned and with a good supply of Argentinian wine. Although I have a British captains’ licence, we decided to hire a local captain for a week. He had done a previous delivery of the same model sailboat and was familiar with all the systems. He spoke Spanish, Portuguese and English. Ricardo Rodriquez “Pikin” is well known in South American sailing circles and the subject of a recent book written by his daughter.
He was a character and we enjoyed his company immensely. He had sailed Tornado catamarans in his younger days, something we both had in common.
We stopped the first night in a small river mouth in Uruguay, Riachuelo. We recognised many boats we had seen at the Yacht Club Argentina were we had stayed for a few weeks.
Our plan was to sail to Pointe del Este at the junction of the River Plate and the South Atlantic . Here we would wait for a low pressure system and hitch a ride northwards. In the Southern Hemisphere the weather systems rotate in reverse order. Pointe del Este is a very popular holiday spot and has great beaches. Unfortunately we had just missed a low pressure system from the south and it looked like we would be waiting for a week for another. We decided to motor sail and press on in spite of the prospects of going against a northeast wind and current.
As soon as we headed north into the south Atlantic, the sea temperature climbed five degrees. It was great to get out of the brown River Plate into clean seawater. We saw lots of sea lions but it was to late in the season to see the whales. Dolphins were constant companions throughout our trip and never ceased to amaze us with their friendship and acrobatics.
We had no Brazilian currency. We assumed they would take credit cards or US dollars.
That myth was soon dispelled when we ran short of diesel and called into a small fishing village. Fortunately, Pikin had some Brazilian currency, which bought us enough diesel to get to Porto Bello. There we were able to get a cab to a local supermarket and change US dollars to Brazilian reales. Practically no one takes US currency and many diesel docks will not take credit cards. We sailed with or without the motor 24 hours a day. We all took watches. Two hours on with 4 hours off. Sheila had been hesitant about night shift but soon adapted.! One night when I came up to change shift she was happily sailing along at 14 knots.
At night, apart from a million stars in the sky, everything was pitch black. Radar was a blessing. We sailed through many fishing fleets taking care to avoid their long nets that sometimes extended hundreds of yards. The larger boats gave us no problem but some of the small wooden local boats did not show up on radar and did not always carry l
ights. They would switch on a light at the last minute and we had a couple of near misses.
A week and 1,135 nautical miles later, we arrived at our destination of Angra dos rios.
Our water maker had failed us and our port engine was burning too much oil.
We resolved these issues at the boatyard in Verolme, the largest in South America. Anything complicated was a challenge as I spoke no Portuguese but they seemed to understand my somewhat limited Spanish.
Angra dos Reis is about 150 miles south of Rio de Janeiro. This area is known as the Costa Verde and is a boater’s paradise. There are over 300 islands, many with sandy beaches and rich vegetation. Many of the rich and famous have homes here and the frequent drone of helicopters announces their arrival. We spent three weeks here and it hardly seemed enough.
We visited Paraty, an interesting port where some of the first African slaves were brought to South America. At full moon and high tide the cobbled streets fill with seawater, creating an unusual appearance. There are numerous shops and restaurants and many very talented artisans.
Pikin left us shortly after our arrival but within a couple of weeks, a friendly face from Cayman arrived. Tom Goodyer from McAlpine agreed to join us as crew for our leg to Trinidad.
Entering a foreign country with a boat always involves lots of formalities and paperwork. In fact, they do not differentiate between huge cargo ships and small sailing vessels.
We have to clear immigration, customs and the coast guard. Often these are three separate locations and miles apart. It usually takes several hours and a few taxi rides. Usually the captain can do this for all the crew. Of course most officials do not speak English.
Due to family illness, I had to leave for a week, which complicated things even more.
Eventually I was able to transfer the captains responsibilities to Sheila and she became the official “commandante”, a title she now refuses to relinquish and I have been demoted to the crew list! Most of the port authorities had never come across a female captain and are always amazed. Of course they keep copying the previous paperwork and never ask to see her licence!
Only on one occasion were we approached by the Brazilian Navy. I was some what anxious when they arrived on what appeared to be a grey gunboat and asked for permission to board. They requested that any women on board come on deck. The tension was soon relieved when they welcomed us to Brazil and informed Sheila that it was International Women’s Day and presented her with roses. They were even kind enough to pose for pictures!
During my absence the crew visited the famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking the bay in Rio de Janeiro. A week later, I returned from England and met the boat in Rio. It has the worst airport I have ever been to, next to no facilities.
There is much poverty and limited use of English. I do not know how they will handle the Olympic Games or the upcoming Brazilian World cup in 2014.
We sailed next day on another 1,000 mile trip northwards against more northeast winds and current. We had 12-foot seas. I was tired, jet lagged, had lost my sea legs and for the second time in my life was as sick as a dog.
By the next day after leaving Rio we were all exhausted. We had battled 12-foot waves all night. Fishing boats that were there one minute disappeared below the waves the next, only later to reappear. We made an unscheduled stop at small fishing village known as Buzios. It had a well protected harbour and to our surprise had now developed into a popular tourist spot. It had a long concrete promenade with bars, restaurants and a variety of tourist shops. After some food, fluids and ice cream, our batteries were recharged and the next day we headed northwards. We refuelled in Vitoria but being low tide we could not get the boat to the fuel dock. We transferred fuel by dinghy, a long and tedious process. Outside the main port, we counted over three dozen large cargo ships lined up to take iron ore to China A little further north the Abrolhos area has Brazil’s largest concentration of offshore reefs, which is now a huge National Park and a popular dive site. The whales come here from Antarctica from June to September to breed. Unfortunately we arrived a little too early to see this spectacle.
The coastal cities we visited in Brazil completely overwhelmed us. We expected to see small towns and fishing villages but instead discovered huge cities with skyscrapers that went for miles. The economy appears to be booming.
Salvador was no exception with an impressive skyline. Here Catholicism lives side by side with the African cults brought in by the slaves. “Oleo de dende” is used a lot in preparing dishes. It is a mixture of pepper and palm oil. Delicious but with laxative side effects.
At night we continued to encounter fishing fleets along with the smaller boats that seldom showed up on radar. Oil rigs were now a frequent site. At night they are well lit often with numerous coloured lights. They take on the appearance of giant Christmas trees in the ocean, a spectacular but unusual sight.
We had planed on checking out of Brazil in Recife. However,it being Easter weekend, customs, to our surprise, was closed. Instead we headed north and west to Fortaleza some 400 miles away.
On Easter Sunday morning we were pleasantly surprised by the arrival of at least three dozen dolphins. We frequently saw smaller groups but never one this large. They stayed on our bow about 30 minutes performing their acrobatic manoeuvres. A truly magnificent experience.
Soon we were in for another pleasant surprise. Changing course from North East to North West the winds were now in our favour. In addition, we picked up the South Equatorial Current. We quickly picked up speed to 12 knots or more over ground. We covered 2,000 nautical miles in 10 sailing days. We kept clear of French Guyana and Surinam as there were rumours of pirate attacks. We were safe being at least 150 miles off shore. We had heard stories of being becalmed in the doldrums around the Equator but we sailed through maintaining over 200 nautical miles per day. This was in spite of slowing the boat down at night with two reefs in each sail.
Trinidad and Tobago were a welcome sight after travelling over 5,000 nautical miles. After sailing down the mountainous north coast of Trinidad we made our way to the Bay at Chagaramus. It seemed like heaven for sailors! So many chandleries and talented people that could fix things. Chaffed sails,canvas repairs, metal work was done either the same day or overnight all at a reasonable cost.
In all our 5,000 miles we did not meet any English speaking cruisers. In fact, we seldom saw any sailboats apart from those moored or docked in marinas.
It was great to hear English spoken again. Within two minutes of arriving in Chaguramous we were recognised and hailed of by our sister ship “Fair Passage.” Our feelings of isolation disappeared and we felt a little closer to home.
The boat has now been hauled out with the giant travel lift and will be stored for the hurricane season. While the hull was in great shape we were amazed by the amount of barnacles that had grown on the propellers and prop shafts. “True North” will take a well earned rest on land until November after which we will continue on with our leisurely circumnavigation.