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Clouds began to stack up, hastening departure from our post-adrenaline lunch break. We rounded a point at the end of San Francisco Island and once again, it was game-on. I stayed close to shore where rebound waves, called “clapotis” in sea kayak terms, sometimes surged me forward. Little crenulations in the coastline provided modest shelter from the torrent. Small headlands brought mini-hurricanes.
At a major point, we gathered for a 50-yard sprint against the tempest. I estimated the wind blowing a steady 40 miles-per-hour, with gusts to 60. A desperate two-minute battle delivered us to the bay, where the wind tapered to a breeze. Darkness was not far off. A beach on the far side of the bay was our goal. Roberto thought a rancho might exist here. If so, we might get a message out on their radio. Diana could get word out to change her flight, or at least call off the impending search for us. We had hoped to be back in Tortel on Tuesday. It was now Wednesday, and we were still at least a day out. And the schedule wasn’t up to us. This wind was making the call now.
We reached the beach at dusk. I was working on a fire when Roberto reported that this was in fact the campo, but it was long abandoned. There would be no radio tonight. Lisa got the tent pitched in a strengthening drizzle. We feasted on pasta and quickly retired to our tents. The staccato tap of rain on nylon droned all night. At dawn it still poured, and the channel looked huge. By 11 am, the deluge tapered. We emerged from our shelters to look out at a channel that remained raucous. The 8-mile crossing that awaited at the end of the island was obviously a no-go, but we had to keep moving. Our food supply was dwindling.
A short paddle down the wind-battered coast brought us to the tip of the island where we camped on a sheltered narrow beach, our tents stacked side by side beside the campfire. I crawled and hacked across a headland to hang Roberto’s yellow Escualos flag from an overhanging coihue tree, so that any passing boats would see it, and hopefully us. When I returned, Roberto had caught three fish. This was a great relief to our building hunger. Again, it rained hard all night.
By morning, the ground beneath our sleeping area was oozing with water. The earth was saturated, and springs were forming right under us. Lisa put on her drysuit and stepped into the steady shower. She returned moments later to report that the channel winds were down. The team began to break camp, but it’s not an easy process amidst Patagonian storm. By the time we were nearly ready, the winds sparked up again.
We remained in paddling clothes just in case the wind died, but we also prepared for another night on the island. All five of us struggled, and finally succeeded, to get a fire going in the soggy conditions. I built a gravel platform to elevate our bed above the water in the tent. Lisa gathered driftwood from a beach across the cove. As Roberto fished stoically in the continuing rain, we gringos sang songs around the fire, exhausting the Simon and Garfunkel songbook before turning our attentions to Roberto’s catch, and another dinner of whole fish soup.
The rain stopped by dawn, and I crept out to see the calmest sea in days. “Hey you guys, I think we should bust a move,” I crowed anxiously. We paddled onto a gentle swell beyond the point as a loud hum approached from the far side of the island. The plane banked toward shore, passing directly over us at 200 feet, and continued flying south. It was obviously a search plane. Clearly, it hadn’t seen us.
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There was hardly a wisp of wind as we
stroked through a small glassy swell. The channel, that huge
intimidating monster, was now a pretty stretch of open water beneath sun
dappled mountains. In two hours, we were on the far side enjoying a bag
of highly-anticipated cookies that had been carefully held under
Diana’s ration key for days. Once the cookies were gone, we turned over
rocks looking for worms that Roberto could use as bait.
Granite cliffs held powerful waterfalls crashing directly into the sea. An old wooden rowboat appeared on shore. We shouted as we passed, but raised nobody. Around the next point, the mystery was solved with a small wood-shake hut at the back of a small bay. Mate’ rounds circulated as a woman with chiseled features and striking black hair slowly spoke, her toothy smile lighting up at our curious comments. She knew the beach where we’d been stranded. She was once there for seven days, she said, waiting on the wind.
After getting a radio message out, which slowly spread uncertain news of our well-being to the world, we took turns warming ourselves by the corner stove. The hut walls were papered with dog food bags, tacked up to shield Patagonian winds that would otherwise whistle through the cracks. Sunlight pierced through tiny windows of plastic and glass. The nearest town, Tortel, required a seven-hour rowboat ride for the woman and her husband. Still, they offered us hot plates of fish and rice. We gratefully gobbled down our first full-size meal in days, and hit the water recharged for the end of our journey.
A police boat motored up the channel. One or two days earlier, I would have welcomed the sight, but now we were so close to finishing I wanted to complete the journey under my own power. But that option had passed. The rescue effort was launched sooner, but the seas and skies were too much for them just as they were for us. We motored into Tortel while chatting with our rescue commitee, imbued with a new appreciation for Patagonian weather, and satellite phones.