Fire and Ice

The fjord region of southern Chile is a heartless place, overwhelming you with unknowable beauty one moment and terrifying you with unseeable danger the next. There is a route that Chilean vessels may take, and warships of certain visiting nations, if the government approves, that provides more of the first and much less of the other. I know it well, have taken on Chilean pilots at Puerto Montt on the southwest coast, or Punta Arenas on the southern tip, nearest the Strait of Magellan, where South Pacific meets South Atlantic, and wise sailors never sleep. I had taken this secret route several times, had followed the secret charts of the Chilean Navy pilots through the southernmost Andes, where 20,000 foot high mountains bounded the sides of narrow passages at depths of 20,000 feet. These last mountains on earth would dwarf the Himalayas, if they could be seen out of the water.

Youthful, as ageless mountains go, their craggy passes broken in knife-like edges and summits pointed as any spire. Cold has never found a better home than within these watery passes. Surely the earth is far colder a little farther south, past the endless army of icebergs that guard Antarctica, but in the fjords just north of the Land of Fire, cold has made a place incalculable, breathtaking in its scope and magical in the vast array of life that it hosts. Picture this: You are sailing with good speed on what every sense, every memory tells you is a placid mountain lake, perhaps somewhere in the Alps, when, looking over the bridge wing, you see a creature swimming by, then another, and another. If this is your first time in southern seas, you might guess that they’re some miniature species of porpoise, little black dolphins hunting fish disoriented by your ship’s passing. But wiser seamen will tell you that they’re penguins, and they swim as gracefully and with as much speed as any bird of the air flies. Looking up, you spot the unbelievable, in this high mountain lake, the dorsal of a whale. Then it takes a roll, it’s killer’s eye meeting yours, and you spot the tell-tale white furnishings of the orca!

The setting of this tale isn’t so sublime, however. No sunny or even overcast day within the peaceful fjords, no glassy calm waters, no penguins, nor gulls, or local fishermen pulling alongside in their boats to sell the giant prawns called langostinos that flourish in these frigid seas. This story takes place just outside of safety, a few miles off Chile’s southwest coast, a scant few hundred miles north of the place where the waters chafe at mixing east and west. It had started as a dark gray day, and the Pacific had forgotten the meaning of its name.

It was past midnight. I tried repeatedly to sleep, exhausted from a long day at sea that had started before 5 am and had lasted well into the evening. But sleep would not come, not even stop by for a brief visit. The ship felt strange, as if all the rhythm that normally inhabited its diesels and pumps and eerily lit sensors had taken on a chaotic beat, a kind of drug-addled syncopation that pushed sleep so far away I couldn’t even remember its name. Knowing this, I sat up, pulled on my khaki shirt and trousers, tied my boots, and made my way up the short passage from my cabin to the bridge. Stopping by the chart house on the way, I asked the quartermaster on watch how far we were from entry to the inland waterway. He shrugged, and the bleary-eyed Chilean officer standing next to him with pencil and dividers in his hands just looked at me sullenly. “The radar’s getting a lot of noise, and GPS reception has gone to shit, so we’re DR-ing it. Dead Reckoning is sailor and aviator speak for making an educated, or sometimes under-educated, wild-ass guess. It’s where you should be, if your ship were moving through the water at the ordered speed and on the ordered course, without regard for what current and waves and wind were doing to foil that perfect plan.

When I opened the door to the bridge, I was greeted with a nightmare….

To be continued, very soon…..

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