Monday, December 24, 2012

Montevideo, Uruguay

Dear friends and family,

In our last email we had just emerged from the low islands at the mouth of the ParanĂ¡ River. It flows into the Rio de la Plata, which on the map looks like a gulf of the Atlantic Ocean but is considered a river because the water remains fresh, and turbidly brown from the runoff of five countries, until well out to sea.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, commences promptly on the south bank of the Rio. Yacht clubs, canoe clubs, and rowing clubs covered the entire waterfront. The Club de Veleros (sailboats) of the suburb city of San Isidro gave us a courtesy moorage.

From here we walked through a posh shopping district to a covered platform thronged with urbanites. When the train came we pressed in and hung onto overhead rails. After forty-five minutes we arrived at a tall station in the classic European style at the northwest edge of the downtown.

Our friend Addison in Atlanta had said that Argentines are Italians that speak Spanish and think they are French. That many are from Italy is clear from the prevalence of Italian foods and family names. As for francophilia, Citroens, Renaults, and Peugeots dominated the streets, which looked Parisian, with their solid flanks of mansard-roofed, seven-story buildings, packed with severe ornamentation. The immense theaters, government palacios, obelisks and statues dated from within a decade or two of the turn of the twentieth century. According to our readings, Argentina then nearly equaled Europe and the English-speaking world in affluence, but this promise faded with the populist totalitarianism of Juan Peron, the Dirty War of the 1970s (in which leftist terrorists vied with government death squads), and the monetary collapses caused by mistaken economic policies. On the Paseo Florida musicians and tango-dancers performed for tips. In the plaza fronting the President’s palace an unkempt band of Falkland Islands War veterans were in their third year of a campout, protesting for denied benefits.

We relished the cool nights and increased vegetable life of the temperate climate, Buenos Aires being as far from the equator as Los Angeles. We learned the quirky buses, trains, and subways. The stamps of twenty countries having filled our passport pages, we had new pages inserted at the American Embassy. At a clinic we got an ultrasound which revealed that our unborn baby is a boy! We will name him George after Steve’s father.


We didn’t intend to go any further south, but we faced two hurdles before we could start returning north. The first was that Brazil requires tourists to spend six months of every year outside Brazil, three of which months remained. The second was that our Honda two-horse motor was still crippled and the parts were unavailable in Argentina due to import restrictions. Ginny’s internet research showed that receiving parts from the States should be easier in Uruguay, a small country on the north coast of the Rio de la Plata. So after twelve days in San Isidro we sailed to the historic Yacht Club Argentino in downtown Buenos Aires, where we savored a week’s courtesy mooring and waited for the right weather to cross over. Two foreign yachts were present, ours and a German sailboat, so the U.S. and German flags flew from the Club’s yardarms, at the foot of which stood a polished brass cannon. The cannon pointed out at the harbor mouth, as if to threaten the ships coming in from sea.

Exiting was a hassle. Immigration detained us for four hours. Inexplicably, their records showed that we had already checked out of the country. Finally they checked us not out, but in. “You have to return just before you leave for us to check you out.”

“But we want to leave at 5:00 am!”

“That’s okay, we’re open 24 hours a day.”

It took three trips to the Prefectura to get their loftily-worded clearance. To reach Customs required taking a bus to a different part of the city, but that kind official emptied out his precious pocket change so we could get back to the boat. You need coins to get on the bus but they are almost impossible to find!

At 3:00 am we trudged about the port district banging on gates and rousing officials. “You gave us the wrong stamp!” Ginny exclaimed to the sleepy immigration official. “You need to put your seal there,” she instructed the Prefecto. We bore their fumbling with pretended patience.

At dawn on November 17, 2012 we motored out of the harbor into a light headwind. The Rio de la Plata was too wide to see across, the waves short and steep. The boat’s pitching caused the propeller to lift out of the water, briefly revving the engine. Every two hours we drifted while replacing the crankcase oil that had burned off due to our misshapen cylinder. A rural coast became visible. The wind changed, allowing us to raise masts and sail into Colonia del Sacramento, a town full of Portuguese colonial ruins and Argentine tourists.

Montevideo, the capital, lay two hundred kilometers to the east. The coast was a succession of forests and farms, surf-less beaches and low black rocks. Small rivers issued from the land. After leaving Colonia we pulled into one such mouth. We passed a ruined wharf, a quarry, a path where cattle came down to drink. The encompassing trees were a curious blend of willows, cactus, and palms. We tied to a branch and fell asleep.

“Something’s wrong,” said Ginny drowsily at 4:00 a.m. Thurston was sloping sharply down at the bow, and tippier than usual. We eased into the cockpit. The tide had dropped, catching Thurston’s skeg (a small keel at the stern) on a rock thirty inches above water level, while the rest floated free. We stabilized her somewhat by removing the masts. There seemed to be no remedy in the dark so we went back to sleep.

In the morning Steve slipped into the dark, chilly water and felt around. We were poised over a scattering of huge, sharp boulders. There was no place to stand and lift. The water reached its low and starting rising again. The Rio de la Plata’s tides are caused more by its mercurial winds, which pile up water one way then another, than by the orbits of the moon, so we didn’t know what to expect.

Unfortunately, at noon the tide started to drop again. The stern was still a couple feet high. We hated to pry it off because it would slide down a sharp ridge of rock, but we didn’t want to wait another day, either. “Okay, let’s do this,” said Steve. We inserted a lever between the skeg and rock and lifted. Thurston splashed into the water with a cracking sound; the skeg we had installed in Guajara-Mirim had broken off. The dense wood sank straight to the bottom. Something else to fix.

As we proceeded east mud gave way to sand. Dunes and pine forests blanketed the shore, reminding us of Washington State’s Pacific coast. Reeds grew thick in the estuaries, where little red fishing boats bobbed at their anchors. Leaving Thurston in a hidden riverbend we walked to a nearby town for groceries and marveled at the clean roadsides and newly-mown pastures, like a Latin Illinois.

On November 27 we entered the Rio Santa Lucia. On the east bank we found a small yacht club. The facilities were few but well-tended. The employees were whiskery men who in their spare time tended ducks, dogs, and caged birds. The members, who came mainly on weekends, had elected as their captain Pancho, a husky retired fishing boat skipper. Pancho gave us a courtesy mooring at a dock that the other boats couldn’t use because the water was too shallow.

From our cozy new berth a five-minute walk took us to the heart of Santiago Vazquez, a town with two grocery stores and a gas station. From here a forty-minute bus ride got us to downtown Montevideo, like Buenos Aires only smaller, less hectic. The Old City stands on a peninsula protecting a large harbor. Here we found the customs building, where we learned how to get yacht-in-transit status, and the historic Hospital Maciel where Ginny got more pregnancy screenings. After spending 20 years avoiding doctors she is making up for it now. Our errands took us on many long walks, with time-outs to sit on park benches and watch people. They seemed like Argentines but with a subtle difference, perhaps as Canadians might be compared to Americans. 

For entertainment we looked for rubber bands along the wide, tiled sidewalks. It was practical as well, because in a small boat you hate to buy a whole package of anything. We also made a game of sniffing for pot-smokers in the plazas, because marijuana is legal here, but we rarely smelled it. Perhaps legalization has made it uncool. We are told that Uruguayan politics make a virtue of compromise. Controversy and crime seemed nonexistent. The president was a leftist flower farmer who prefers overalls to fancy suits.

Back at the yacht club our fellow sailors owned small boats of modest value, but their enthusiasm was keen. One such is El Ruso, so called because of his Russian ancestry. Tall and thin, he has worked as a Vespa mechanic in the same shop for thirty-five years. His wooden sailboat is old but the seams are tight. With him and two other boats we went on a weekend outing up the river. It was the first time since Florida we sailed in company with other boats. The wind was perfect, the boats were tilting, and the variable currents added complexity to our speed comparisons. We rafted up for the night at an uninhabited island. The Uruguayans ignited dry branches and banked the embers so that heat, not flames or smoke, cooked their steaks and sausages.

The Brazilian consulate in Buenos Aires said we couldn’t get new visas until March 5th,  but at Montevideo they issued them promptly. Sometimes you just keep asking until you get an answer you like. The club employees pulled Thurston out on an old trailer so we could fix the skeg and paint the topsides. We await the package that will allow us to restore our outboard motor to health and head back toward Brazil. We stay busy, George included. He practices his butterfly kick in Ginny’s bulging belly.

The heat here seems inconsistent with Christmas, but we nonetheless wish you all the best during your holiday season.

Lots of love,
Steve & Ginny