February 28, 2010 – At Sea, 22º 39’S, 074º 59’W
By Herb McCormick
The birds were with us all night long, doing lap after lap around Ocean Watch. It was something to see. Clearly, they were mesmerized by the red and green navigation lights beaming off the bow, for they kept making incredibly close passes, and when they did, the color was reflected off their white wings and bodies. I’d never seen anything like it.
If you happened to be sitting in the left side of the cockpit, as I was, and the mast and bagged staysail on the foredeck obscured the green light to starboard, as they did from my vantage point, all you could see was the red bulb to port. For a couple of hours, I gazed at one frenetic bird after another darting past that light. White bird, red bird, white bird, red bird. It wasn’t two birds, really, just one, silhouetted against a midnight blue sky.
Red, white, and a hint of blue: Like our cherished Stars & Stripes, the color of the Chilean flag. About two hundred miles directly to starboard, the fractured, elongated nation under which that flag flies, was in the nascent stages of picking up its pieces. Obviously, we couldn’t see Chile last night (and frankly, in our cocoon called Ocean Watch, thousands of miles and one very long mindset from the 24-hour news feeds, we know little about how the situation, a day after the massive earthquake, is unfolding).
But we could feel it.
Like thinking, concerned people the world over, it didn’t take much this morning to bring Chile to mind. The Noble Prize-winning Chilean writer, Pablo Neruda, once said of his rich, haunting homeland, that it “was invented by a poet.” Perhaps, but that invention was built upon one of the most tectonically unstable regions on the planet, teetering along the endless western edge of the Southern Americas, with the high Andes mountains to one side and the deep, blue sea to the other…literally between some rock and a wet place. Clearly, Neruda’s poet was bent on anarchy.
Having just left Valparaiso, Chile, four short days ago, we’ve been inundated with email from friends and family, and all is well aboard Ocean Watch. Tsunamis race across the ocean floor with enormous force and energy, and the one that spun off the 8.8-magnitude quake shot across the deep Pacific basin at hundreds of miles per hour. It’s when those depths become shallow, along coastlines and islands, after all that undersea inertia reaches the end of the runway, with nowhere left to go, that tsunamis become deadly. At the surface of the vast ocean, however, hundreds of miles offshore, Ocean Watch sailed safely on.
While we’ve heard and appreciate all those supportive messages, we’ve received just two from the many Chilean friends we previously knew or met during our weeks in the country. From Mauricio Ojeda, we learned what happened at the Club de Yates Higuerillas in the resort village called Concon, just outside Valparaiso, where Ocean Watch was tied up just hours before the earthquake:
“Ocean Watch was lucky to sail. We had troubles at club. Although there was not a violent tsunami in our area, the sea retired after the earthquake, drying out the marina. Boats laid on the bottom of the sea. When the sea slowly came back, the level reached an altitude much higher than normal. Boats floated again, but three yachts were sunk… Piers were affected. But our problems at the club are only of material costs. No casualties.”
Again and again, we ask ourselves: How lucky can we get?
Then, Dr. Cristina Rodriguez, an oceanographer based in Puerto Montt, sent the following message:
“The cities of Concepcion and Santiago are much affected. Also many towns in the coast were highly damaged by the ocean waters and the tsunami in Juan Fernandez Island. More than 147 people died… Puerto Montt is okay, we have food, gas and water.”
It was good news, but there was one line in Cristina’s note that made me shiver.
“In the following days the transport of goods to the south will be interrupted,” she wrote, “as the country is cutted (sic) in two points along.”
White bird, red bird, and a nation cut in half. Just like those birds, Chile isn’t two countries, really, just one. But on many more than a single count – and not only by the physical swath of north/south dissection in the aftermath of the quake – between the casualties and the survivors, the businessmen and the conservationists, the cities and the wilderness, Chile, indeed, is cut along two points. Even before yesterday’s catastrophic events, when it comes to the glaciers, fjords and fast-running rivers in the otherworldly wilds of Patagonia, where commercial interests and environmental groups are at increasing odds, Chile was a house divided.
One thing we want to make clear: We don’t mean to pile on here. Well before yesterday’s tragic events, I’d been planning on writing about what we witnessed as we wandered north so very recently through thousands of pristine miles of intricate Chilean channels. In some ways, admittedly, this isn’t quite the right time to do so. Then again, given this momentous instant in the nation’s history, this fork in the shattered road, maybe it’s the perfect time.
When we rounded Cape Horn in late January, skipper Mark Schrader’s original plan had been to head well offshore before sailing into Puerto Montt. The fierce weather in the deep southern seas had other ideas. As we put the Horn astern, a series of fierce gales were stacking up to the west, so the decision was made to cut back inside and make our way north through the Beagle Channel, the Magellan Strait and the countless waterways and passes that interlink the vast labyrinth of Patagonian canals.
We were much the richer for the detour. The natural beauty of Patagonia left us, at times, truly breathless. It was only as we continued onward, and learned more about what we were witnessing, did we realize there were serious fissures in the outwardly seamless beauty.
As in the Arctic, the ice down here is changing, is disappearing. Of the 48 glaciers in the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields, all but two are shrinking at a record pace. The rapid run-off from those decreasing glaciers – the rivers and waterfalls that left us spellbound – are increasingly becoming an alluring prospect for dams and hydropower. And as we ranged northward, the empty inlets and coves in the south were increasingly filled with enclosed, penned-in salmon farms, the “harvest” therein nourished with pellets of proteins and antibiotics that are causing pollution and infectious salmon anemia.
“The industry’s solution (to these intensive production methods) – even as output falters – is to move south into pristine fjords, leaving behind waste, disease and oxygen depleted water,” is how National Geographic magazine describes the process in an article entitled “The Power of Patagonia” in its current issue. The steady movement southward by the salmon industry, notes author Verlyn Klinkenborg, is “a source of economic opportunity and an environmental plague.”
Why oh why, does one so often depend on the other?
“Over the past century the indigenous inhabitants have dwindled,” continues Klinkenborg, noting that the seals and whales that were once in abundance have largely disappeared, and that, “a red tide plagues the mussels that once sustained the fishing economy. The Alacaluf Indians, who once hunted and fished here, have dwindled to a handful of disconsolate souls in Puerto Eden, a place whose only Edenic quality is its distance from the rest of the world.”
We pulled into Puerto Eden for fuel, a “town” in name only, existing strictly on government subsidies. We conducted our business quickly and unanimously agreed, if we ever get back this way, the chances of finding Eden still standing were exceedingly long.
Remarkably, Chileans don’t even profit much from the salmon farms, which are largely owned by Norwegians. And as National Geographic points out, most of the water rights on the major rivers have also been sold to foreign corporations. Even then, critics of the potential dams that might be built say they are redundant in a country with abundant renewable energy potential, and “running transmission lines from these dams to Santiago will require a clear-cut more than a thousand miles long.”
But “the gravest danger to the Chilean fjords is, of course, climate change, which threatens to alter the rivers that depend on (the) glaciers and upset the balance of salt and fresh water in the inner fjords,” concludes Klinkenborg.
Those glaciers, of course, are endangered species in their own rights.
Given all those considerations, on top of the earthquake, it’s one heck of a time to be breaking in a new president, but that’s the other thing in play in Chile. The wildly popular (and populist) seated president, Michelle Bachelet, was in charge of the crisis in the hours afterward, and we mean in charge. She declared the country was in “a state of catastrophe” but made it abundantly clear that Santiago was not Port-au-Prince and she was not asking for outside assistance. “The systems are working,” she said. It was what the people needed to hear.
No one wanted Bachelet to go – her approval ratings hovered around 75 percent – but that’s Chile, where presidents get four-year terms, then are bid “adios” (though they may run again in the future). Into the breach steps Sebastian Pinera, a conservative, billionaire businessman and the country’s third-wealthiest citizen, the first right-leaning candidate elected to the highest office since the fall of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s murderous regime in 1990. It’s one tenuous time to be handed the keys to the family jalopy, but come what may, it’s Pinera’s turn to drive.
In any event, we on Ocean Watch saw the real future of Chile during our recent visit, and in the true long term, Bachelet and Pinera have little to do with it. It’s the children that will come forth to build on the foundation – or clear out the rubble – that this current era of politicians will leave behind. Our onboard educator, Roxanne Nanninga, conducted workshops with lots of local kids near our berth in the coastal town of Concon, and dozens more wandered through the boat with their families during a couple of Open Houses and tours. They were smart and independent, friendly and outgoing, and if those youngsters are any indication of what the future holds, Chile will be just fine.
Or, really: Will it? There’s so much at stake. Ironically, of course, in the midst of mayhem there’s almost always opportunity. What forms will that take? Who will prosper? Who will fall?
In the weeks, months and years ahead, Chile will rebuild itself; having met scores of Chileans, of that there is no doubt. As it does, the presidents and the populace, the executives and the ecologists, will all have to make hard choices as they attempt to answer those very difficult, very crucial questions.
Today, Chile is more than two countries – it’s the scattered sum of too many busted parts. In countless ways, it’s a nation torn asunder, a poem without rhyme nor reason. So take a moment to think fine thoughts for wonderful, fragile, broken Chile.
It needs to be made whole.
-Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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