Friday, January 27, 2012

Fin del Mundo

Early in the morning on New Year's Eve 2011, we happily left Buenos Aires, flying South on Aerolinas Argentinas to the "southernmost city in the world".  Ushuaia.  Capitol of Tierra del Fuego, South America.  As we boarded the B737, Winnie presented the lead flight attendant with her card, identifying her as a Delta Airlines captain, and then we proceeded to our seats.  About 2 South American minutes later a very nice (and very young) Captain came back, apologized that first class was full, but assured us that next time we met, he'd again try to upgrade us.

Two and a half hours passes a Lot faster when you're excited and anticipating the commencement of your next big adventure.  The aircraft descended VFR between the mountains of the southern end of the Andes, lower, and lower... until

Ushuaia Airport, Fin del Mundo

we completely ran out of land.  WELCOME TO FIN DEL MUNDO came over the p.a. system in 4 languages.

Ushuaia, Argentina
There's very little business in Ushuaia that isn't related to tourism.  It's a good looking little town that reminded me of many of the small towns in Southeastern AK.

Lupines are the native flower, and grow wildly anywhere they can find a few inches of dirt.

We endured an endless briefing at our hotel about our impending morning expedition.  They were mentioning some stuff that we'd need to know on board over the next two weeks.  I think that Winnie was listening.  Or something.  I just wanted to get down to the docks and check things out for tomorrow's sailing.  I wanted to be first in line!

Yea!  A "Welcome to Ushuaia Port" sign with "Puerto Y Puerta a la Antartida" on it.  We're getting warm!  And it seemed to be less than a metre from the "U R Here" (Ushuaia) arrow, across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.  Heck, we'll be there in no time.  What could Possibly go wrong?

Okay, Winnie, we go this way tomorrow.  I got a grip on things.  I am in control.  (Oh wait, that's been said before, I think.. so.. well, uh, nevermind.  I never liked that sumbitch anyways.)  

Then I noticed this sign, indicating a little, teeny, tiny, itty bitty hint of the spirit of cooperation between Argentina and Great Britain... :
Check out the last paragraph.  More about that later.  But, hey, the sign was old and I was pretty sure that they'd probably worked everything out by now.  

So again, nothing's going to rain on our parade.  Train's on track, full head of steam, and then we met:
The Captain of the Sea Spirit
Captain Fran Cisco Schittino.  Nyaah, not really.  This was just some guy I met in this dark, quaint, Argentine bar.  I left after one drink.  His personality had a kind of woodenness to it that made conversation a bit awkward.

Paraphrasing Snoopy the author... "It was a dark and sleepless night..."  but FINALLY it was sailing day!  The Expedition was going to begin!  (I did Snoopy's happy dance.)  Winnie and I raced down the dock to...
You can see a small Customs and Immigration station in the background.  It has a gate that swings up and down.  And a very important uniformed officer in charge who operates the gate.
Us:  "Sir, do we need to come through here to get to the Sea Spirit?
OIC:  "Nah, mate, I think the gate over there is still open.  Just go through there and 'ang a right. then a left."
Me:  "I'm good with that.  Buh-bye."

And then we come upon our home for the next two weeks.  The Sea Spirit.  
The Sea Spirit
The first order of business:  setting sail.  Or whatever you call it for a motoring vessel.  Winnie's the boat person, not me.

18:00 - Cast off

18:30 - Mandatory Lifeboat drill.  I think that they do that on all the better cruise lines.  Like Costa, for example.

Luckily, we were able to find our life vests (very important, in the -1C water, it helps the Coast Guard find you and save you... if it's say... oh, I donno... LESS THAN 3 FREAKING MINUTES!) and don them correctly... and find our life boat.  I think that if it were obviously going to be more than three minutes, I probably wouldn't don my "life" vest.  Pardon the expression.  I think that I'd rather just make my own personal contribution to the food chain.  Does your next of kin get carbon credits for that, or just your Senator?

19:00 - Dinner in the restaurant on deck 2.  Little did I suspect that this would mark the beginning of the road on my long, long, trek to the Betty Ford Food Clinic after my return home, and the embarrassing, but absolutely necessary first step... I am so afraid...  "Hello folks.  I'm one of Bill's friends.  And I'm a foodaholic."

20:30 - Parka and boot distribution.
We got some bright yellow parkas, with fleece zip-ins (from my favorite outfitter, Columbia), and lined up for gum-boots.  Why boots?  Well, statistics show (and, mainly, cruise line income shows) that if you wear your own boots through all that pink penguin poop... no matter how much you try to clean them... if you pack them up to take them back home.. bottom line... everything in that particular suitcase is going to smell like penguin shit for the rest of its life.  And that's no... well, you get the point.  The good news:  those gum-boots were Really comfortable, warm, and dry.  And very light-weight.  No need for two pairs of socks until the temps drop to around -15C.  Or so.  Love those boots.  I'm going to buy some for WA state.

Good bye, Argentina
After, supper, it's good bye Argentina.  We're finally heading South on our expedition.  The excitement is still high, but there's maybe a teeny bit of trepidation, too.  Where we're heading is a helluva long way from home.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.  If we don't got it now, there ain't no convenience stores for the next two weeks.

Beagle Channel
Finally, heading down the Beagle Channel, sailing in the last calm waters for a bit.  We spent the last hour of our evening securing everything in our cabins in case of heavy seas in the Drake Passage tonight.  Locked down tight.  What could possibly go wrong?

The last mountain coming out of Beagle, at the end of the world.  Time for bed?  Yep.  One scotch (open free bar, whole trip) and head for the rack.  I closed my eyes and thought of the fun rides to come on the Zodiacs strapped onto the back of our ship... and the crew's admonition that "all landings will be wet landings".  Can hardly wait.

Next, Mid-night in the Drake Passage.

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