It’s the middle of winter. The days are short and the nights are long; sometimes it seems as if the sun has scarcely risen before he is sliding back down and is once more entangled amongst the cold, naked trees.
At daybreak the river is shrouded by a skein of fog, like wet wool, and heavy droplets of water rain from the rigging, hitting the deck above my head with the sharp tap of falling nails. But there’s seldom a frost, and there won’t be any snow; the wind chills our cheekbones but it never cuts like a knife. This is not the mean and heartless winter of higher latitudes – and, in fact, we’re no further from the ever-sunny tropics than if we were in Morocco or Florida. However, we’re not “up there”; we’re in the other hemisphere. While most of our readers are sweltering in the sun in Europe and North America, we’re snugged up in woolly hats on the Rio de la Plata.
Cold weather cruising
It’s been a while since we had to live through a whole winter, and this is Mollymawk‘s first without electricity on tap. True, she’s endured a few Spanish winters, but during the coldest ones we were plumbed into a marina. Being unaccustomed to having to cope with 0° Celsius we aren’t ready for it – of course.
So what the heck are we doing down here? Did we finally get bored of Brazil’s everlasting summer?
Indeed not! – we could never tire of lounging around in a state of undress without ever feeling chilly – but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. If we want to go south to Tierra del Fuego we’re going to have to get used to cold cheeks, numb fingers, and all these layers of clothes.
The worst thing of all is having to wear shoes!
So far as yotties are concerned, the coldest thing about the Rio de la Plata is getting here. The further up the river you go, and the further inland, the more sheltered, but while you sit in that gaping mouth you’re exposed to the icy winds which whirl their way up from the Southern Ocean. Our journey down the coast from Brazil saw us making a step by step transition from birthday suits, via T-shirts and shorts, and then jumpers and jeans, through to the full Arctic wardrobe. By the time we were off the coast of Uruguay we were wrapped in as many layers as the parcel that gets passed around at children’s parties. I felt like a toddler dressed up to play in the snow; I could hardly bend my arms and legs. As for my feet – they were so accustomed to open air living that they still haven’t quite adjusted to the clumsiness of confinement. Four months into the adventure, I still trip over things.
The end of the world is nigh
The cold isn’t the only enemy in this part of the world. This slice of the ocean is notorious for its south-easterly gales and Pamperos – violent squalls which can hit with sufficient force to knock a boat down. We had three of these on our journey south, and in one the pressure fell 12 millibars in under half an hour. For those who are not au fait with such things – according to accepted weather lore, a fall of 6 millibars in 3 hours is supposed to denote the approach of a strong wind (force 6), a drop of 10mb in 3 hours denotes a gale (force 8), and 15mb in 3 hours foretells a storm (force 10). We’ve never before seen the barograph trace a vertical line… and so we assumed that the sky was going to fall on us. In the event we “only” got a force 9, and compared to what we’d been fearing it seemed like a stroll in the park.
Why on earth would anybody want to give up the warmth and easy sailing of the tropics for this kind of deal? Well, there is one big compensation to the life on the Southern Ocean wave: the abundance of sealife makes being on watch a real pleasure, even if it does entail donning full battle-dress.
A smooth brown head emerges from a nearby wave, and a sea lion gazes up at us in puzzlement. A tight little flock of black and white ducks turns out to be a family of nervous-looking penguins, who go porpoising away from the bow.
Of course, the thing we all like best to see is a whale spouting beside the boat, and last year, as we approached the mouth of the River Plate, we had two – two minke whales which surfed alongside us, and in the waters nearby, for almost three hours.
When the wind is up and the tall waves limit the range of our visibility these water-borne creatures are hard to spot, but still we are not alone. When the wind is up, that’s the time when the birds come to fly around the boat.
Great shearwaters sheer effortlessly over the water and skim past our transom.
A tiny storm petrel flits away from the bow, like a swallow darting about in pursuit of flies, and is lost amongst the tumbling waves.
Best of all, so far as we are concerned, are the yellow-nosed and black-browed albatrosses, or mollymawks. Swooping and soaring over the ocean with majestic grace, they make even the efforts of a champion kitesurfer or a Spitfire pilot seem clumsy. Happily, they like to make their namesake the centre of their existence (as do the shearwaters), and once they have found the yacht they will remain in our vicinity, day after day.
There has to be a reason why so many birds and animals congregate in this area, and the reason is the usual one: they’ve come here in order to eat. The birds, the whales, the sea lions… they all belong to a web whose foundation is an abundance of plankton brought to the surface by the coastal current. Each night, as we travelled south, our wake was a luminous train, and phosphorescent scarves streamed from the bow on either side.
The creatures which cause these illuminations are more or less invisible. Hauled aboard in a bucket of water they quickly turn out the lights and go back to sleep, and on sieving the content carefully all that one finds is a few tiny, transparent blobs of jelly.
The last day of the journey south to the Rio de la Plata found us clawing our way along the Uruguayan coast in a gale, and on that moonless night the sea was brighter, by far, than the sky. Its whole surface had been stirred and shaken and tossed about, and millions upon millions of miniscule creatures had been excited. The waves, tumbling all around us, flashed torches into the darkness, and the ones breaking under our bow lit up the genoa.
It was an awesome spectacle – in the true sense of that much abused and overworked word – and despite the fact that we were shivering in our thermals and moreover, were fighting to stay off a lee shore, it was impossible to feel anything other than elation. Well, that’s how we felt about it, anyway. Some friends, travelling south at the same time, found the whole thing “very spooky”.
Punta del Este
The first place that one comes to on reaching the mouth of the Rio de la Plata is Punta del Este. But for a short period, at the height of the southern summer, it’s a cold and windy hole.
In olden times, sailing ships used to anchor about half a mile west of the “punta”, off the place known as Maldonado, but now a big sea wall jutting out from the point itself provides shelter for a fleet of yachts berthed in a marina.
Welcome to Uruguay
We anchored just outside the marina, and on rowing ashore we were accosted by the Uruguayan Prefectura (or maritime police). “Stop here!” they barked. “You are not wearing lifejackets! This is an offence!”
For the next fifteen minutes we stood and waited while the Prefectura stood guard over us. Eventually another officer sauntered up, with a pad of forms in his hand. Having heard that we had only just that moment set foot in the country he decided to be lenient. He took the skipper’s details and issued us with a written warning to the effect that if this ever happened again the dinghy would be confiscated.
Racking my brains, and considering our experiences over the past 25 years, I cannot think of any other occasion when we have been made so spectacularly unwelcome in a country! Nor have we ever been anywhere else where the wearing of lifejackets is mandatory – although I gather that there are such places.
Make yourselves at home
The welcome may have been lacking in warmth, but clearing into Uruguay was a doddle – although it did take three days to achieve. This is one of the strangest things about cruising. If you arrive in a country by air then you must wait behind the fence until your passport has been checked, and so forth; but arriving from the sea under our own steam we enter the house as if by the window and must then go seeking to find the door.
“We’ve come to clear in,” we told the immigration officer, having located her office and (eventually) found her in attendance.
“No problem,” she said, “but first you’ll need to go into town and get eight photocopies of each of your clearance paper; and you’ll need to change some money before you can do that.”
Yes, even before we had entered the country we were at liberty to roam around; indeed, we had instructions to do so!
“But it’s Sunday,” we said. “Will anywhere be open?”
“Maybe… You can go and have a look. And if they’re shut you can try again on Monday.”
The rich man’s Benidorm
For about 100 years now Punta del Este has been popular with the Argentinian jet-set who come over here for their hols and park their yachts in the marina. Why they like the place so much, we cannot imagine. Perhaps it’s just that little bit warmer than Mar del Plata, the seaside resort on their own Atlantic coast.
Quite the best thing about Punta del Este is the tree-covered island off-lying the town. It doesn’t boast any seal rookeries or shelter any endangered species, and its pines and eucalyptus are probably not indigenous, but it’s the only vestige of nature which remains in this neck of the …er… woods, and after a week walled up against the concrete tower-blocks of the holiday resort we found ourselves clutching at its greenness.
So far as visiting yotties are concerned, Punta is far from being the perfect hang-out, because it is open to the south-west. The video, above, shows Saoirse Mor bucking up and down in a west-sou’-westerly force six. We weren’t bucking up and down quite so much as our friends – it takes a lot to make 28 tons buck up and down – but it certainly wasn’t the quietest night we’ve ever passed at anchor.
When it comes down to it, the whole of the Uruguayan coast between Punta del Este and the town of Colonia is open and exposed, and even where there are ports their walls do not provide complete, 360 degree shelter to vessels moored without the city walls. Thus, every quiet-seeming nook is a potential lee shore.
During a fortnight spent anchored off the seaside town of Piriapolis we endured two westerly blows, and we passed one very exciting day and night with our bow plunging in and out of the waves. The anchor chain sliced up and down, carving a foamy line on the sea.
There’s a marina at Piriapolis – but marinas cost money and tramps like us don’t have a lot of truck with that stuff. “Besides,” we reasoned, “if things get really bad we can always slip inside at the last moment.”
In the event, by the time we’d decided that we ought to take refuge it was too late. Fooling about with the anchor while the bow was performing like a fairground ride would have been asking for trouble; and so we just had to hang in there and hope that Brucie (our hook) would do the same. It’s amazing what a small lump of cast iron and a slender half-inch chain will put up with, in the way of heaving and tugging!
There being no scope for anchoring in or near to the capital city, we pushed on – in the fog and another stiff little breeze – past Montevideo. A cursory inspection showed the port of Sauce to be an uninspiring little corner – it is overlooked by a paper factory which fills the sky with stinking clouds of smokey steam – and so we passed that by too, and continued along the coast until we reached Colonia.
Colonia is a lot safer than Punta or Piriapolis, because the leisure port – which is the old, original port – is tucked behind a point. I guess that’s why the founding fathers of the nation chose this place for their first colony. There’s now a detached mole (or free-standing wall) on the exposed side of the point, but this is not the place for the likes of us; it caters for the ferries which tie a thread between Uruguay and Argentina.
On a previous visit to Colonia, 18 years ago, we moored on the inside of the old seawall which shelters the leisure port, but this time we decided to save money by anchoring off. Unfortunately, most of the space is claimed by the municipality as being part of the said port, and by the time we were outside their territory we faced a quarter of a mile row across some fairly rough waters to get ashore!
Colonia is quite the most attractive of the three Uruguayan towns. Being old and scenic – with attractive houses, antique cars, a light house, and a half-ruinous citadel wall – it is very popular with sightseers, but (unlike Punta or Piriapolis) it is also big enough to cope with this influx and yet retain an identity as something more than a tourist town.
While we were anchored here another pampero came through, causing us a certain amount of anxiety…
Somebody once gave me a photo of a massive waterspout bearing down on the harbour. All in all, Uruguay is not the most ideal or relaxing venue for yotties.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the river…
If Uruguay is lacking, in terms of anchorages, Argentina is utterly bereft. Well, not quite utterly; but there are only two options that we know of between the aforementioned Mar del Plata (which is some way outside the river-mouth, heading south) and the suburbs on the western, upriver side of Buenos Aires.
The first of these is La Plata (not to be confused with Mar del Plata…). Here – or to be more exact, at the nearby town of Ensenada – one can drop the hook in the placid but very mirey waters of a man-made ditch. The place is home to three commercial wharves, the navy, and a shipyard which turns out bulkers and the like; so it’s not exactly scenic or tranquil, and there’s not a lot of space. A dredger operating in the mouth of the canal spreads a chaotic network of rusty steel pipes over the surface of the water, further adding to the congestion; and on the opposite shore there are diggers and graders trundling about, building what appears to be a fourth commercial wharf; or perhaps it’s the site for an industrial complex.
Turning right at the canal crossroads and passing through the shadow of the giant vessels decaying in the shipyard, one comes upon a sports club – the Club de Regatas La Plata – whose immense, three-story clubhouse seems to have been designed to look like a steam ship. It has a distinctly 1950s look to it.
The first time we anchored off this club everybody was very friendly, but on the second occasion, this winter, they wanted to charge us for the right to walk across the lawn to the public road. This seemed a little bit mean… but, then again, not everybody wants tramps like us walking across their private property. Having considered the matter we decided that it was fair enough – until we learnt that they wanted 10 US dollars per day! (about 8 Euros)
The only other place where one can get ashore is via a patch of wasteland, under a barbed wire fence, and through the premises of the Falkland Islands War Museum.
Eventually, after we had been anchored off the club for a week, it transpired that somebody in the office had made a mistake. According to the commodore, foreign visitors do NOT have to pay for the privilege of walking across the lawn, and we are also welcome to leave our dinghies on the jetty.
It’s nice to have that sorted out – because, as I say, everybody was very friendly on our last visit – but by the time we received the glad tidings we had already decided to move on.
We weighed anchor and, with the hook, brought up 17 plastic bags, several plastic bottles, one boot (size 8) and a small tree.
Up the coast we went, past Buenos Aires, until we reached “the delta” – a vast network of creeks and alluvial islands which fringes the western suburbs of the city. Here, we left behind the life on the salty ocean wave, and left behind worries about pamperos and south-easterly gales and whether the hook would hold through the night. And we became river dwellers.
This is the first article in a series of three about the Rio de La Plata. Click here to read the next part!