THE long pier in Punta Arenas, down near the bottom of the world, is under the control of the navy, the Armada de Chile. To get to our boat, we have to pass through a gate manned by sentries. Today they salute us gravely, thoughtfully. They are tough guys, these sentries, and they think we are perhaps a little mad.
In an hour or so the 70-foot yacht on which we are embarked will slip her lines and turn away south into the Beagle Channel, bound for Cape Horn and the great ocean beyond.
Now, on the brink of setting sail, I still can't give a proper answer to the simple question, why? What am I doing here? It isn't terribly sensible for a man in his mid-fifties to be setting out with 10 strangers to sail a boat through the wildest waters on the planet, around Cape Horn, up to the Malvinas/Falklands and then out across the stormy expanse of the southern ocean, a trip of 4,500 miles.
One last time I wonder what it will be like, whether I'll be able for what's to come. A bit late for hesitation, I tell myself roughly, better get on with it. And that, in essence, is what the trip proved to be about: getting on with it.
Mooring up at night in small coves off the Beagle Channel we tie to the land with four strong lines -- 70mph winds come barreling off the mountains here, no boat would be safe relying on anchor alone. But, we sleep soundly. We sail down channel past glaciers falling to the sea, with snow-capped mountains to the north of us, low green and brown hills to the south, it's like sailing between Switzerland and West Cork. All very matter of fact. And then we round Cape Horn, that graveyard of ships. I find this in my notes:
"Impossible not to think of them all, the ships that have foundered here and gone down, down forever into the lightless dark. Impossible not to feel bone deep cold somewhere inside at the press of those lives smashed under here in terror and cold, in great bellows of despair, in whimpers and roaring curses. And we plunge on, the wind from behind us beating our faces if we look astern, muttering and silent, whooping and silent, all of us here together, with and for each other, crossing some line here, each of us breaking through into some private lightening of the spirit that we will never be able to name, never again be able to let go."
And so we round in a full force 10, secretly glad that it's blowing hard, that in some way we'll have a memory of being tested and passed.
I have another reason for being here. My great grandmother died in childbirth here, and in some sense I've come here to the bottom of the world to pay my respects, in keeping with the ancient Irish tradition of visiting your dead. No flowers down here, so in place of a wreath I've brought a small Irish tricolour, in the corner of which I've sewn a handful of coins. To pay the ferryman.
"I hold the small flag for a moment over the turbulent wake and then open my hand. I open my hand and let it go. A long time she's been turning down there in the cold and the dark, Great grandmother, mother of us all, the long line of us coming down to now, your mother before you, and her mother...
"And here I am, I whisper, here I am, named for my grandfather, your son who survived, but unhoped for, I'm sure of it, in your last moments. How far it must have been from your thoughts, that one of us would come back, that some day one of us would come here to claim you." But this isn't the first time an Irish flag has been carried through these waters. In 1923 Conor O'Brien, the first Irish sailor to circumnavigate the globe, flew the tricolour in these desolate wastes.
O'Brien, with his sister, had landed rifles in Wicklow at the same time as Childers landed rifles in Howth. He sailed into the Malvinas/Falklands under the flag he'd served in the War of Independence.
Sailing into Stanley under the guns of HMS Liverpool, Tony Macken from Cork is on the helm; we raise the tricolour in memory of O'Brien -- and perhaps also from a momentary sense of mischief.
That this bothered nobody becomes clear when we find ourselves invited to drinks with the governor a few nights later. Howard, our new best friend, is an affable chap and pretty blunt for a diplomat.
Tell me, I ask, we know Argentina's Galtieri needed a war, we know Maggie needed a war, but what was it really about? His reply is prompt: oil. "Big oilfields down here, especially around South Georgia. With us, you see, you always have to follow the money."
I tell him about the two pieces of advice Paula gave me before setting out: "Stay in the boat", she said (pretty sensible advice, says Howard), and, "Don't you be talking politics in the Falklands", she said.
"Ah", says Howard, "would you like to call home?"
"Having a fascinating political discussion here", I tell her. "Oh dear Jesus" she says, "tell me you're not in the pub?"
"Actually, I'm calling from the governor's house" I tell her smugly, "Howard insisted I call you." A short silence, and then: "Who's Howard when he's at home?"
Truth to tell, we have little idea, heading out and turning north by east, how desolate the next stretch of ocean is going to be. For the next 21 days we'll be battered and bruised, shattered from lack of sleep, taking watches of four hours on, four hours off.
We'll start to forget there is such a thing as dry land, the infinite ocean will become the only reality. The open ocean is never still; day and night we'll endure the howl in the rigging, we'll be cooking, working and sleeping in a boat that never stops lurching, ploughing under, shuddering, rising and falling, twisting sideways and up and down and over, all at the same time.
Every now and then, one of us will turn to the others and ask, "Is this meant to be fun?" The truth is, of course, and this is almost impossible to explain, we are enjoying ourselves immensely. It's an endurance test, for sure, but our motto has long since become "shut up and sail the boat", and we find, to our own amazement, that we're well able for it all. Even for the inevitable big storm.
We're somewhere halfway between the coast of Argentina and the coast of South Africa, way beyond hope of rescue, when the wind builds to 70-80mph, the seas rolling in on us are 12 metres, twice the height of an average house. It's dark, the small hours of the night; we're exhausted and, at the same time, hyper-alert. Afterwards, I'll try to describe the experience in my notebook:
"Big walls of water are roaring back the deck, one after the other, a bright green waterfall smashing up from the angled windscreen, roaring across the roof over our heads, crashing down to each quarter and then off.
"As we roll we ship great weights of water, now portside, now starboard, now we're not on the water, we're in it, coming sometimes up for air -- but the air, too, is washed through with water, a thin grey aerosol of water and foam, you know you can't breathe that stuff."
At some stage a great unexpected wave comes roaring in from the side and hammers us flat in the water, the tip of the mast going under.
The boat hangs there a moment and then snaps upright and sails on, ploughing ahead like the big strong beast she is.
Looking back on it now, what strikes me most is that never for a moment did we lose faith in the skipper, the boat or ourselves. Somehow, it never occurred to us that we'd lose our way, the boat, our lives.
And we didn't. We kept her going, standing in to the work, and when the dawn rose on Cape Town's harbour, 21 days out of Stanley, everyone there on deck felt the same thing: we were glad to be in, each of us glad to be heading home at last -- but somewhere inside ourselves, each in their own way, profoundly sorry to be leaving behind that vast, turbulent ocean of dreams.
Sometimes, sitting by the fire, I think I left something of myself out there, some other self perhaps, and I wish him well, I wish him fair winds on his eternal voyage.
Time on the Ocean: A Voyage From Cape Horn To Cape Town (New Island) is out now