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Passing the seasons

Voyage to southern hemisphere finds winter awaiting

The time for the research vessel Laurence M Gould’s return to Chile had come. Hazardous material from Palmer Station had been brought north and exchanged for southbound cargo. The cargo was destined for a warehouse in Punta Arena, Chile, the staging point for the summer opening of Palmer Station. That event was rapidly approaching, and the Gould would be required to make it happen.

The more immediate task was to make the long voyage from Louisiana to Chile, and to do so with enough time left over to allow for yet another cargo swap. Passengers embarking for the trip to Anvers Island would also have to be dealt with.

The first leg of the journey involved crossing the Caribbean in August. The water churned up by the ship’s two large propellers was the color of lapis, trimmed with foam of turquoise and white. Sea and sky were beautiful, but the heat oppressive. Not surprisingly, the same was true in Panama. These are not latitudes where one expects a chilly day.

Steaming into the Pacific placed Colombia squarely on the port beam, making the equator our next milestone. No need to check any forecast: continued heat was the order of the day.

Given the place and month, none of this was unexpected. But things were about to change. Crossing into the southern hemisphere meant that the vessel would, in an instant, sail from summer into winter. That occurred someplace between Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Neither actually came into view, but knowledge of their proximity was sufficient to elicit imaginary visits. Daydreams of marine iguanas sunning themselves on surf-swept rocks also seemed the order of the day.

But while the iguanas were mere figments, something very real also lurked over the horizon. A change was coming. The week that followed brought calm seas and sunny days, but surprisingly mild temperatures. No “dog days” here; the blistering heat was gone. Perhaps it really was winter’s influence, or perhaps a debt was owed to the Humboldt Current.

The Humboldt is one of the world’s great ocean features. It carries cold, nutrient-rich water northward from the Antarctic; so rich that as much as 20 percent of the world’s fish catch occurs there. The cold water also affects the temperature and precipitation regimes of Chile, Peru and Ecuador. For those onboard the Gould, the change was most welcome. It was as though the ship had entered a transition zone between two extremes — something of a faux autumn.

The seasons are generally thought of as events that exist in time. We subdivide our years by their passing, a practice that makes perfect sense — assuming that one does not move around too much. In reality, a season is not merely a fraction of a year. It’s also a function of latitude and the Earth’s progression around the sun. Recognizing this helps to explain something peculiar: the Gould’s southbound journey seemed a passage through the seasons.    

Peru was the next subject of imagined visits, though it held sway only briefly. Dreams of Machu Picchu and the Cordillera Blanca faded as the ship approached Chile’s northern border, even though it was clear to all that the end of our journey was still some way off.

That we were not nearing journey’s end can be explained by a glance at a globe. Doing so confirms why Chile is described as the paradigmatic example of an elongated state. That’s what geographers call a country that, in simple terms, is “long and thin.” In rough terms, Chile extends from 18.5 degrees south latitude, to 56 degrees south latitude. The long and the short of it was that there was still a long way to go.  

The ocean had been kind to the Gould thus far, but Chilean waters harbored change. It was subtle at first: a stiffening breeze and playful swells on a sea only slightly less blue. Perhaps all of this would pass, and tomorrow would offer a return to azure water. But the morning revealed an even darker ocean, and white caps of worsening temper. A cold wind was gathering out there somewhere — one determined to shake this vessel from the ambivalence that comes with mild weather and smooth sailing.    

The ocean was by no means violent on any leg of our journey, but the small ship with its rotund icebreaker hull does not respond well to even meager swells. This is no sleek frigate capable of slicing through tempestuous walls of water. It’s stout and it’s brutish for its modest displacement, because that’s what’s required for the sojourn to Palmer Station. So it rolls and it lurches in a manner reminiscent of a child’s fishing bobber, even in moderate seas. Those on board take guarded steps and use the ubiquitous handrails at such times, and look forward to a break from the winds that rouse the water.

The roughest part of the trip commenced as the vessel passed between mainland Chile and the Archipiélego Juan Fernández (about 33.5 degrees south latitude). This is where Scotsman Alexander Selkirk was marooned for four years, becoming the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk’s unlikely exploits inevitably elicit yet another flight of fancy, but one abruptly purged by a sudden lunge to starboard.

For the next few days, the sailing was less than smooth. We were still on, and everyone onboard knew that the irksome winds would soon meet their match. Just as winter’s full force seemed poised to descend upon the Gould, a refuge appeared. It was Chile’s “inside passage.”

Some may be familiar with the inside passage of British Columbia and Alaska. Chile has one of its own. It’s a glaciated coastline riddled with fjords and islands where serpentine channels provide large ships passage between towering rock walls and forested slopes. This is still the sea, but it’s a part of the sea that’s protected from the long-fetched brutality of the vast South Pacific by barrier islands — a place where the winds come to die. This is smooth sailing, and it’s sailing with a view.

The inside passage certainly offers a relief from bothersome winds, but it also offers an alternative to the blue monotony of the open ocean. For weeks, there had been nothing to gaze upon but ocean, sky and the horizon. A single day in Panama marked the sole exception, assuming that we discount those imaginary landfalls that force their way into one’s thoughts. Entering the inside passage changed all of that. Here there’s a landscape this side of the horizon.

The northern entrance to Chile’s inside passage is at the island of Chiloé. From the ship, the region appears a pastoral place of rolling hills overlooking a lovely, surf-swept coast. One longs to stop and take an intimate look. Regarding Ecuador and Peru, exploration had been pure fantasy. But here the landscape is no mere figment. It’s tangible. It can be seen and smelled, and almost touched. But there is a schedule to keep, so the desire to explore Chiloé is filed away with the memories of the many places that a sailor sees only from a rolling deck. Plans for a future visit are tacitly made, even if such an adventure is unlikely.  

Continuing south, the landscape takes on a rougher cut. By the second day in the passage, the rolling hills surrender to steeper slopes, and tamed pastures to dense forests. This appears to be a wilderness. There are signs of human activity — the fish farms that dot the channel’s edge and the occasional rusting shipwreck — but no human activity is evident on the land itself.

There is really no surprise in any of this, because these waters are part of Patagonia, a name synonymous with places isolated and wild. Waterfalls abound, as do hidden coves and mysterious channels that disappear around every corner. It’s both wilderness and maze. Once again, fantasy is indulged: just who, or what, might inhabit such isolated places?

Farther south, rugged hills give way to ridges, arêtes, and cirques that are unquestionably alpine. Sculpted summits and snowcapped towers peak out through grey skies, but just long enough to admit their presence. Then they are gone again as the infamous Patagonian wind blows obscuring clouds back into the area. The day ends before other summits can be seen, but their mere existence serves as fodder for that night’s dreams.

As the night passes, the inside passage joins the Strait of Magellan. Rounding Cabo Froward — the southern most tip of mainland South America — the Gould makes a final turn toward Punta Arenas. In all, the inside passage has consumed about four days. Although clouds and drizzle did their utmost to obscure the landscape, enough was seen to confirm that this is a special place. One last time the imagination reels, and one last promise is made regarding future travels. This is a place to see, and to see again.

But there’s little time to dwell on such matters. There are countless things to do before the ship can turn south yet again, and little time in which to do them. There’s cargo from the United States that must be exchanged with that needed at Palmer Station, and embarking passengers also require attention. Some of them have clearly been through this drill before, while others display the wide-eyed glair of a newcomer. Each will have questions and concerns, and most will require briefings and training sessions before setting foot in the Antarctic.

Eventually, all of the chores have been completed. The schedule remains intact. The eight or nine days spent in port were hectic, but everything is ready to go. During that time, the calendar has quietly slipped from winter into spring. But it’s still very early spring, and this is a very high latitude. Once again, the Laurence M. Gould fires up its engines, and once again the big screws make the harbor water boil. Once again, the Gould is heading south, but this time, the ship is bound for the Drake Passage. This time, it really is sailing into winter.

Dean Hancock is a technical editor for the U.S. Antarctic Program , and he accompanied the research vessel Laurence M. Gould as it transited from Port Fourchon, La., to Punta Arenas, Chile, earlier this year. He spent 10 years in the U.S. Navy , where he worked in shipboard engineering. He has also worked for the U.S. Geological Survey  doing cartography and Geographic Information Systems.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs