At a Snail's Pace

One of the many lessons we learned while sailing—or at least one that Neptune actively tried to teach us—was patience. Patience when the wind wasn't there, patience when all hell broke loose, patience when the rain wouldn't let up, patience when everything broke, patience when waiting for parts, patience with customs and immigration formalities.

So indeed, a lesson in patience was in store for us following the 24-hour tempest at sea (refer to Vignette post Oh Ye, January 2009) that we had endured on our sail down from Florianopolis, Brazil, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The morning after the storm—aside from the missing deck gear that washed overboard, and damage to other items—the major blow was to our auto pilot, or more precisely the wind vane, attached to the stern of the boat. This was a crucial device for us, since it was literally our third crew member. Through an ingenious system of ropes and cables, it steered the boat and flawlessly stayed the course. While it was performing this vital chore, we would be tending to the sails, navigation charts, cooking, eating, changing diapers, putting Brendan down for his nap, and the myriad of things that need to be done while on watch. The violent waves had damaged vital parts to the wind vane, rendering it inoperable. Now Michel and I had no choice but to take turns at the wheel, 24 hours a day, for the rest of the trip. Whoever wasn't on shift at the helm, would have to remain on duty for everything else. There could be no rest.

Originally targeting Montevideo, Uruguay, for our first landfall after leaving Brazil, we now sought out the first viable and closest port where we could pull in for repairs and assess our situation. From our current charted position the morning after the storm, Michel estimated that it would take about a week to sail to La Paloma. We hadn't slept for the past 24 hours and now we were still looking at another week before landfall, (and hoping there wouldn't be another storm) and we were already exhausted for starters.

At 4 years old and 19 months, Sean and Brendan wouldn't be able to comprehend that we were too tired to properly take care of them. Once it had settled in our minds that we had no choice, we accepted it. It was another lesson in patience. We were lucky that the weather held out for those next few days. On two occasions, when we just couldn't see straight because of exhaustion, we took advantage of some windless periods and put the boat into a "heave to" position, whereas we were basically stopped, marking time like a bobbing cork. Then we took turns taking naps. Such a simple luxury to sleep a straight two or three hours.

I remember one light moment, however, when I suddenly realized how far south below the equator we had come when I happened to notice some odd splashing alongside the boat. It was much too small for a dolphin, and a fish wouldn't be on top of the water. Then I saw that it was a penguin—the first time I had seen one outside of a zoo!

We finally glided into La Paloma early one peaceful morning. Just as we came around the breakwater, we spied a fellow cruiser, Le Geko, with whom we had set out together on this trip. During the storm we lost radio contact with them, and now we could see why. Our damage was minimal compared to theirs. They had actually suffered a knockdown, we quickly learned—a worst nightmare on the water, other than sinking. A wave or waves can overpower the boat, completely knocking it down on its side—mast and all—in or slightly underwater. We could see that the spreaders on their mast were bent, their spinnaker pole was bent in half, their running lights were gone—indicated by the remains of spindly connection cords swinging about. The mizzen boom was broken, sails were ripped, and the deck looked ravaged. It seems they were still under sail and the main hatch was open when the devastating wave hit. The interior was flooded, destroying all their electronic equipment and wreaking considerable water damage and breakage throughout.

We were so overjoyed to see them, and that they had made it through the storm. We literally banged madly on their hull, waking them up once we tied up alongside. We were taken aback by the two ghostly figures that emerged. Isabelle's long blonde hair was literally one huge tangled rat's nest and Yves had quite a black eye and a noticeable limp. He had been thrown to the ceiling when they were hit and apart from his injury, the dent and crack in the ceiling was proof enough. We then realized how lucky we were and how close to a catastrophe we could have come if we hand't hove-to when we did.

We stayed in La Paloma for about two weeks, sleeping, gaining our composure, determining what parts we needed for the wind vane pilot, repairing what we could, and planning our next steps. Some very kind local fishermen brought us some fried fish and steaks for dinner, and even invited us to their homes for hot showers!

The only way to get the parts we needed, it turned out, would be to have them delivered to Montevideo. So in order to minimize our days at sea while lacking our "third mate," we decided to make the trip to Montevideo in short spurts, with our next port of call being Punte Del Este, an up-and-coming trendy South American summer beach resort for "jet setters" and "wannabes" situated at the mouth of the Rio de La Plata. Since Le Geko wasn't in ideal operating condition, we left together.

We didn't stay long in Punte Del Este since we were eager to get to Montevideo, and we weren't terribly interested in this Miami-style setting and ambience. Granted it was nice to have water easily accessible and a few other amenities available in the harbor, but it was thanks to the rain and an obscure stucco wall in town that Punte Del Este remains etched in our memory.

Michel had gone into town to run some errands and happened upon a particular wall just after the rainfall. It was covered with ordinary garden snails, but to a Frenchman, they were escargots! He couldn't let this opportunity pass and hurried back to the boat for a bucket and some additional manual labor. Our friend Isabelle was keen on collecting them also and she knew what had to be done in the step-by-step process in order to properly prepare them to eat. I certainly didn't!

Uruguay was still a military dictatorship at this time, so anything in the least case suspicious—such as two adults and a little boy enthusiastically plucking snails off a wall and plopping them into a bucket—would most assuredly attract the attention of two nearby soldiers, which it did. The soldiers demanded to see their passports, then a wave of total understanding came across their faces: Ah, indeed, they are French. No more explanation needed.

Our "homegrown" escargots turned out to be an unexpected bonus, providing us with a lighter moment and a culinary delight. Given our hobbled circumstances, we took a cue from these little creatures and soldiered on with patience at a snail's pace.