"American ship, American ship, calling American ship," the VHF radio cackled on channel 16, somewhere in the southern Atlantic between Africa and South America. It was deep into a dark, hot night, as I was about to go on my watch. After days and days of sighting no one on the ocean, suddenly we had three cargo sightings within just a few hours. Cargo sightings were always exciting because we could verify our position with them, and engage in a little bonus chit-chat. This evening our third cargo contact proved the most surprising.
The Argentinian freighter, Neuquén II, was returning to Buenos Aires from Le Havre, France, via Bilbao, Spain. Just days earlier, they had crossed our former home territory of the Golfe de Gascogne (Bay of Biscay) between France and Spain—a place that we had already put far away in our past since we crossed that body of water almost six months ago. Channel 16 on the VHF radio is an open channel, something like the telephone party lines of days gone by, or today’s open “chat” rooms online. Consequently, some of the Neuquén II crew had overheard our conversations between the two other cargoes earlier in the evening, and they were intrigued that I, a woman, was on the high seas. They were even more astonished to learn that we were a family on a small sailboat. After over an hour of lighthearted banter with some American bashing and macho entreaties to “throw Michel overboard,” join them, and that they would “take care of me,” Captain Enrique Carlos Marthi then commandeered the microphone, insisting that if we ever were to sail to Buenos Aires we must look him up. He gave us his address and phone number, and several times over, reiterated his invitation. Well, we thought, at that point we had no idea if we would ever get farther south on the South American continent than Rio de Janeiro. We hadn’t even finished crossing the ocean yet. But we kept the idea in the not-too-distant back of our minds.
As it happened, we did end up in Buenos Aires one year later, so we decided to take up Captain Enrique Carlos Marthi on his invitation—if it wasn’t too late. I actually wrote to him some time earlier when we knew we would be heading down south, and he replied rather quickly, saying that he did indeed remember us and that as far as he knew, he and his ship should be back in their home port of Buenos Aires for Christmas—perfect timing for us. However, as we kept tabs on the Neuquén II and Captain Marthi’s whereabouts during December, we found out that they had been held up in Houston, and probably wouldn’t be back in Buenos Aires until the first week of January. Since we were planning on leaving by January 4 at the latest, it seemed we would miss them.
Then on the day we planned to leave, we were literally stuck in the mud at the dock, at the San Ysidro Yacht Club. Due to a curious phenomenon that occurred with the winds in the Rio de la Plata, either low tide or high tide could hang around for days on end, solely depending on the wind. Such was our misfortune when a strong north wind kept the water level quite low, and it was quite obvious we weren’t going anywhere. The following day, however, we were able to budge a little, and out to the main harbor of Buenos Aires we headed, targeting the passport clearance checkout office. There was a little protected area where we could anchor just outside a yacht club near the industrial harbor, for just the short time we needed to attend to the formalities. That done, we were off.
As we skirted the freighters in the industrial harbor on our way out, we still very much regretted not having been able to meet up with the Neuquén II and Captain Marthi. It wouldn’t hurt to take one last look. We rounded the bend, and voilà, rising like an insurmountable monolith smack dab in front of our bow was none other than the stern of the Neuquén II! Well, we couldn’t leave now. We had to try to contact the captain one last time.
So we came about and re-anchored in the same “holding tank” area reserved for clearance formalities, and Michel rowed ashore to make the phone call. Eureka! It couldn’t have been more perfect timing. The elusive Captain Marthi was not only home, but that very evening his whole family was gathering to celebrate his birthday with a customary elaborate Argentinian “asado” or barbecue. He insisted we come; they would come pick us up at the harbor.
We were giddy. It was like going on a blind date; we were finally going to put faces to the midnight voices in the middle of the ocean. Welcomed in the grandest of manners at his home in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Captain Marthi treated us to an orgy of a full Argentinian menu of grilled sausages, steaks, and varied items that just kept multiplying off their “state-of-the-art” Argentinian barbecue. Any home that deemed itself worthy of hosting a backyard “asado” would not be caught dead without one of these industrial wonders. Somewhat reminiscent to us of what we would see at a Rotary-type fundraiser function, these barbecues were tall, wide, and thanks to various levers, chains, and pulleys, the grill could be raised or lowered to just the right setting so the meat and flame would be matched in perfect harmony.
We trekked back to Cowabunga for one last night in the main harbor of Buenos Aires, frustrated that we had to leave. Our month here was much too short, but we were amazed and pleased that one blind VHF radio contact, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean one year earlier, had come full circle this evening. The debilitating storm we survived off the coast of Uruguay to get here made this blind date all the more special to savor.