Big Fish

Big Fish
The lagoon in Tahiti

Big Fish the Plan

I'm about to join the motor yacht "Big Fish" as relief Captain, with Winston and his crew. We'll meet in Panama, go through the Canal and from there head south to an island group called Juan Fernandez Islands off the Chile coast, specifically a small island called Robinson Crusoe. This is where the sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned and upon which Daniel Defoe based his famous book.

Recently they experienced the tsunami that was caused by an earthquake and lost all the school equipment, among other things. We are bringing a boatload of school books and supplies for the kids, then staying to help out for a short while, before heading further south to Patagonia and Ushuaia. On the way I'll update with photos where possible, and with stories that may be relevant, or not.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

John Maas Travels

This is an account of some voyaging that has happened and is going to happen over the next few months.  I hope you all get to see a bit of what it is I do, and enjoy it with me.
It's Tuesday morning, we just finished the transit of the Canal, half in daylight and the rest at night under floodlights (finished at 2.00 am), huge ships passing with inches to spare. Over 25,000 people died building this Canal, quite a price to pay for a short cut. The lakes at the top of the hills feed the locks, so water is flushed out of the Canal with the ships every time the doors are opened. Huge amount of fresh water released every day - great way to utilise energy from run-offs and rivers.
We are fuelling up the Big Fish today if another boat gets off the fuel dock - last night they had our berth and no-one was on board, so today will be interesting. We ae a few days late so need to make up time. I'll post photos later today if I get time.

At sea for 36 hours now, getting back into the routine of watches, sleep patterns and eating! Trying out celestial navigation with the ships sextant, some of the crew want to learn how the old guys used to navigate before GPS. It's quite busy along this western coast of Columbia and Equador, plenty of shipping going to the Canal, so we have to stay alert and aware. Easy with all the new technology on board, 3D chart plotters and Ship ID labels for every vessel that shows up on radar - it tells us the name, port, speed, size and destination of each ship we see, before we see it!
Going to be good fishing soon, we hope to have fresh fish for dinner as much as we can.
Probably going to be not much to report for the next few days, but it would be great to get comments and hear what you are all up to.
Talk soon.

Interesting day, hooked a large marlin at sunset but he swam under the boat just when he was about to be released and we lost him, just as well.
After this we put on our good shirts and had an incredible Thanksgiving dinner, the usual fare but cooked to perfection by JT - our chef. All of us had to make turkey themed place mats and sit down to a proper meal (instead of a seperate grabbed bite at meal times between watches..).  Turkey and gravy sandwiches for lunch tomorrow.
Most interesting were the fishing boats, or pungas, small open boats with outboard motors more than 100 miles from land, out here fishing with only one or two guys on board. They would stare at us as we went by, one or two idling over to check us out.  Once one of them with 5 guys crossed our bow very closely and we couldn't help but think of piracy. We kept a good lookout and discussed plans for the unlikely event of a boarding, more from paranoia than a feeling of being threatened. It heightened a bit tonight though when we picked up a small blip on the radar on an intercept course, closing towards the front of the boat. When the boat was less than a mile away he still had no lights on, getting closer, we were not certain of his intentions. We then zapped him with a very powerful searchlight and he immediately turned on a torch and changed course, drifting down our port side about quarter of a mile away.
From then on we kept an eye on him as he disappeared over the horizon behind us.
Quiet walks around the decks to check around every hour, inspecting hidden areas with a torch, looking more intently at the sea behind us for pungas..
Moving out of Columbian waters tonight so can relax more tomorrow. We cross the equator tonight at 3 am, in about half an hour, and will initiate two crew members in a crossing ceremony (both Aussies so they'll get extra special treatment..). Evil smelling gunk and cold spaghetti ready in the galley to dump over their heads, then a dousing with the fire hose, at 3 in the morning. King Neptune is a tough cookie.  Might even call for shaved eyebrows..

We are now about 18 degrees South, last night we sailed past Lima, Peru, about 200 miles off the coast. Days have been the same, wind and sea on the nose, punching into a head sea with waves periodically breaking over the bow, showering the wheelhouse windows in spray. Life is just a routine, doing watches and sleeping, between meals that are punctuating the days with bright points of expectation.
Whales are sighted every day, spray from their blowholes and sometimes a huge leap clear of the water, only a few hundred meters away. Dolphins play around the bow a few times a day. This reminds us who is out here and who's domain we occupy.
On that note, last night we passed a city on the sea, 20 miles long continuous stream of Japanese trawlers all lit up with extremely bright halogen bulbs, fishing for squid we think. It was surreal. Felt like we were in a science fiction movie, it's the first time I have ever seen such a large fleet working like this, then we passed another slightly smaller fleet on the other side of us. We took most of the night just to get clear of them.
Working with a couple of the crew doing sun sights with the sextant, they are finding it easy and getting good position fixes when they want to, very satisfying for them.
We should be arriving in the Juan Fernandez Islands on the 4th, we've organised some activities with the islanders, who I hear have an industry in lobsters...
This morning we passed a couple of small islands 350 miles north of Robinson Crusoe Island, they are Isla Ambrosia and Felix, a navy installation and summer stop for fishermen from Chile. They are very barren and dry, small and remote, about 500 miles off the coast. However the sealife is abundant and amazing, we saw whales everwhere, dolphins, birds working the schools of fish, it was busy for about 10 miles either side of the islands. A couple of fisherman came out in a small open boat and held up two huge lobsters and a large blue cod, we just missed asking if they wanted to sell before they moved away. I think the seafood in Robinson Crusoe Island will make up for it..apparently the local school is laying on a bit of a welcome for us, maybe we can sample a bit of the local seafood. We will try to take the dinghy to the cave that the marooned Alexander Selkirk stayed in - it's only a mile and a half from our anchorage. We'll get there tomorrow morning.
If the blog dries up for a few days it's probably because we have had problems with the satellite that's providing a link to our boat, last two days have been without comms.
Hopefully I can update again tomorrow night after a day on the island.

Robinson Crusoe Island is an amazing place. The people are pretty much changed by the tsunami, as you would expect, they have a great attitude and are extremely friendly, yet have a certain toughness that I'm sure has developed after their experience. The school teacher was very appreciative and grateful when he and some of the kids came on board the boat to receive the school equipment and sports gear.  They loved the computer laptop that the boat bought for them.

Clearance and customs was just a formality, they came on board in their white navy uniforms, and the doctor in her jeans and t-shirt. When that was done the kids received their gifts, and the local agent (a guy who helps with paperwork, dues, schedules and purchases) and a dive shop/hostel owner stayed to talk and see the boat. We started to hear some harrowing stories, the diver had a two level house and business near the sea, he and his wife and two children were sleeping (the wave struck at 3 in the morning, first a slow creeping wave that rose up the beach, over the wall and grass into the fields, then a huge 60 ft wave, then a third smaller wave..). The first they knew about the wave was that they were being flooded from below, the water coming up the steps and in the windows. They held on to each other as the wave took them out to sea, and floated on some roofing timber until they were washed back in again, all survived. Altogether 16 people drowned, many children and old people.

The water line from the wave is clearly visible with the discolouration of the grass, and the lack of any buildings....
The agent told of being seperated from his wife as she was swept out by the second wave, he had their two children, one was passed to a friend and the other was locked in his truck. He told of being desperate as he tried to smash the windows while the truck was slowly being sucked out to sea before the third wave came. He was banging on the window of the truck with his fist and could see the wave building and coming in, finally the window smashed, he freed his daughter and they both made it to high ground as the wave swept the truck out to sea. His wife floated for two hours before being picked up by a guy in a fishing boat.
Most of the houses on the flooded area were washed out to sea, the waterline is clearly visible as are the concrete pads where the houses used to sit.
Now the people are resolute, some are even building again on the old sites in a fatalistic determination, but life goes on, albeit with one eye open all the time.

Later in the evening we were invited by a German documentary maker to an evening in a small lodge along the coast. He showed the final drafts of  film about a World War 1 German battle cruiser "Dresden" that was chased by the British around Cape Horn, into the Chilean fjiords and out to this island where it was cornered, attacked, scuttled (this means the Germans themselves opened all the seacocks) and sunk.
This film maker is also doing a re-enactment of Alexander Selkirks marooning and rescue, so there are actors running around in old clothes and carrying muskets and pistols with cameramen chasing them.
I came back to Big Fish early with the Mate, and we fished off the stern, catching three very nice edible ocean fish (jacks).
Today was spent retreiving a lost anchor and generally preparing for the next voyage to the mainland of Chile, a three day trip to Puerto Montt which is the northern most port of the Chilean canals, or fjiords.
We leave the island with a bag full of lobsters and some more fish..  it's been quite an experience altogether.

The last day of the crossing was a bit rough, had 4 to 5 m seas from the starboard side, thats about as high as a two storey building coming side on to the boat then passing underneath in a slow motion roller coaster ride, along with a chilly southerly wind of about 25 knots. We had to tie everything down and secure the boat, it was a bit bumpy. What made it worthwhile was a sighting of a blue whale about 50m from the boat, we all got a good look at it, then a pod of whales (not sure which kind) all around us blowing off steam.  Arrival into a snug harbour was at 3 am day before yesterday, we anchored under a lighthouse on Corona point, it was called Corona Light - calling it up on the radio sounded too much like asking for a beer!
The next morning early, about 6 am, we set out for Puerto Montt, a small city at the top of the Chilean Channel system, to get more supplies and to get charts that gave a better description of the channels and fjiords we expect to travel over the next few weeks. Most of us on the crew went ashore for a look around, my first encounter with Chile. Not a town I would want to live in, but the people were extremely friendly and interested in what we were doing.
We departed late in the afternoon and have been slowly motoring down the channels since then, in a cloudy misty rain and very cold wind - 6 degrees celsius. The boats heating is acting up so it's a bit chilly at the moment, something that needs to be sorted before we get too much further south.
Tonight we are sheltering from a severe storm outside on the coast, we'll motor slowly until we reach the Darwin Canal, where we can stick our head out and check the weather. If the storm has eased enough we'll go out into the South Pacific again and head south for Cape Raper and the Messier Canal, a formidable 300 mile trip in bad weather - any Cape rounding is a challenge at the best of times.
Once we are inside the Messier Canal it's sheltered waters, glaciers, fjiords, albatrosses and seals, all the reasons we are doing this whole venture. We can transit through the canal system to Magellan Straits, and then on to Punta Arenas and refuelling. I'll set up photos and any other information as we get going a bit further - past the Cape.

At about 11pm we went into a long deep and snug harbour - as a safety anchorage in case the weather was so bad we had to run and find shelter in pitch black and driving rain.. it was the last place to hide before we made the decision to go or to stay.  In the worst case we could follow our track on the nav screen to find our way back.
We sat for about 45 minutes deciding on our next move, we poured over all our weather data and discussed itineraries and schedules, and then turned around and went out into it.
Just past midnight we punched out into 35 knots and 4 metre seas, and slowly the conditions eased....until at about 4am the wind dropped and the sea started to go down, so we just kept going.  This time the forecast was a bit late, the conditions improved ahead of schedule. By morning it was easy going, slow rollers on the beam and clear sky, light winds. By that afternoon we had entered the Messier Canal and were thankful we had made the decision to keep going and not be still at the start point of the trip. The Cape was windy and rough, with williwaws and spray flying up into the air. Some poor guy was in a stone lighthouse on the end of the Cape and he called us to ask who we were, we chatted for a while to keep him company.  That was a lonely outpost.
As we progressed down the canal the snow got lower on the mountains beside us and the sea got colder, until it looked very much like a winter landscape. We decided to visit a glacier in Iceberg Canal and got there about twilight, it was amazing to see chunks of ice floating in the sea and hear the cracking of ice on the glacier.  Dolphins swam around us all the way in and played around while we anchored for the night, after a long and eventful day.
Early, and we are on our way again. We want to to see one of the main attractions of this trip, a 3 kilometre wide glacier that's moving quite quickly.  It took about 7 hours to motor there through magnificent scenery that changed from wintry fjiords to lush bushland and stoney islands - all pristine and pure, no buildings or civilisation to speak of.

Once in the bay we approached the glacier with caution, huge chunks of ice in the sea, thunderous cracks that sounded like cannon, and showers of ice periodically raining down from a broken piece of the face. It was impressive in size, photos can't do it justice. The colours were amazing, deep blue from the pressure of tons of ice over thousands of years. Some of us went closer in the dinghy, making sure Big Fish was stood well off to stay safe, and we stayed a small distance away just watching and listening. Now and again there would be a loud cracking that made us jump. After a while we thought it safe to go to a small beach below the ice face, still about 300 metres from the ice, and we walked up to a low shelf that looked like it hadn't moved in a while. We only stayed for the time it took to take photos and got out of there, back to the boat.

Moving further down the canals the weather got slowly worse as another front moved in, clouds building until about 6 in the evening it started to rain a light misty fog. This was a good time to try the hot tub after a repair, some of the crew volunteered to bathe in the open with rain and fog, and motoring through an ice field...
they must have been Australian.

The low has deepend to a full storm with 60 knot winds blowing offshore tonight, we are sheltered behind the mountains but cautious as wind gusts can reach 70 knots plus through some of the gaps in the range. Tonight we'll enter the Magellan Straits and get the full blast as we turn a corner that is totally exposed for about 20 miles. After that we run with it for the 170 miles to Punta Arenas so it shouldn't be so bad.

This last night was the worst night of the trip weather wise - we had a steady 70 knots plus, and the Magellan Straits were going in the same direction as the wind, so we had a long "fetch" that caused quite substantial waves, long cresting rollers - only about 3 -4 metres though.
The sky was dark and raining, visibility down to about 2 miles so the sides of the channel were barely seen, just dark mountainous shapes all gloomy and foreboding. It was real spooky. We ran before this storm for the whole night, using the satellite chart to navigate and confirming our position every 20 minutes with radar and paper charts. All the way through the Strait we couldn't see where we were going, even though the twilight kept the real dark away until almost 11 pm.  Occasional lights allowed us to obtain a real time fix on the chart so provided welcome assurance as we swept by.  It was actually quite special, going out on deck in the shelter of the wheelhouse and hearing the waves as they rolled under the bow, watching the huge albatrosses wheeling around just in front of us and gliding around the stern, low and graceful, barely moving their wings in the shocking strength of the wind.
The wind stayed with us even until we rounded up and dropped anchor in Punta Arenas at about noon, only to find the port closed due to weather.  All day it's been blowing about 50 knots here at the anchorage, so no going ashore in the dinghy or visiting town.  Not so bad though, it's allowed the entire crew some down time, catching up on lost sleep and movies after doing a few jobs on arrival. The wind should slowly ease over night so we'll complete customs and formalities at 6.30 am and head off for the last leg of my trip, down to Ushuaia, through the Beagle Channel and arrive just 60 miles from Cape Horn..

I should just mention that the reason you see me wearing just one jacket is that I've been living out of one suitcase since August, it's the only warm coat I have - had to make room for the board shorts and Hawaiian shirts....

Forecast was correct in predicting the easing at about 9.00 pm and it happened just like that, suddenly the wind died and it was almost calm, with a gentle sea slowly dropping to a quiet sheltered normality. We decided to leave early the next morning and organised customs to clear us out at 6.30 am. All went according to plan until we discovered the controls that shift gears and control engine speed no longer functioned due to some computer glitch. We delayed until 9.30 am trying to find the cause, but to no avail, so headed out to sea, controling our speed with the throttles on the wing stations on the outside of the bridge. These wing stations are used for docking the boat as you can see clearly the sides as she comes in alongside. It wasn't so bad, we had to keep the bridge doors unlocked so we could reach the controls in an emergency, but we could steer from inside and had autopilot, we remained warm and snug. The course took us down the coast and across the Magellan Straits again and into Canal Magdalena. From there a tortuous route took us through the Cockburn Canal and outside into the Southern Ocean again for about two hours, where we ran into the leftover swell and 35 knot winds of the previous storm. Huge kelp beds and hidden rocks meant the trip was winding with frequent changes of direction. The long daylight hours meant we could navigate confidently by eye, as the GPS position was about 2 tenths of a mile off in relation to the chart, so GPS was useless here, as was the chart, except as a guide to relative position. Our most effective means of position fixing was the radar and we utilised that to the full. This was the Beagle Channel, named after the ship Charles Darwin used to travel this region and then on up to the Galapagos Islands.
All along the way, in and out of channels and open water, past barren rocks and snow covered mountains straight out of Mordor, past darkening islands and submerged rocks, around floating islands of kelp that could stop a propeller, rain squalls blew in with sudden blasts of wind to punctuate our progress. Around midnight it was still light enough to see the outlines of the mountains and headlands - my watch was over.
I was woken at 5 in the morning by one of the girls, she told me I had to come out on deck to see something. When I went outside it was already bright and sunny, and I saw the most incredible glacier that ended in the sea directly beside the boat, we were no more than 300 metres from it and could hear the cracking and movement very close. It was quite high and a most magnificent sight, pieces falling regularly into the sea. We stayed for a while just sitting there watching it.
After that we trundled along at a leisurely pace, early for the pilot who would take us into port, so we explored a couple of deep harbours inspecting anchorages and just cruised along, enjoying the ability to do so. At 11.00am we picked up the pilot and made our way into Ushuaia, a very pretty town wrapped around a safe harbour with enormous mountains as a backdrop, it's a picture. Moored in front of us was a small cruise ship recently seen on U Tube, wallowing in huge seas with broken engines and waves that washed over the decks. It doesn't look too bad here sitting at the dock.
It's wrap up time on Big Fish, three of us are leaving, the delivery is over and the remaining crew take her down to Antarctica in a couple of days - it's just over two days to get there. We'll refuel, clean her up and re provision. It's sad to leave, but I'm really looking forward to going home, seeing Amanda and Inga, having Christmas with them and making plans for the future - whatever that will be...


  1. Hi John, this is a great idea Inga and I will follow your travels, hope you have a wonderful trip Love Amanda

  2. Bon Voyage John. Jasper and I miss you! Just watching Big Fish go through the Panama Canal at the start of your adventure. Go for it! Love Fenella

  3. Must feel a million miles from Antibes!

  4. John, keep posting photos when you can and it will be great catching up again when you are next down this part of the world. Mike

  5. Hi John, chris and I had a look at these great photos very interesting, love the seal!

  6. Just as well you had a smartly ironed shirt to wear!!!!

  7. You'll be wanting a jar of that Benedicta mayonnaise to go with the lobsters? Bon Appetite!

  8. Hi John!
    Very interesting blog, gutted that you lost the Marlin. Looking forward to catching up when you are back in NZ next.

    From Inga and Dave

  9. John - my 12 yr old nephew and my 9 yr old niece are following your every move - keep posting!!! They got interested because of the photos of the seal on the sunlounger!

  10. Hello John Maas....its been a century at least from the days of Pan Am and Maui ~ I thought of you this morning...have no idea why your name popped in my head......
    Enjoy !
    Sian Lindemann
    AKA Susan Corman ~ Pan AM ~ Maui / Honolulu