Sunday, November 15, 2009


I needed a job after I returned to Seattle from 6 months in the Antarctic.  It was early 1978.  I was staying in the spare bedroom of a Coast Guard buddy and his family.  I bought a yellow VW beetle and started my job hunt.  I went for a number of interviews, but nothing was a match.  Then I spotted an ad for a marine electronics company that was looking for people who could speak Spanish.  That peaked my interest as I spoke decent Spanish and had a experience with electronics from the USCG and from when I made short wave radio kits as a kid.  So I applied and was hired.  I entered a training program to prepare me to be the factory rep for Latin America.  Their main product was a sonar for fishing vessels.  I spent time on the assembly line, in classes, and out in the field with the Washington State rep.  I helped install a sonar on trawler in Seattle and we made visits to fishing vessels in Ilwaco and South Bend.  After a couple months they gave me a couple company credit cards, a tool kit, and I packed my bags and flew to Panama.

I was to troubleshoot both a technical and a business problem.  A Chinese Panamanian fishing captain by the name of Camilo had one of our sonars on his boat.  It wasn't working and I was there to either fix it or get it back from him since he hadn't paid for it yet.  In my baggage I was carrying a spare sonar head.  I was nervous about passing through customs with such an expensive bit of hardware.  I need not have been.  I stepped off the plane into the steamy heat of  Panama.  As I approached the customs inspection station I was spotted by Edwardo, our local dealer.  He called me over and glad handed with the customs inspector who seemed to be an old friend.  Eddie grabbed my bag and whisked me past customs like I was traveling on a diplomatic passport.  The second thing that hit me after the heat was the almost constant cacophony of horns.  The traffic headed into the city was heavy and Panamanian drivers expressed themselves with their horns, blasting and beeping and honking.  Eddie was a very friendly guy, he spoke great English and we hit it off right away.

I had expected to be able to solve the problems and be in and out of the country and on my way to Ecuador in a few days....  Crazy optimistic Gringo.  It took two weeks.  Camilo and his boat were fishing to the north and Eddie and his brother were involved in installing the first CAT scan system in Panama at the main hospital.  I tagged along with them and watched as they tested the system on a pineapple.  It worked.  They they needed a human, so after some cajoling they got me to go in the machine and they scanned my skull.

Then Eddie had to run some errands.  He was nervous.  He had to go see the colonel.  The colonel was the number two guy in Panama, the right hand man of General Omar Torrijos.  And the Colonel was unhappy with some equipment that Eddie and his brother had provided him for his business.  It struck me odd that a colonel would also be a businessman, but this was Central America in the 70's ... Military rank was for power, not for service.  While I sat out in the lobby of the Colonel's office, Eddie got chewed out and finally emerged looking stressed.

The next day was the weekend so I was on my own so I rented a car at the hotel and headed out across the Bridge of the Americas spanning the Panama Canal and headed north up the Pacific Coast. The soil was red and the jungle was a deep green.  The road was a narrow two lane affair, crossing many ravines and winding along through rolling hills.  I passed little towns but saw little of the ocean as the road ran inland parallel to the coast.  The the skies opened up and it started to pour.  Sheets of rain.  The window of my little Datsun started to steam up.  I had to roll down the window a little to increase the ventilation so I could see.  I turned south and started heading back towards the city.  In front of me a Ford Torino hit a big puddle, hydroplaned and spun out of control.  I flew backwards down the highway toward a bridge.  The trunk of the car slammed into the concrete railing of the bridge and it stopped.  A few feet more and it would have gone down into the deep ravine below where the water was raging.  I pulled over and ran up to the car.  There was a hysterical large Panamanian woman in the front passenger seat, the dashboard had come off and was laying in her lap.  The five people in the car were scared but unhurt.  I squeezed them into my little damp car and gave them a ride to the police station in the next town where they got help.

Finally after the weekend Camilo was back at the dock.  He had a smelly old seine boat.  Eddie drove me down there and I went to work on the sonar.  After hours of tracing wires, changing circuit boards and fiddling, it seemed to be working, though without going out it was hard to tell.  So we agreed to head out the next day.  It ended up being a very frustrating business.  The sonar didn't work very well and Camilo didn't pay much attention to it anyway, instead setting his nets on where the Pelicans dove into the water. 

I finally left Panama, not having fixed the sonar and not having convinced Camilo to either return the sonar or pay for it.

My next destination was Guayaquil Ecuador.  Guayaquil was a large dangerous city on the banks of the Rio Guayas, a wide, muddy river filled with floating green water hyacinths. Our local dealer dropped me off on the fishing boat Maria Elena.  A large wooden hulled seiner with a big skiff perched on the stern.  The captain welcomed me aboard and we slipped our moorings and headed down the river.  As we we pulled away from the dock we passed a half naked old man and a small boy sitting astride a log in the river, paddling through the water hyacinths with broken pieces of boards.

The sonar seemed to be working.  As we motored down the river I scanned left and right and ahead and picked up the bottom and objects in the water.  At last this was more encouraging.  We passed a few buoys as we continued down the river.  The current seemed to be running strong.  We were surrounded by jungle.  Occasionally I would see a hut built on bamboo stilts near the edge of the river.  One of the crew told me it was to keep the floods and the snakes out of the houses.

Scanning ahead I picked up a strong target.  I wondered aloud to the captain if it might be a school of fish?  He looked over with interest.  Just then the boat slammed hard aground on the river bottom, throwing all of us forward with a jolt.  The captain ran out the back door of the pilothouse screaming "Lanza la panga!  Lanza la Panga!" (Launch the skiff!).  The crew quickly launched the skiff, but the boat wasn't sinking.  I went below decks in the bow.  Water was seeping in through the hull caulking and the sonar looked like it had been sheared off in the grounding.  The captain backed the boat off the mud bank and we headed back up the river to the dock.

The next day I rented a Chevy Nova and headed out of Guayaquil for the Santa Elena Peninsula.  More houses on stilts.  Grubby, squalid little towns with naked butted children and hogs wandering in the road.  Narrow one lane bridges.  When meeting another car, whoever flashes their lights first has the right of way.  I came around the bend and there, hitchhiking, were two clean cut blond haired blue eyed young men dressed in long dark pants, short sleeved dress shirts and black ties, carrying book bags.  Mormon boys on their mission.  I pulled over picked them up and dropped them off a few miles later at a smelly oil production town.

I arrived at the port town of La Libertad and found the boat the other boat I was to service.  I worked on the sonar, but it was an older model and I didn't have all the parts I needed.  I made a note of all the parts required to be ordered and headed back to Guayaquil.  That evening as I was packing my bags to leave the following morning for Lima Peru, I tuned in the the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio and discovered that there had been an attempted coup in Peru and battle tanks were rolling through the streets of Lima.  I quickly called the airline and changed my flight to fly directly to Santiago, Chile.

In Santiago I stayed at the Hotel Crillon.  It was an eerie place to be, overlooking the machine gun bullet scarred facade of the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace where President Salvador Allende died during the General Pinochet's coup d'etat of September 11th, 1973.  The Chilean air force had strafed the palace with aircraft and commandos then assaulted the building.

Now 5 years later, Pinochet still ruled with an iron fist and a nightly curfew remained in effect.  I felt the fear at night, hearing the shouts and gunshots echoing though the empty streets of Santiago, the racing military vehicles speeding off to do who knows what to whom.

Chilean society was very polarized.  The supporters of the Military had a swagger about them.  The opponents cowed in fear and sullen silence born of fear and repression.

It was sad for me to see the country like this.  As a child of 10 I had first come here with my parents.  Santiago had been my home for 3 years.  It was home to some of my happiest memories while growing up.  Now it was a dark and menacing place, where the walls had ears and people were afraid to speak their minds.

I fell into a routine.  In the mornings I would catch a cab to the offices of Don Claudio, our dealer for Chile and have coffee with him and his secretary Mirna.  Don Claudio ushered me around to meet potential clients and I would discuss the benefits of our equipment and give them brochures and we would return to the office and have lunch.

Finally I had an installation to supervise in Southern Chile.  I got a rental car, a little Honda Civic and headed south down the Panamericana.  I drove for hours through mountains and across arid rolling hilly country and through valleys with tall poplar wind breaks.  It got dark.  I continued southward.  I noticed my lights getting dim and then flickering and then the car died.  I coasted to the side of the road and got out.  I popped the hood and checked the battery as best I could without a flashlight.  Nearby I could hear a river and off in the distance the light of a dwelling.  Overhead the stars twinkled.  I had no idea where I was, nor how far the next town was.  I heard the crunch of footsteps approaching in the dark on the other side of the road.

Out of the gloom of the darkness I made out the form of a campesino carrying a shovel and a burlap sack.  I called out to him and asked him if he knew where the nearest filling station was.  He asked what was wrong.  I told him my battery had died.  He peered at the motor.  "There is a guy where I live who knows mechanics."  "Where do you live?"  "Just over there." He said, pointing at the light of the dwelling I had noticed.

I walked down the road with him and soon arrived at the workers barracks of a gravel pit.  The workers were very friendly.  They found the man who knew mechanics and fetched a spare battery and some cables and with a group of about six friendly Chilean workers we returned to the car.  Within short order they had helped me restart the car and discovered an electrical plug had come loose, which had caused the battery to discharge.  I thanked them profusely and we parted like old friends and I headed back down the dark road through the Chilean countryside, my faith in the goodness of strangers reinforced.

The next night I stayed in town of Concepcion and in the morning the fleet captain of the fishing company came and picked me up and drove me to Talcahuano where I worked on installing the new sonar on one of their boats.  On the drive back to Concepcion that evening he gave me some advice.  "If you ever hit a pedestrian, be sure to kill him."  I expressed surprise at such a statement.  He said that over the years he had hit 3 pedestrians.  Two had died and he had no trouble from them.  The one that lived, gave him all sorts of trouble with lawyers.  "So that's why I say, if you hit someone, make sure you kill them.  It will be a lot less trouble."  I concealed my shock at his attitude and just nodded silently.

After several months living in hotels in Chile and having little success in selling more sonars and having to deal with constant failures of the equipment that was already installed, I grew increasing dispirited and homesick.  The final blow came when I spoke to the guy who had trained me up in Washington State.  He said that all of the sales reps who started with me had already quit and that the equipment that the company was producing at the time was having a very high failure rate.  He said the problem was that they had not been using static free assembly stations in making the circuit boards and that the chips were very sensitive to static and were failing out in the field after a short period of service.  He was quitting and taking a job with a radar vendor.

That was it for me.  I quit and headed for home.  Within 3 weeks I was greatly relieved to be back aboard a ship, working for NOAA once again.  My adventure in working in electronics scuttled by wayward static electricity.

Monday, November 2, 2009


My first experience with sea ice came in 1973 in the Labrador Sea as a quartermaster aboard the USCG Wind Class Icebreaker Edisto.

The sentinels of the polar regions are solitary icebergs, drifting far out to sea.  We encountered these guardians of the Arctic long before encountering sea ice.

Arriving at the ice edge for the first time was exhilarating and breath taking.  It is a line in the sea where the nature of the sea, the air, and the entire environment changes.  It is a place teeming with life, where air is crisp and biting.  Steaming into the ice, the sea becomes an ever changing landscape, governed by the size and shape and types of the sea ice. Grease ice, pancake ice, first year floes, multi-year ice, pressure ridges, and many other ice formations that defy description.

The Edisto was built in 1946 and was in her last year of service when I sailed aboard her.  She was decommissioned in the fall of 1974.  She had cork insulation to keep the interior of the hull from sweating and though only 269 feet long, she carried a crew of almost 300.

We were berthed in triple level bunks in berthing areas of up to 70 men.  I was in the operations department and had the luxury of a 20 man berthing area.  I was in the top bunk next to the pipes and cables of the overhead.

The Wind Class were shaped like an American football and rolled continuously and vigorously in the seaway and pitched like a hobby-horse in a head sea.  In the ice she was in her element and handled well, turning responsively.  She was twin screw, single rudder, diesel electric, with six Fairbanks Morse main engines located in three separate engine rooms.

The crew were a bunch of pirates.  USCG Group Baltimore was using the Edisto as punishment duty.  Any screw-ups or sailors with attitude problems were transferred to the Eddie.  This being the Vietnam era, there was no shortage of young men with bad attitudes in the USCG.  It was a volunteer service, but many chose to volunteer for the USCG rather than be drafted, so they weren't there all that willingly.

The Eddie was so permeated with drugs (marijuana & hash) that one could get high just breathing the fumes rising out of the forward berthing area at night.  The Executive Officer, Commander Kothe, established a night patrol manned by CPOs & first class petty officers that was dubbed the "International Rat Patrol".  Every time we stopped at Craney Island, Virginia to fuel up before deploying, dope sniffing dogs were brought aboard to search for pot.  The poor dogs were disoriented and scared by the steep ladders descending into the bowels of the ship and the noise and smell and all the pepper the crew had sprinkled on the decks to confound the dogs.  It was a low grade war between the youth culture of the 70's and the establishment culture of the career coast guardsmen who comprised the senior personnel aboard.

Even knowing that the Edisto had a reputation as a band of outlaws, I sought a transfer aboard her.  I was pulled by the call of the North.  All those Jack London books I read as a kid had given me a thirst for adventure and I wanted to see the Arctic.  I was bored out of my skull aboard the USCG tug Apalachee.  She hardly ever got underway, mostly sitting dockside in Baltimore.  So I got a mutual transfer with Charlie Riley, who despised the Edisto and had family in Baltimore.

Our first deployment was in the Labrador Sea conducting a study of Icebergs for the International Ice Patrol measuring the mass of icebergs with sonar and photography from our two helicopters.  This involved getting very close to scores of icebergs of all shapes and sizes.

I even earned the privilege to ride in the copilot's seat on one helicopter flight.  The view of the ice fields and bergs and enormity of the horizon and the insignificance of our little red ship below made it an unforgettable experience.

Our next deployment was to the Eastern Arctic on a mission for the Naval Research Lab, gathering acoustic data to assist in the location and tracking of Soviet submarines below the eastern Greenland ice pack.  We stopped in Reykjavík, Iceland where some of the crew got in a drunken brawl with the US Navy at the NATO base club in Keflavík.

From Iceland we headed north, closely followed by a soviet spy ship.  When we noticed they started picking up our garbage, we started being much more selective about what we threw over the side.  Once we entered the ice they could no longer follow us.  A few days later, deep in the ice we were buzzed at mast level by a Soviet Bison Bomber.  It came from dead astern in the blind spot of our air search radar.  After that, we were overflown almost every day by a high level Soviet Bear Bomber.  It was an eerie ever present reminder of the reality of the Cold War.

Deep in the ice, the storms of the seas beyond were only felt as a slow undulation of the ice field, causing the ship to roll gently in the ice.  In the darkness the ice sparkled and glistened below the light show of the aurora borealis.  The aurora was like a psychedelic lace curtain moving in the solar wind, rippling and undulating and changing colors.  I stood out on the bridge wing in the 50 below zero cold, looking up,  awestruck, while the moisture in my nose froze as I inhaled.

The aurora also produced heavy static discharges and while we were in the deep arctic we lost radio reception.  When we finally came out from under it's effects on August 7th, 1974, I headed out on deck and tuned in the BBC on my shortwave radio.  The top news was that President Nixon planned to address the nation the next evening and it was thought that he would announce his resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal.  This was stunning news since we had heard nothing in the last month and a half.  The following evening a group of us bundled up in our parkas huddled around the radio on the starboard side of the ship and listened as Nixon resigned.

We sailed to Scotland and spent 5 days in Leith.  I took leave and stayed with my stepfather's family in Edinburgh and explored that wonderful city.  The ship returned to Baltimore and shortly afterward was decommissioned and I was transferred to the Northwind which was undergoing a refit.  While aboard the Northwind, I met Joe Gnagey who came to visit some of my shipmates.  He gave us a slide show of photographs that he had taken in the Antarctic while sailing as a QM on the Northwind.  His amazing photos showed a continent of white wilderness, the footprint of great explorers such as Shackleton and Scott, and the amazing creatures that made their home there.  It fascinated me and kindled a desire in me to some day see the Antarctic for myself.

I was discharged from the Coast Guard the following summer and moved to the Seattle and went to work for NOAA for about five months and then attended college at the University of Idaho.  After a year at the university I finally decided I really wanted to be back at sea and I re-joined NOAA, eventually finding myself as a quartermaster aboard the NOAA Ship Davidson doing a chart adequacy survey of Yakutat Bay, Alaska.  Every couple weeks we would sail to Juneau to replenish stores and have some R&R.  I went hiking up into the woods above the Mendenhall Glacier.  It was quiet and beautiful and wild.  I ate blueberries along the trail and spent the night in an open shelter listening to the wild night sounds around me.

The following day as I hiked out past a camp ground parking lot, I noticed a pickup truck camper with Idaho plates from the county the University of Idaho was located in.  I knocked on the window and struck up a conversation with the owner.  He was a geologist recently graduated from the university who was working for a minerals company prospecting in Alaska.  He invited me to have a beer with him and his friends at a saloon in town.  As we were shooting the breeze and sharing a pitcher of beer, one of the other geologists told me about a company that hired people to work in the Antarctic.  He said he thought they had a boat that went down there too.  So armed with only the name "Holmes & Narver" written on a bar napkin, I headed off with my head buzzing with excitement.

The following morning before the ship sailed back to Yakutat I was at the pay phone armed with my bar napkin and a pocket full of change.  I called dozens of people at the National Science Foundation, Holmes & Narver and finally they referred me to a small California company called Nekton, Inc.  They ran a small ship called the Hero that ran to the Antarctic under contract for the NSF.  As incredible luck would have it, they needed an AB Seaman for the Hero.  I had them mail me the application care of general delivery at the post office in the village of Yakutat.

Two weeks later I was on my way to Talcahuano, Chile to join the R/V Hero.

The Hero was a 125 foot wooden hulled motorsailor built in 1968 by the Harvey Gamage shipyard in Maine.  She was sheaved in tropical greenheart wood with steel plates along the waterline.  She was designed along the same sort of lines as Fridtjof Nansen's ship the Fram.  Very heavy oak frames, round hull, no keel.  She was equipped with sails primarily to help reduce the rolling caused by her round hull and to be used in case of loss of propulsion, for sailing.

When I arrived, she was in the drydock in the ASMAR shipyard in Talcahuano in southern Chile.  When I came aboard I was introduced to Captain Pieter Lenie.  Capt Lenie was already a legend and was a very colorful character.  Born in Belgium, he first went to sea at age 14, leaving Belgium when the Nazis overran his country.  Lenie survived WWII when the ship he was sailing on was torpedoed and blown up and he ended in the freezing water.  He had a very dry wit and at times it was hard to tell whether he was joking or serious.  He was once asked by a visitor: "Captain Lenie, who owns Antarctica?" Lenie hesitated only a moment before replying, "I own it. . . . It belongs to me."   That was typical of Lenie.

The ship was undergoing a refit and a large amount of dry rot had been found in her bow.  The shipyard workers were working timbers with adzes, chipping away at the timbers and shaping them to replace the rotted wood.  We noticed that sap was spraying from the timbers as they chipped away.  The wood was uncured and green.  This created problems as the wood never swelled like cured wood does when submerged in sea water and as soon as the ship was put back in the water a steady, permanent leak came in through the bow which Lenie named the "Rio Betzel" in honor of the NSF bureaucrat who had arranged the repairs.

We spent two months in the yard.  It was very hard on us in the crew.  We went girl crazy, chasing women and partying in town.  We had to be off the streets before the curfew each night or Pinochet's troops would arrest you.  So we shacked up for the night in cheap fleabag pensiones for the night with whichever girl we were with and come dragging back to the ship in the morning, much the worse for wear until it was quitting time and then we went back to the discoteca for another round.  Amazingly we all survived 2 months in Talcahuano.  Though not without our share of self inflicted wounds and minor social diseases.

Finally we set sail for Ushuaia, Argentina, our home port.  Rather than sail through the inside passage of Chile, we sailed straight down the coast and around Cape Horn.  North of Cape Horn, late at night, we hit a huge storm and the mizen parted.  The other two ABs, the 1st and 2nd Mates and I headed back to the stern to secure the shredded sail before it got wrapped up in the radar.  A big stainless steel D-ring was flogging back and forth in the howling wind threatening to smash our skulls.  As we were struggling to secure the sail, out of the corner of my eye I saw something white high above us.  I yelled, grabbed a stay and grabbed a hold of my nearest shipmate as a huge wave broke over us drenching us and nearly washing us away.  We managed to stow the sail and retreated back inside the vessel to dry off.

When we reached Cape Horn, Capt. Lenie shut down the engines and we sailed around Cape Horn.

We met the Chilean pilot at the entrance to the Beagle Channel and he took us as far as Puerto Williams where he disembarked and then the Argentine pilot boarded and took us into Ushuaia.

This was contested territory.  The Chileans and the Argentines were disputing three uninhabited islands at the entrance to the Beagle Channel, Picton, Lennox, and Nueva Islands. 

Due to their strategic location south of the Beagle Channel and facing the Atlantic Ocean, the islands were claimed by both Chile and Argentina, causing a serious border conflict. Picton, Lennox and Nueva granted Chile possible claims on part of the Atlantic Ocean, several other islands including the Falkland islands and of a larger part of Antarctica. Also, gold and oil had supposedly been found. The two countries agreed to submit to arbitration by the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II.  The Queen had ruled in favor of Chile a few months before we arrived and the Argentine government refused to accept the ruling and relations between the two countries was very tense.  Both countries had brutal military dictatorships and trouble was brewing.

When we moored to the stone quay in Ushuaia, we were met by Tommy Goodall who maintained the warehouse for the Hero.  Tommy and his wife Natalie own Estancia Harberton some 85 km east of Ushuaia.

Harberton is the oldest estancia (ranch) on Tierra del Fuego. It was founded by Tommy's great grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Bridges and his wife Mary Ann Varder in 1886. Bridges was the adopted child of an Anglican missionary, whose family left for the Falkland Islands when he was just 13 years old. He arrived in the Tierra del Fuego, age 21, where he worked also as a missionary before being granted land by President Roca in recognition for his work with the archipelago’s indigenous peoples. Haberton is so named after the village in Devonshire where his wife was born.

We loaded supplies, groceries, and a load of passengers, the relief crew for the Palmer Station.  The staff at Palmer had wintered over and were anxiously awaiting their reliefs.  We sailed down the Beagle en route to the Drake Passage, the wide open stormy body of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Crossing the Drake in the Hero was thoroughly unpleasant.  The ship rolled and wallowed and pitched and corkscrewed, belched diesel fumes from the fuel vents, and in general made me sick as hell.

After two and a half days we made it across and approached the South Shetland Islands. We finally encountered the Antarctic ice edge, and after skirting it for a ways, Capt Lenie pushed in and we continued southward.  We worked our way past King George Island and headed through the Bransfield Strait.  In the distance across the ice pack we could see the rugged ridge of Smith Island.  Continuing southward we entered the narrower Gerlache Strait, surrounded by glacier capped mountain peaks scuplted by snow and violent winds.

The going became more difficult as we often had to back and ram to get through the dense icepack.  My bunk was in the bow and as I lay in my bunk I could listen to the ice sliding by and my bunk shifted and shook as the captain rammed the ship into the ice.

We finally got within three miles of Palmer Station and encountered fast ice.  We were forced to await the arrival of the RRS Bransfield, the ship of the British Antarctic Survey that was bringing supplies for Palmer.

While awaiting the Bransfield we amused ourselves playing soccer on the ice and at one point we cornered an Adelie Penguin between 3 of us.  I got too close and it growled and lunged at me, grabbing my pant leg in it's beak and beating me with it's flippers. The Bransfield finally arrived and started breaking up the ice in the bay, opening a channel to Palmer Station.

Once this was done we acted as a lighter, moving cargo from the Bransfield to the dock (which was too shallow for the bigger ship), pushing our way through the chunks of pack ice.  It was slow laborious work.  The Bransfield also dropped off British teams and their dog teams who were destined to a remote station further south.  They trekked up to the top of the glacier above the station where a ski equipped Twin Otter landed and loaded them up and flew them south.

The unofficial mascot of Palmer Station was Yaby.  He was a South Polar Skua (named YABY for his band colors Yellow, Aluminum, Blue, Yellow) known to Palmer Station residents since he was first banded in 1975.  He was a notorious scavenger.  On one occasion when the station crew was having a BBQ, Yaby swooped down and stole a steak right off of the grill.  While the crew were remarking about what balls that bird had to steal their steak, he swooped down and took another.

After replenishing Palmer, we headed north towards Ushuaia with the departing station crew aboard.  We beat our way across the Drake and into the Beagle and back to town.

While we were in Ushuaia, I was pressed into service taking the renowned ornithologist Dr. David Parmalee and one of his graduate students out in a Zodiak inflatable boat to go look at birds and gather samples out on the islands in the Beagle Channel.  We examined nesting areas for Skuas, Shags, Terns, and Patagonian Geese and encountered a rock covered with sea lions.  As we turned back towards Ushaia, a sudden chubasco swept down the channel.  I guided the zodiak steadily upwind as the waves built and the spray whipped our faces.  I kept my nervous passengers calm, telling stories and jokes.  I finally made it to the shelter of a small cove on Bridges Island where we spotted an empty shepherds shack.  We took shelter, started a fire in the little stove and heated up some Yerba Mate I found in the cabin.

After an hour the winds came down and I called the Hero on the radio to let them know we were finally on our way back.  They told me cryptically that we had better conceal the shotgun that Dr Parmalee had brought with us.  As we approached the dock I saw why....  A large Argentine military transport ship, the Bahía Buen Suceso had arrived and was unloading military trucks towing howitzers.  The tensions with Chile over the three Islands had gotten worse and now the two countries were on the brink of war.

The trucks headed down the road to Tommy Goodall's place and set up gun emplacements at Harberton, taking aim at the Chilean Navy town of Puerto Williams on the other side of the Beagle Channel.  Over the next day several flights of Argentine jet  fighters landed at the Ushuaia airport.

Things came very close to a shooting war, until the Pope sent an emissary to negotiate between the Gen. Videla and Gen. Pinochet, the respective dictators of Argentina and Chile.

However, the same bellicose militaristic attitude prevailed and eventually resulted in the Falkland Islands War with Britain five years later in 1982.  The Bahía Buen Suceso was strafed by British Harrier fighters in the Falklands and later captured and used for target practice by the Royal Navy and sunk.

I continued on the Hero for my 6 month contract.  We made many more voyages across the Drake and visited many research stations  throughout the South Shetlands and and the Antarctic Peninsula, including King George Island, Deception Island, and Gibbs Island.  On Gibbs Island, Capt Lenie dropped me and Dr. Parmalee off in our Zodiak in the fog and departed, leaving us alone on the remote rocky precipitous island with several million Chinstrap Penguins and hundreds of Southern Fulmars.

We spent New Years Day 1978 anchored on the south side of Elephant Island, near where Ernest Shackleton and his men took refuge after the wreck of the Endurance in 1916.  We were taking shelter from a storm, and there in the lee of the island we were buffeted by 85 knot winds.  Looking out at the inhospitable ice covered island it really gave me empathy for the incredible hardships those men endured before finally being rescued.

My contract complete in early 1978, I disembarked the Hero in Ushuaia and flew to Buenos Aires.  In 1978, Argentina was at the height of the "Dirty War", a period of state-sponsored violence against the Argentine people and left-wing guerrillas that lasted from 1976 to 1983 and was carried out primarily by Gen. Videla's military government.  Around 20,000 people disappeared or were killed and 60,000 were tortured during this dark time in Argentine history.  I felt the chill of the repression on the streets of Buenos Aires.  Troops and heavily armed police in blue battle helmets were everywhere, driving around in Argentine made Ford Falcons.  It was as I imagined 1930's Germany was under the Nazis.  I was relieved when I finally boarded a plane bound for Miami the next day.  After 6 months in South America and the Antarctic, returning to Seattle was quite a culture shock.  It made me appreciate so many things I had taken for granted.  It was good to be home.....