08. Darwin's Atmosphere

In your travels or daily life, have you ever suddenly understood your predecessors' or ancestors' actions or hardships? Then you may find yourself strangely convinced, thinking, "I see, that's what it was all about."

As I sail south across the sea of islands, how often has my mind traveled through the ages?

-- This is a real story. --
Darwin's sign

Even today, when people travel to every corner of the world, some places remain truly unexplored.

Forty-six days after entering the Patagonian Archipelago, Aomi, heading south through an endless uninhabited area, stopped at the desolate Usborne Islands. They consist of three small islands and some rocks.

People have no reason or need to visit these remote and lonely islands. The water in this area has probably not yet been surveyed, as the charts show no depths. I have even seen some uncharted rocks and peninsulas. There must be unexpected dangers lurking in such unknown waters.

usborne islands map

Being aware of the unseen rocks on the seabed, I steered Aomi toward the island, which is about five kilometers long. The U.S. Sailing Directions, which I rely on, contains a bit of information:

"Small vessels can take anchorage in 5 to 6 fathoms (10m), sand, off the east side of the western and largest."

Indeed, I see a beautiful yellow sandy beach along the island's shore. As the Sailing Directions indicate, the seabed should be sandy, ensuring the anchor will hold firm. I can sleep well tonight.

After lowering the anchor, I secure the end of the anchor rope to Aomi, start the engine, and then let her run, pulling the rope taut to make sure the anchor is properly set.

To my surprise, the anchor slips. The sandy seabed may be so hard and dense that the anchor claw does not bite into it. Choosing the best anchor according to the seabed's quality is necessary, so I will try all three types of anchors on board Aomi.

Three hours later, I am at a loss after repeatedly lifting and lowering heavy anchors. No matter what anchor I use, even the Danforth type, which should be adequate for the sand, the result is somehow the same. No, this is not possible. If it's a sandy bottom, the anchor should work. Something is wrong!

It is already dusk. If I don't hurry, the sun will set, and darkness will quickly follow. If the wind picks up during the night, Aomi will be swept away in complete darkness and crash into the islands. The only way left is to tie a long rope to a tree on the shore instead of an anchor. I load the 80-meter rope into the dinghy and row toward the yellow sand beach.

As soon as I step on the shore, I am stunned. I cannot believe my eyes. Beneath my feet is a beautiful beach of pebbles, like the kind you put in a goldfish bowl.

Every time I step on the yellow beach, my boots sink in. When I pull them out, the pebbles spill over the tops of my boots, offering no resistance. If the seabed is also pebbles, it is no wonder the anchor does not work. This would be like trying to lower an anchor in pachinko (Japanese slot machine) balls.

At that moment, I have a hunch:

"Since the beginning of human history, very few ships have anchored at this island, and I may be the first to try to land here. English ships exploring the archipelago in the nineteenth century probably visited here. They mistakenly thought they saw the beautiful sandy beach. They likely dropped a small, greased weight to check the seabed's depth and quality. When the weight was pulled out of the water by a rope with a depth scale, it was natural that grains of sand mixed with pebbles on the seabed stuck to the grease. Looking at the sand and the yellow beach in front of them, they might write in their log, 'Sandy seabed, suitable for anchoring.' This note might have then been included in the Sailing Directions. They probably had no reason or need to land on this remote island. Perhaps since then, no ship has anchored here, and no one has gone ashore for over a hundred years until today. So, the existence of the pebbles may have remained unknown."

In a region as seldom visited by ships, it is not surprising that much of the anchorage information is outdated. In fact, page 310 of the U.S. Sailing Directions for South America Volume Ⅱ (see references at the end of this book) contains a description of the Hazard Archipelago further south, which reads as follows:

"The Beagle twice occupied an anchorage under these islands, but found it very bad and exposed. "

In the 1830s, the Beagle, which carried Charles Darwin, famous for his theory of evolution, visited the archipelago. Their report, more than 150 years ago, is still in the Sailing Directions as the only source of information about the islands.

This area may well be the least explored of all the unexplored regions.

pebbles at usborne islands

Patagonian map

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