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Island of Ghosts

Jan 1, 2003

Sails rotting off the spars of square-riggers lying at anchor, enslaved and bewildered South Sea Islanders working with their lungs filled with choking dust till not even a gasping breath could be drawn, pansies blooming profusely in an English garden, orchards groaning with sweet, red apples in upstate New York; these are scenes that came to mind as we planned a passage along the stark desert coasts of Peru and northern Chile, where the guano trade flourished in the 19th century. Maybe these scenes don't come to everyone's mind, just to those of old sailors that were in the fertilizer business, including the importation of Peruvian guano, as I was.

Baron Humbolt, the German naturalist, explorer, and namesake of Humbolt bay and county in Northern California, realized in 1802 the tremendous size and value of the guano deposits created by millions of seabirds defecating for millennium in and around their breeding and nesting sites. As anyone knows who has walked under a seagull or pigeon at an inopportune moment, bird droppings can be found almost anywhere. However, only in places where it very rarely rains (caves and selected islands and mainland promontories along the western coasts of South America and South Africa) can it build up, little by little, until in some places it is hundreds of feet deep.

Without our modern-day news media, the commercial extraction and sale of Peruvian guano took almost 40 years to get started. Once farmers and gardeners in Europe realized the benefits of putting "bird-processed" fish on their crops and blooms, the demand was insatiable. Sailing ships from all the world's nations cruised the Peruvian coast looking for cargoes of guano. Never mind that the ammonia-rich fumes and dust could weaken cotton canvas sails until they would tear away at the slightest blow. Never mind, too, the human misery caused by the trade.

Because the deposits were located in mostly lonely, waterless places, where the birds could eat, sleep, poop, and procreate in peace; there was no close-by source of labor to dig out, bag, and load the stuff aboard waiting ships. The word quickly got around Lima and other Pacific Coast ports that working in a guano mine was no picnic in fact, it was quite a bit worse than languishing in a jail cell. When recruiters came looking for laborers, they could hardly be found nearby. Thus, the guano companies went to Easter Island, and other islands in the South Seas, to "recruit" laborers. Thousands of islanders sailed away from their homes, lured by promises of high pay or after having been indentured by their chiefs, never to return. The healthiest of young men, used to a life in the clean, rain-drenched air and warm waters of tropical islands, couldn't survive the loneliness, parched landscape, poor food, and stinking and suffocating work they found at the guano deposits. Luckily, the trade slowed before many island populations were totally lost.

The end of the trade

The start of World War I and the German invention of a method to extract nitrogen directly from the air, so explosives and fertilizers could be produced synthetically, ended the exportation of guano except for very special and limited uses. Now, most of the islands have reverted to lonely havens for cormorants, boobies, and albatrosses. Only a very few have working mines or caretakers.

The port captain in Paita, Peru's northernmost port of entry, told us that the caretaker on Isla Lobos de Tierra (some 70 miles south and just five miles off the coast) would be delighted by a visit from a foreign yacht and would show us around the old guano works and regale us with stories. This was just what we wanted to hear. We had hoped to visit one of the "guano islands," but we didn't know it would be so easy to find one almost right on our course, complete with a tour guide to boot!

With the port captain's instructions on how to find the island and the landing pier in hand, we sailed away from the old colonial buildings, the modern fishmeal plant, and the impressive orange-and-black-banded lighthouse of Paita into a damp mist that reduced visibility to not much more than a mile.

The coastal waters of Peru are plagued with fog for the same reason that brings fog to the coast of California. Cold waters, upwelling from the deep, chill, moisture-laden marine air until fog forms. We tip our hats to Hal and Margaret Roth, the well-known cruising team aboard Whisper, other cruising couples, and thousands of other sailors who sailed thesewaters without the aid of radar.

Our voyaging experiences in Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska made us familiar with fishing boats of all types: seiners, long-liners, gillnetters, and trollers. We learned how to work around and through the various fleets in both fair and thick weather. Nevertheless, we weren't prepared for our encounters with Peruvian fishing boats. In our home waters seiners could be found with seiners, gillnetters with gillnetters and so forth. Not so off Peru. Boats seemed to be transiting, setting seines, or hauling trawls without any separation of activities or apparent reasons for their headings and speeds. We were as busy as kindergarten teachers on Parent's Day trying to keep our course, plotting the blips on the radar, and peering through the ever-thickening fog to see the boats. Luckily, as night fell, we worked our way out of the thickest of the fishing action. At this point, all we had to contend with were the very strong and variable currents. The Sailing Directions and Peruvian chart were to the point when they advised: "Precaucion: Fuertes corrientes marinas en varias direcciones in la vicinidad de las Islas Lobos.

The day's very light breeze gave way to complete calm as night fell. The running lights fuzzily reflected off the glassy water outboard of the bow waves as we motored toward our destinationsoon it showed up as a faint outline on the radar screen.

A shoal of anchovies

Well north of the island our digital depth sounder brought our hearts up to our mouths as all of a sudden it indicated that we were in just a few feet of water instead of the 120 or so we saw on the chart. We threw the engine in neutral and jumped to look over the side, as if we could see anything in the inky darkness. It turned out we could: the phosphorescence showed we were passing through a tremendous school of small fish. They were anchovies, the raw material for guano.

Cabo Cruz, the north end of the island, made a fine target on the radar as we made a wide turn to starboard into Caleta Juanchuquita. Just as the friendly port captain had assured us, the muelle, or landing pier, was easily visible by radar. Also, he told us that we would be about to see it once we had Cabo Cruz bearing about northwest. We slowly crept into 30 feet of water about 300 yards off the head of the pier and dropped the anchor. We didn't want to get any closer for fear of fouling the anchor on some piece of machinery, pipe, or cable lying on the bottom, near the guano mine's landing place.

Once the thump-thump of our faithful Ford-Lehman diesel engine was stopped and the radar turned off, it seemed eerie. When I hung out the kerosene anchor light, its gentle glow, normally so comforting, was quickly absorbed by the thick fog. Our feelings of being in a lonesome limbo grew even stronger. The occasional lift of the hull by a remnant of the Southern Ocean ground swell was the only evidence we had that we were still "of this world."

Through the night we slept in short snatches, going on deck from time to time to look and listen. Our hopes were raised once when the fog lifted just enough for us to see a few flashes of the lighthouse on the island's 300-foot-high summit. Just as quickly as it lifted the mist shut in againdashing our hopes of clearing conditions. Dawn, at 6° south latitude, came quickly, but the change from black gloom to the drippy, damp gray light of morning didn't relieve our concern about what to do next. We didn't want to launch the dinghy and leave Murielle anchored in the fog with no one aboard to sound fog signals. Sitting at anchor, peering into the mists, didn't seem an attractive way to spend time, but then if we did get underway and had to play dodge-ball with fishing boats all day, that wouldn't be much fun, either.

There was just one thing to do: have another cup of coffee and some breakfast, and think about it.

A boat approaches

Just as we were finishing the last bites, the sound of an engine could be heard through Murielle's fiberglass hull. We quickly went topside and rang the anchor bell, turning on the radar as we went by. No answering signal was heard, but the sound seemed to be slowly coming closer. Comfortingly, it sounded like a panga's engine, nothing like the rumble of a purse seiner's or a coastal freighter's big diesel. We continued to ring the bell till we heard the sound of a throttle being cut and finally saw an open boat, about 30 feet long, looming out of the fog, approaching on our starboard bow.

Aboard the wooden, double-ended craft were seven of the most piratical looking fishermen we have ever seen. Admittedly, seven Arthur Anderson accountants, dressed in dirty clothes and without a shave or wash for four or five day,, would look pretty piratical, too. Nevertheless, this bunch looked very tough and, worse, were likely hungry for something to eat besides fish and seabird eggs. What was even scarier was the probability that they would like to come aboard for whatever clothing and electronics they might covet. They drifted up to us in the wisps of fog and threw a rusty anchor over the side, fetching up not more than three feet off our beam. A compressor was started, three of the crew put on wetsuits, donned masks and flippers, and rolled over the side. Their yellow hoses and bubbles trailed underneath the keel of Murielle. "What's happening?" We murmured to each other. "Are they going to drill holes in our bottom, like the Dutch did to their 'Spanish enemy in the lowland sea?'"

Supposedly they were harvesting shellfish, but we still didn't like the situation at all. Maybe the divers were going to unshackle our anchor and then try to sell it back to us on the spot. This happened to some friends of ours in another country.

The apparent jefe left on board said, "No tenga miedo (have no fear)." That just made us more apprehensive. No other target appeared on the radar, and we knew the caretaker on the island couldn't find us in the fog, even if he knew we were there. The closest authorities were 70 miles away, far out of VHF range. Probably the fishermen were just curious and anxious for company, but how could we know that for sure?

Lyn keeps a tape recording, always ready to play, of a friend's Doberman barking and growling. She started it playing with the volume turned up. Then she came up in the cockpit and shook her finger down the companionway and admonished the "dog" to "stay down below!" She had some candy that we passed over to the fishermen in a salmon netthat is how close together we were! The jefe asked for cigarettes, which we did not have. I said, "The owner (pointing below) wants us to get on to Callao as he has friends waiting there for us to arrive."

The engine fired up on the first push of the starter, the anchor came up quickly in the shallow water, and we started out on the "course to leave" plotted the night before, with the dog-barking tape still playing away over the sound of the engine. The "owners" were as fictitious as the "dog," but what the heck!

The fishermen watched us depart with a real look of dismay in their eyes. We'll probably never know if the dismay was just genuine sorrow for the loss of human company in that fog-shrouded cove of Isla Lobos de Tierra, or if it was just chagrin at missing out on possibly valuable booty.

It was hard to miss our chance to visit the island and hear the caretaker's stories; but we knew, if we were going to leave, the time to leave was right then, while the divers were down and the "fishermen," if they were other than just honest fishermen, hadn't the time to case us and determine how they would take us over.

Forever in our memories we will keep the dank feel of the fog, the pungent scent of the guano, the brief flashes of the lighthouse through the slowly swirling mist, the sound of the invisible panga's engine, and the mystery of the fishermen of Isla Lobos de Tierra.

Knick and Lyn Pyles have cruised extensively along South America's west coast.