So, there I was, standing at the end of the world.
Of course, there is many a place around the globe that calls itself that and I’ve been to my share of Finisterres, Finistères und Fisterras before.
Yet, this one felt different. That wooden sign in Ushuaia’s port said “Fin del mundo” with authority and there was no doubt that it really was saying the truth. Further south, one could just sense it, was nothing even remotely similar to anything I have ever seen, nothing I could recognize or relate to.
I have, indeed, come to the end of the world as I knew it. And I had no intentions of stopping whatsoever.
* * *
It was January of 2008 and to be honest with you I”m not really sure how I ended up in Ushuaia in the first place.
The simple explanation is that I took a plane from Stuttgart to Amsterdam, another one from Amsterdam to Rio, another one from Rio to Buenos Aires and then — after enduring a 40-hour strike at Ezeiza during which outraged passengers drummed on the garbage cans and threw coke cans at Aerolíneas Argentinas’ employees, while the more peaceful ones drank their mate and tried to to get some rest on the overcrowded seats, rare free patches of the floor or inside the X-ray scanners — I took the last one from Buenos Aires to the southernmost city of the world.
Truth be told, the journey started way before that.
Perhaps it started even before I was born, when, in the late fifties, the adventurous spirit of my father and his cousin led them to build their own sailing boat, and then watch it sink under them right in the middle of the harbor and in front of the watchful eyes of the assembled inhabitants of Nerezine, pop. 271.
Perhaps it started back in the mid-seventies, when I myself fell in love with boats and sails. A three-year old jumping-and-shouting-cargo on Flamingo, a shabby 20-footer we called our own, I traveled from Adriatic island to Adriatic island, hearing nothing but the waves, sea-gulls, flapping sails and tensed ropes.
Or perhaps it was in the early nineties, when I was given the bank’s money to play some more, and when I swore to myself that if I ever see another day, I’d make it worthwhile.
Perhaps it didn’t start until the early naughts, though, when I was on board Croatian winter sailing expedition to Malta. When we crossed Canale d’Otranto — and I became the first member of the family to sail a boat outside of the Adriatic sea — we poured a glass of red wine into the waves, appeasing Gods and spirits, and I suddenly felt I was not traveling alone and that the further away I might go, closer I will be to those who left.
Or it was really a few years later, when after only three weeks of marriage I left my newly-wed wife to sail across Atlantic and I realized she understood why I had to.
Whichever, there I was, standing at the end of the world. And I was a day late.
Ushuaia is a strange place.
There are some spots on Earth where you get the feeling that everything is there for a purpose, and Ushuaia is one of them. Brightly colored houses between the white mountain-tops and the heavy, leaded sea host mostly bars and shops with sailing utilities. Everybody drives a pick-up and is constantly picking up stuff or dropping it off. On the edge of the harbor there are containers waiting to be taken to research bases on the other side and in front of it former icebreakers await the tourists eager to dip into their “five meals AND a penguin sighting a day” trip of a lifetime.
In the harbor itself, a handful of sailing boats are alive with preparations. There are no fancy yachts or even fancier owners sipping on their chardonnay while paid crew in the matching uniforms clean the deck for the fifth time. Really, there is nothing fancy about Ushuaia at all, everything about it airs a Stockton-Malone vibe of workmanship.
One of the sailing boats in there is Santa Maria Australis and she fits in the surroundings just perfectly. Sturdy, practical, purposeful. Sixty feet long, with a deck-house, deep keel and a steel hull. And two crew-members short.
A Swiss police officer got caught in the same strike as I did and upon arriving to Ushuaia, we have no time for sight-seeing or acclimatization. Within ten minutes we are on board and on our way, on a first leg of a journey beyond the end of the world.
Santa Maria Australis on dock in Ushuaia