On the border between Uruguay and Argentina, cruising the River Plate not only evinces fascinating political differences, but has some idiosyncratic weather conditions as well, finds Jill Dickin Schinas
Two big rivers
Above BA the estuary ends abruptly – and it ends more abruptly with every passing year. Whereas the rest of the world fears losing out to rising sea levels, here they’ve got new land arriving daily, courtesy of the Rio Parana and the Rio Uruguay. These two rivers wind their way through more than 1,000 miles of fertile soil, carving twin highways all the way across Argentina and down the length of Uruguay. On reaching the Plate, they meet the tide. As they slow they drop their cargo of soil, stolen from that vast hinterland; and the result is La Delta, the alluvial islands forming at the back of the River Plate estuary.
The channels running through the Delta are shallow, and there are not many places you can get to in a deep-keeled yacht. Meanwhile, the two big rivers are arteries for ships and are therefore not especially peaceful. The Rio Uruguay is reported to be the nicer of the two; since its bottom is rocky, it is relatively clean. The Parana, by contrast, is polluted with all manner of industrial waste.
Whereas the Uruguayans seem to be a nation of farmers, the Argentinian well-to-do are polo-players, rowers and yachtsmen; and, above all, club members. Their marina-clubs line the suburban shore of the Rio Lujan, forming a fringe of gentility twixt the city suburbs and the wilderness of the Delta. Gaining access to the most élite clubs is about as easy as strolling into the Royal Yacht Squadron – but not if you come by boat; then you can just wander in and ask for a berth. And although the gatekeepers and rulemakers are stern, the club members themselves are super-friendly.
As you might expect for a nation whose yachting ancestry is British, a large number of the boats are old and classical. I’ve never seen so many gorgeous wooden sailing yachts outside the UK. Of course, this place is home to the Frers family, and the influence of all three generations is to be seen everywhere. Besides the teak-decked beauties there are a number of flash racing machines with carbon sails.
All these boats get plenty of use. Despite the fact that the winter can be chilly, there is no sailing season – it’s a year-round pastime; and it’s also a family affair.
Duck into the Delta
Although we have been known to enjoy the hospitality of the clubs, we Mollymawks prefer to duck into the Delta and find a quiet creek to moor. Life alongside the riverbank allows us an entirely different perspective: here, among the trees, everything is cosier and the environment is thronged with wildlife. In the summer cicadas shrill and crickets whistle, frogs chirrup and snakes swim by. In the winter the reptiles and the insects sleep, but the place is still a bird-watcher’s paradise.
But even tucked up in our little creek the Argentinians find us. Whether they are at the helm of a classic yacht, a speedboat, a RIB, or a kayak, everyone wants to greet the foreigners: “Lovely boat!” they cry. “Did you really sail all the way from England? . . . Amazing! . . . You live aboard! You don’t even have a house! . . . Can I do anything to help you?” One fellow came past one morning and tossed an English newspaper into our cockpit.
Making friends is one of the cruising yachtsman’s chief delights, and nowhere is it so easy as in this country. Excitable, generous and enthusiastic, the Argentinians are the most open-hearted people we have ever encountered in our travels, and a lot of maté has been passed around Mollymawk’s cockpit during our visit to the Plate.
Boxing the compass
The weather on the River Plate goes round and round, more or less predictably, week in, week out, year round. Essentially the wind circles the place, supplying northerly, north-westerly, south-westerly, south-easterly, easterly around the compass.
The system begins with light northerlies and clear skies; then the wind fades and drifts into the west. Then comes the south-westerly squall, or pampero, which might blow 60 knots, but seldom for more than an hour or two.
Then a south-easter brings an icy gale that can blow for three days. As this fades, the wind spins through east into north-east. The north-easterly can also blow quite strongly for a few days, and it sometimes brings rain.
Eventually the glass starts to fall, the wind moves into the north and the whole cycle begins again. The entire routine usually takes about one week.
This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World April 2015