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Sailing at the top of the world

2012 July 2

We were slated to accompany two young Peruvian sailors, Renso and Rafael Verand, who operated the only sailboat charter business on the lake. Their 31-foot Hunter Thaya had been trucked over the mountains from Lima in much the same way that Jones' boat had been conveyed. Its deep draft, forgiving sailplan, commodious cockpit and spacious belowdeck accommodations made it an ideal boat for the Lake Titicaca charter business.

"We both grew up as sailors on the coast," said 32-year-old Rafael. "We had heard about the famous Tristan Jones, and although we never met anyone of the lake who knew him, there are plenty of hand-me-down stories about his presence here."

In the "it's a small world" department, it turned out that Rafael's boat hailed from the same Charlotte Harbor area of southwest Florida I call home and where I have done most of my sailing. The name of the Verand brother's boat was Thaya, which means "wind" in the Aymara language, and my sailboats have wind in their names.

Our first port of call was Uros Khantati, an island in a series of 40 or so 3-acre floating rafts made of woven totora reeds. The totora plant, which grows in abundance in the shallow waters around Lake Titicaca, is related to the giant bullrush sedge. We skimmed over the crystal-clear water, passing dozens of small fishing boats and dodging acre upon acre of stationary nets and fish farm buoys that provide the locals with ample supplies of kingfish as well as farm-raised trout.

"My ancestors moved to these islands in self-defense against the Incas. Today, they live a self-sufficient existence of fishing, tending waterfowl flocks and even send their kids to school on a larger reed island," said our guide Armando, as he proudly introduced us to his mother, sister and 2-year-old nephew. We had interrupted their work on a giant reed boat that was coming together nicely as the women and their husbands wove stiff pieces of the versatile reed through the superstructure.

When Jones visited, the indians of the Uros Islands were an impoverished lot. Today, they live a comfortable existence with their traditional ways supplemented by the occasional tourist visit. Another change is that the reed boats are honeycombed with plastic water jugs, which help with the craft's floatation as well as providing a use for the hundreds of plastic water bottles that dot the mainland's roadsides.

The construction of the islands themselves is ingenious-2-foot cubes of peat are lashed into sections about 20 feet by 20 feet. These sections are joined to form an island the size of a football field. Then the entire surface is covered with a build-up of up to 20 layers of totora reeds. Each island is secured to the shallow lake bottom with stakes driven into the muck. The footing is firm, but there is a slight give underfoot.

During his visit, Tristan Jones helped rescue a section of one of the islands that had blown some distance away by an evening storm. With typical Jones bravado, he sailed Sea Dart over to the drifting section, attached his storm line to it and then returned to the first island where the entire village "pulled heartily and narrowed the channel so the two once again became one."

Armando recalled a similar event where his island came apart in a storm.

"We woke up and our section of the island had come apart and we had drifted about a mile away from our mother and father. We were just youngsters. And while we thought this was an adventure, it was also very scary."

Armando's mother served some hot tea and cookies while his aunt proudly showed me where she, her husband and four children lived in a one-room reed hut, complete with small solar panel, single bare light bulb and small television. The smell of wood smoke was everywhere as the women tended small fires under drying fish. As we climbed into our boat, the whole family came to the shoreline to bid us farewell, much the same way Jones experienced.

"I weighed anchors, cast off the mooring lines, and, to the waves of about a hundred Uros, got under way," Jones wrote. "When I got clear, the scene was fantastic. In the west, the sun was shining on the silver peaks of the Cordillera Real, below the peaks, the glaciers, purple and violet, dripped like curtains down to the misty gray foothills. All this was repeated upside down, for the whole of this spectacular spectrum of color was reflected in the calm waters of the lake."

Our voyage to the nearby rocky island of Taquile was through equally placid waters. It was on Taquile that Jones met a Quechua Indian named Huanapaco, who was to become his crew, companion and translator for the eight months the pair explored the lake. Jones described him as "A sturdy chap, about 5 foot 8 inches tall, with a broad chest and big lungs of the Andes Indian, which are about one third larger than those of people who live at sea level. He was thick-limbed and his face gleamed with intelligence."

This was an equally apt description of our guide Armando. We pulled up to a little stone jetty in a nicely protected cove and were met there by "the mayor" of the island who served as a de facto welcoming committee for visiting tourists. Jones has been met in very much the same way by the headman of the island.

The living on Taquile was not easy when Jones had visited, nor was it when we sailed there. The rocky shoreline extends inland and makes agriculture difficult at best. Around 2,200 people live on Taquile Island and follow the Inca philosophy of "do not steal, do not lie and do not be lazy." Young girls in their brightly colored, multilayered petticoats tended sheep on the hillsides. Older women climbed up and down the hills carrying bundles of wood in their shawls.

The elders of the village regarded us with curiosity as we huffed and puffed up the steep pathway. At almost 13,000 feet above sea level, higher than Mt. Hood, the breathing was difficult. Luckily for Betsy and me, we had "been at altitude" for over two weeks and tolerated the rarified air. The mayor led us past small fields of potatoes, sunflowers and corn, to his home overlooking the vast expanse of the Lake. Here, we supped on a delicious luncheon of quinoa soup, roasted potatoes and strong coffee.

And then, it was time for our first swim in the lake-a breathtakingly chilly affair made all the more excruciating by the fact that we had to wade out almost 100 yards from the shoreline to get to knee-deep water. Brrrr. At 55 degrees, we vowed to chase the chill away with a mug of brandy-laced coffee back at the lodge.

We shared that coffee with sailing brothers Renso and Rafael Verand, who were eager to show us what their Hunter 31 could do on the lake's expansive waters. The brothers were an engaging duo, each one quick to finish the other's sentence. The young entrepreneurs told of easy daysails and gut-wrenching crossings into Bolivia.

"The winds can come up quickly. One minute, you are coasting along and the next, working to windward in 30-knot winds," Rafael said. "But while we have had a good reception on the lake, the charters have been slow to come. The locals have welcomed us with open arms as long as we do not snag their fishing nets."

The next day, we clambered aboard Thaya for a rousing daysail. A stiff breeze threatened to bury the rail most of the afternoon as the wind built with the heat of the day. We even hoisted my yacht club's pendant on Thaya's flag halyard, making the burgee of the Useppa Yacht Club the highest-flying sailboat burgee in world.

Tristan Jones' penned words long ago capture the moment: "Soon the morning breeze picked up Sea Dart and sent her dancing over the short chop of Lake Titicaca. While cruising, we had encountered some very wild storms, with savage winds blasting down from the frozen Andes peaks onto the sun-baked Altiplano. It was exciting, exhilarating sailing when the going was steady, I would whoop and sing at the pure joy of sailing on the wind across the roof of the world."

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