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Chosen by the Sea: Interview with Captain Ernesto Barria

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Ortelius sits dry-docked in a cavernous basin of brick and steel, lost in scaffolding like a sidelong building undergoing renovation. Men in dark blue jumpsuits and bright blue hardhats, heavy gray gloves and greasy gray boots, stomp over the rattling mesh walkways carrying hoses and lit cigarettes and bulky pieces of nautical maintenance equipment, one of which resembles a pneumatic cattle gun that, in the wrong hands, could wreak some serious havoc. Recently arrived from the Arctic, Ortelius is receiving its seasonal upkeep here in Vlissingen, a small Dutch port town near the Belgian border.

The overseer of m/v Ortelius

Ortelius sits dry-docked in a cavernous basin of brick and steel, lost in scaffolding like a sidelong building undergoing renovation.

Men in dark blue jumpsuits and bright blue hardhats, big gray gloves and greasy gray boots, stomp over rattling mesh walkways carrying hoses and bulky pieces of nautical equipment, one of which resembles a pneumatic cattle gun that in the wrong hands could wreak some pretty serious havoc.

Recently returned from the Arctic, Ortelius is receiving her seasonal upkeep in Vlissingen, a Dutch port town near the Belgian border. Next week she’ll push south to begin the Antarctica cruise season. But before she does, we step on board for a talk with the man who brought her here: Ernesto Barria, one of our most seasoned and celebrated captains.

We find him in the ship’s near-emptied cafeteria, sipping coffee with his crew and enjoying by far the easiest part of his job. 

You’ve done a lot of sailing around Chile, Captain Barria. How is polar sailing different than "regular" sailing (apart from the ice)?

True, it’s not just about the ice. The whole world out there is different. The landscapes are different, the wildlife is different.

Even the history is different – not only the geological history, but the history of humankind’s journeys into those regions: the pioneers, scientists, people with such impressive courage. It’s an honor to be part of the locations they discovered, the areas they worked in.

Is that what you enjoy most about Antarctica and the Arctic?

I like piloting a ship in places that exceed the ordinary, working in areas where change is standard. It might be the weather, the wildlife, the ice, whatever.

Change is simply part of an Arctic expedition, just like an Antarctic expedition. I like that. The voyages aren’t routine, they’re not simply about getting from point A to point B.

Sounds pretty incredible. Is it possible there are drawbacks?

Well, the distances can be hard. I miss my family a lot when I’m out there. We’re very close, so being that far away from them is difficult. But after maintenance on Ortelius is complete, I’ll have several months of leave back home in Chile before starting the Antarctic season.

Do you have any on-board traditions that help you feel better?

Every day I thank Ortelius for keeping us safe. And I keep a PANDA on the bridge.

You’re not afraid it’ll eat all the bamboo on board?

More like gasoline. It’s a generator, a really powerful marine generator.

How obvious is it that you’re not talking to a fellow sailor right now?

Pretty obvious.

Your passengers are rarely sailors either. Is it exciting showing them such extraordinary marine environments?

It’s always a thrill. Seeing their happy faces on board, especially when they're alone and having such personal moments, is my favorite part of the job. I love sharing these locations with them. Maneuvering the ship through enormous spans of sea ice isn’t bad either.

Your Oceanwide profile mentions that you descend from a long line of seafarers. How did that influence your career choice?

My grandfather was only 16 when he decided to take up the sailing life. I still remember all the sea stories that he and my uncles and of course my father used to tell me when I was a child. I was part of the sea before I was born. She chose me before I chose her.

What a great sentiment. I can’t think of a better note to end on, can you?

Not unless you have another panda joke.

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