The Real Robinson Crusoe

He was a pirate, a hothead and a lout, but castaway Alexander Selkirk—the author's ancestor inspired one of the greatest yarns in literature

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In February 1704, both ships were finally west of Cape Horn’s foul storms and headed north along the coast of Chile, though by now they had lost sight of each other. The Cinque Ports holed up at a rendezvous point on one of the islands in the archipelago west of Valparaiso, but the crew was threatening mutiny against Stradling. Dampier showed up just in time to put down the rebellion by promising a tighter rein on cocky Stradling. But shortly he, too, faced dissent among his sailors, who wanted him to attack more ships.

The St. George and Cinque Ports left the island in March 1704 to continue their plundering along the coasts of Peru and Mexico, where tempers continued to flare. “Stradling,” writes biographer Souhami, “rounded on Dampier, called him a drunk who marooned his officers, stole treasure, hid behind blankets and beds when it came time to fight, took bribes, boasted of impossible prizes and when there was plunder to hand, let it go.”

In May the Cinque Portssplit off from the St. George and spent the summer pirating on its own. By September the ship was so leaky that men were pumping out water day and night; Selkirk believed that it was so riddled with worms that its masts and flooring needed immediate repair.That month the ship returned to the relative safety of the island, a secluded and uninhabited place where the men could regain their health and sanity. Soon Selkirk would look at the island and see salvation.

At a small suburban airport outside crowded Santiago, Chile, six of us stand anxiously beside a drafty hangar staring at an eight-passenger Piper Navajo prop plane. Mechanics are crawling over its dismantled left engine.

This is the twice-a-week flight one takes across 400 miles of frigid Pacific to reach the Juan Fernández Archipelago. A councilman from the island waits with me, joined by a history teacher, a young mother, and two Santiago policemen on a cushy work assignment. We’re all wondering if this three-hour delay might be one of those signs from the aviation gods.

“Don’t worry,” says our pilot, Ricardo Schaeffer, a former colonel in Chile’s federal police, with more than 3,000 flights over 20 years. “We only go when I know it is safe.”

Thus assured, I put my trust in a 1979 craft whose outer skin seems no thicker than a beer can. With surprisingly little turbulence, we finally climb over the city of six million humming past the jagged Andes and across the ocean at 6,000 feet, just above foamy white clouds. We also carry school textbooks and new diapers; returning, we’ll take lobsters and octopus to Santiago restaurants.

After two hours of hypnotic engine drone, Schaeffer points to a growing gray dot on the horizon. “CrusoeIsland,” he says. The Chilean government renamed it RobinsonCrusoeIsland in 1966.

As we bank high above the reddish moonscape on the extreme western promontory of the 29-square-mile island, rugged volcanic mountains are visible in the distance, with seemingly great spots for hiking or diving. A sailor in the 1700s, however, would have seen nothing but trouble— grim, sheer-faced coves rising 80 feet straight up, and not a sandy beach in sight. Yet perhaps Selkirk knew, because mariners had stayed on the island before, that to find anything life-sustaining, like forests and goats, he’d have to sail to the lush northeast end and the well-protected Cumberland Bay, a 90-minute boat ride from the airstrip. On a sunny spring afternoon, whales flirt with the fishing boat carrying us, and dozens of yelping fur seals—an endemic species, Arctocephalus phillippii, that Dampier’s men saw by the “thousands”—sun themselves on the smooth inland rocks. CumberlandBay’s beaches are gray volcanic rocks, but the cove is inviting enough that a half-dozen sloops from Europe and Canada are anchored there.

San Juan Bautista (John the Baptist) village (pop. 600), started in 1750 by the Spanish and still the only community on the island, is spread along the half-moon bay at the base of a 3,000-foot mountain that becomes a rain forest at its top. San Juan Bautista is part sleepy South Pacific fishing village, part eco-tourism hideaway.


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