Patag­o­nian cruise of a life­time

Genevieve Leaper in­dulges in a South Amer­i­can ‘trip of a life­time’, tak­ing in dol­phins, hum­ming­birds and glaciers en route

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

Sun and snow in South Amer­ica

My trip of a life­time be­gan with an un­ex­pected phone call from Chile last Oc­to­ber. My friends Colin and Ana had re­turned to Puerto Montt, where they had left their boat for a few months, and were head­ing south. Would I like to join them in Patag­o­nia? I was so ex­cited I hardly slept for a week. Six weeks later, I ar­rived in Puerto Natales on the bus from Punta Are­nas, the last leg of a three-day jour­ney from Scot­land.

There are few coastal towns in Patag­o­nia, so it is un­for­tu­nate that Puerto Natales lacks a har­bour and the only safe an­chor­age is a mile away across the chan­nel. When I met up with Colin and Ana in the morn­ing they had moved to a tem­po­rary an­chor­age off the fish­ing pier, but Colin was keen to leave as soon as pos­si­ble. After a hur­ried pro­vi­sion­ing trip to the last su­per­mar­ket for 500 miles, our last call was at the Cap­i­ta­nia de Puerto to get our ‘zarpe’ (sail­ing per­mis­sion) for Puerto Wil­liams from the Ar­mada. All mar­itime traf­fic is con­trolled by the Chilean Navy, and boats are re­quired to re­port their po­si­tion daily. Luck­ily, the Chileans are very friendly peo­ple, and we had no prob­lems with of­fi­cial­dom de­spite our lack of Span­ish.

By the time we got on board the wind was al­ready pick­ing up so it was time to go: no time to un­pack more than sail­ing gear and cam­era as we mo­tored out. For the first day I wasn’t much more than a

pas­sen­ger while I got to know the boat. Ithaka is an OVNI 435, built in 2003. When Colin re­tired and started look­ing for a boat for se­ri­ous cruis­ing he con­sid­ered var­i­ous pop­u­lar blue wa­ter boats, be­fore even­tu­ally set­tling on the

French OVNI. Ithaka needed some work when they bought her in Panama, but has proved her­self well over four years of cruis­ing the Pa­cific.

Puerto Natales is more than 80 miles from the open sea and it took us two days to re­join

Canal Smyth, the main route south. At first

I was hope­lessly dis­ori­en­tated, con­fused by the south­ern hemi­sphere sun and fre­quent changes in di­rec­tion as we fol­lowed wind­ing chan­nels with moun­tains all round.

We passed through the nar­rows of

An­gos­tura White, half a ca­ble wide, where ti­dal cur­rents run up to 10 knots, and stopped the first night in Caleta Mousse. With its wooded shores and snow-capped peaks above, I thought this snug lit­tle cove quite the most per­fect an­chor­age I’d ever seen.

When I woke in the morn­ing it was so still I wouldn’t have known I was on a boat – no hum of wind in the rig­ging, no waves lap­ping the hull, no rum­bling of the an­chor chain. All I could hear were birds call­ing in the trees and a wa­ter­fall tum­bling down the hill­side. To my amaze­ment, this was quite a typ­i­cal an­chor­age; de­spite the strong winds and vi­o­lent gusts in the chan­nels, the nu­mer­ous de­light­ful cale­tas are gen­er­ally far more peace­ful and se­cure than many a Scot­tish an­chor­age. Some are so well hid­den they would be dif­fi­cult to find with­out the in­dis­pens­able Patag­o­nia & Tierra del Fuego Nau­ti­cal Guide, which must be one of the best pi­lot books any­where. Be­cause of the depths it is usu­ally nec­es­sary to an­chor very close to the shore and take lines ashore – but this is also best for shel­ter. We soon learned to re­gard trees as a sailor’s best friends, pro­vid­ing stout trunks for moor­ing to (we are all tree-hug­gers!) and a nat­u­ral wind­break. Most of the Patag­o­nian coast is thickly forested from the snow-line down to the shore. An un­ex­pected bonus was ex­cel­lent bird-watch­ing from the boat: we saw king­fish­ers, wood­peck­ers and even hum­ming­birds in the trees, as well as wa­ter­birds like the flight­less steamer ducks. Many cale­tas were home to a pair of the pretty up­land geese with their goslings, and even dol­phins came into the an­chor­ages. The Peale’s dol­phins were en­thu­si­as­tic bow-rid­ers, while the smaller Chilean dol­phins were much more shy.

The Mag­el­lan Strait

Canal Smyth runs south be­tween the main­land and is­lands. It was strange to meet a tanker ne­go­ti­at­ing the maze of small is­lands in the chan­nel, but this is the main route for coastal traf­fic to or from the Mag­el­lan Strait. It is well buoyed now, but more than one ship has come to grief in the past. The rust­ing wreck of the SS Santa Leonor (for­merly USS River­side, a Sec­ond World War troop car­rier) sits im­pos­si­bly high on the rocks of Is­lotes Adelaide.

It’s not just ships that pass through the chan­nel: on one day we saw sev­eral sei whales. In Caleta Dardé, Colin and Ana recog­nised an or­ange flag tied to a tree as a mes­sage from their friend Aleko who had stayed here five days ear­lier. Un­til di­vert­ing to Puerto Natales they had been sail­ing to­gether with Aleko and

his Ni­chol­son 32 Be­duin since leav­ing

Puerto Montt.

After five days we came to the south­ern end of Canal Smyth. We were lucky to wait only one day in Caleta Teokita be­fore tack­ling the Mag­el­lan Strait: oth­ers have waited far longer. Joshua Slocum tried to leave Puerto An­gosto six times be­fore fi­nally get­ting away into the Pa­cific. We left with a fore­cast of NW back­ing SW 20-25 knots, gust­ing to 35 knots later; fairly av­er­age con­di­tions.

After 15 miles close-hauled with dou­ble-reefed main we were out into the strait, where it was much rougher with the open ocean to the west. Once clear of Isla Ta­mar we could free off a lit­tle and, later, as the wind in­creased, we low­ered the main. Tak­ing the wheel as Ithaka surged along at 6-7 knots un­der stay­sail alone, I couldn’t quite be­lieve I was sail­ing the Mag­el­lan Strait. It would have been al­most dis­ap­point­ing if it had been calm, though I wouldn’t have wished to be beat­ing west into the ris­ing wind and heavy showers.

It was on al­most ex­actly the same date nearly 500 years ago (28 Novem­ber 1520) that Mag­el­lan’s fleet de­parted to the west. Mag­el­lan ap­par­ently ‘wept for joy’ at hav­ing dis­cov­ered the way through to the Pa­cific. Three hun­dred years later Cap­tain Pringle Stokes, sent to sur­vey these wa­ters in HMS Bea­gle, be­came so de­pressed he shot him­self. Ear­lier he had writ­ten in his diary ‘noth­ing could be more dreary than the scene around us’, and oth­ers have com­mented on the ‘in­ces­sant rains’. For us it was our long­est day, log­ging 57 miles.

After a short run to Caleta Cam­pa­mento, we fi­nally caught up with Be­duin and stayed to­gether all the way to Puerto Wil­liams. It was a lot of fun cruis­ing in com­pany, and if it some­times felt more like match rac­ing I shouldn’t have been sur­prised – I first met Colin and Ana rac­ing Fire­ball dinghies. More than once Ithaka ar­rived ahead, only for Be­duin to slip past in a tack­ing duel up a nar­row inlet. We didn’t mind; when Aleko an­chored first he would be ready on his pad­dle­board to take our shore lines.

He had long since dis­pensed with a dinghy in favour of an in­flat­able pad­dle­board. When moor­ing with shore lines, it is es­sen­tial to be able to launch the dinghy quickly – no prob­lem on Ithaka with the dinghy on davits, but on a smaller boat the pad­dle­board is eas­ier to stow on deck ready to go. Be­tween us we be­came very ef­fi­cient at moor­ing the two boats.

Some­times we an­chored sep­a­rately but space was of­ten very tight, so it was bet­ter to raft to­gether. Float­ing rope is best for the moor­ing lines, stowed in tubs on deck. As the hard­est part is of­ten get­ting to the cho­sen tree through the un­der­growth, ty­ing a very long bow­line makes it much eas­ier to re­lease in the morn­ing.

Com­ing through the Paso Tor­tu­oso, we spot­ted a large flock of birds and then a blow. To my de­light, the skip­per needed lit­tle per­sua­sion to al­ter course for closer look. This part of the strait (Par­que Marino Fran­cisco Coloane) is a pro­tected area for hump­back whales and here they were, feeding along with al­ba­trosses, gi­ant pe­trels, pen­guins and skuas.

A far worse time

After the Mag­el­lan Strait, the only chan­nel di­rectly ex­posed to the ocean was Canal Cock­burn, and we had a far worse time here. Leav­ing Seno Dyne­ley, we had to head south-west for 15 miles be­fore turn­ing into Canal Ocasión on the south side. Mak­ing an early start, we hoped to take ad­van­tage of the north-west wind be­fore it backed south-west­erly. How­ever, as we rounded the south­ern tip of Isla Clarence, the breeze that was fill­ing in was al­ready more west­erly and soon rather fresher than we would have liked. The AIS beeped, show­ing a tug tow­ing a small tanker com­ing into the chan­nel ahead. We tried to keep to the wind­ward side, but were be­ing headed more and more and the squalls got worse. Here too, for the first time, we felt the swells rolling in from the Pa­cific.

As the ships ap­proached we put the en­gine on to hold our course, but as we furled the yan­kee the flog­ging sheet shat­tered the spray­hood win­dow which was brit­tle from the cold. Be­duin fared worse with a ripped main­sail. To our sur­prise, the next tar­get on the AIS was a sail­ing ves­sel, only the sec­ond yacht we’d seen. Podor­ange, a French char­ter boat, was head­ing west out of the chan­nel, but we were re­lieved to set the stay­sail and bear away into the shel­ter of Canal Ocasión.

This south-west cor­ner of Tierra del Fuego was star­tlingly dif­fer­ent to the wooded shores we were used to – a bleak, grey land­scape of bare rock, al­most de­void of trees. The hills be­came steeper and even more for­bid­ding as we turned into Seno Ocasión. Sail­ing to­wards a sheer rock wall with the wind fun­nelling through the nar­rows, it seemed im­pos­si­ble there could be any­where to an­chor. But the tiny cove re­vealed at the last minute even had trees, to which we at­tached a record seven shore lines.

Two wet and windy days in Caleta Brec­knock was time for re­pairs and main­te­nance. The sewing ma­chine came out to re­pair the spray­hood, while Aleko was also busy stitch­ing a main­sail seam. We were glad of the cabin heaters as ev­ery­thing was damp from con­den­sa­tion de­spite in­su­la­tion and DIY dou­ble glazing on the win­dows.

Snow showers

The weather was still cold and wet as we headed east along Canal Brec­knock and across Bahía Deso­lada, then even colder in Canal Bal­len­ero, with a bit­ing Antarc­tic wind bring­ing snow showers. This chan­nel was named by the Bea­gle’s sec­ond, more fa­mous cap­tain, Robert Fitzroy, after the theft of a whal­ing boat by the na­tives. We could only spec­u­late on the ori­gin of other names such as Isla Lead­line and Bahía Fi­asco.

But while so many place names on the chart are re­minders of in­trepid ex­plo­ration by Euro­peans, there is lit­tle to record the sad de­cline of the Ya­mana and other Fue­gian tribes, de­stroyed by di­rect per­se­cu­tion and Euro­pean dis­eases. Joshua Slocum in 1896 had a few skir­mishes with the na­tives and scat­tered car­pet tacks on deck to de­ter them from board­ing the Spray. Just 60 years later, HW Til­man didn’t see a sin­gle ca­noe dur­ing Mis­chief’s three months in the chan­nels.

The weather im­proved as we en­tered the Brazo Noroeste (north-west arm) of the Bea­gle Chan­nel. Here, at the last tip of the An­des, the ice spills into the sea. The mag­nif­i­cent Cordillera Dar­win is cut by

deep fjords end­ing in tide­wa­ter glaciers – ir­re­sistible! There was an air of ex­pectancy on board as we mo­tored up the Seno Ven­tis­quero (Glacier Sound). The first bergy bit came by just a few miles in: soon there was more ice, and then sud­denly it was all around us.

Fi­nally we rounded a rocky head­land and the glacier came into view. As the ice got thicker and thicker, with Be­duin wisely tucked in be­hind ice-breaker Ithaka, it be­came ob­vi­ous we wouldn’t get to the glacier, even in an alu­minium boat. It didn’t mat­ter, we were well and truly in the ice. We tied the boats to­gether, switched the en­gines off and drifted with the ice. I climbed the mast to take pho­tos and Aleko went pad­dle-board­ing while Colin ham­mered glacial ice for the pisco sours that Ana was pre­par­ing. By the time we’d had cock­tails and lunch the boats had turned them­selves round in the gen­tle swirl of the cur­rents and were mov­ing se­dately back down the sound.

Our sec­ond at­tempt at a glacier was less suc­cess­ful. Just a few miles into a hard beat up Seno Garibaldi, the wind in­stru­ments sud­denly stopped work­ing. A quick glance up the mast showed the anemome­ter hang­ing by its wires, so we furled the head­sail and started the en­gine. Too late; the wind whipped it away be­fore Colin could get up the mast.

Mean­while, Be­duin was not mak­ing much progress un­der sail or power, so the de­ci­sion to turn back was unan­i­mous. It was much more pleas­ant run­ning back un­der stay­sail, and back out in the chan­nel the wind dropped enough to hoist the main and yan­kee.

When the sky turned dark and omi­nous to the west we were ex­pect­ing a squall and started furl­ing the head­sail, but none of us an­tic­i­pated the fe­roc­ity – from a gen­tle breeze to 40 knots in a few min­utes. Luck­ily we were just about to round up into Bahía Tres Bra­zos, where we could head into wind and drop the main. After a tough day we were glad to reach the per­fect shel­ter of Caleta Cinco Estrel­las, a small hid­den la­goon which the pi­lot book de­scribes as ‘one of the nicest, safest coves of all the chan­nels’.

The fol­low­ing day was a to­tal con­trast; a chance to air clothes and bed­ding and re­lax in warm sun­shine. In most places, the for­est of ever­green beeches fes­tooned with mosses and lichens was beau­ti­ful but al­most im­pen­e­tra­ble: here, for once, it was pos­si­ble to climb up through the trees onto the open ridge above. As we stopped to ad­mire the stun­ning views over Isla Gor­don and across the chan­nel to the Cordillera Dar­win, four con­dors came soar­ing by. Next day we saw them again – feast­ing on a dead whale on the shore.

Ice cliff

Not put off by our ex­pe­ri­ence in Seno Garibaldi, we went to ex­plore Seno Pia, which boasts no less than three glaciers. Head­ing up the eastern arm first, with the wind astern, we found the route to the glacier fairly free of ice as the wind was hold­ing the ice at the head. How­ever, the wa­ter was very shal­low over the moraine and Be­duin had to an­chor half a mile off. Ithaka, as much at home in the ice as among the coral reefs of the Pa­cific, smugly lifted her keel and rud­der to con­tinue to the face of the glacier.

The ice cliff tow­er­ing above the mast was sculpted into fan­tas­tic pin­na­cles at the top, but it was rather dirty. Ven­tis­quero Guilcher, which we vis­ited the next day, was the most beau­ti­ful; daz­zling white with mys­te­ri­ous blue caves. We were lucky again: the rain of the morn­ing cleared as we ap­proached the glacier, giv­ing us spells of sun­shine and glimpses of the moun­tains above.

That evening, an­chored in Caleta del Norte, we watched the ice cruis­ing down the sound like a flock of white birds. As a stray piece drifted in and caught on our stern line we un­der­stood the pi­lot book’s ad­vice to keep the shore lines high. On the way out of Seno Pia we would have missed the sea lions hauled out at the base of a small cliff had it not been for the roar­ing of the bull, lord­ing it over his harem.

Seno Pia was a highlight, but not quite the last of the glaciers. I couldn’t imag­ine a more glo­ri­ous sail than the brisk run

down the Chan­nel, pass­ing Ven­tis­queros Ro­manche, Ale­ma­nia, Fran­cia and Italia. Ven­tis­quero Ro­manche was clearly re­treat­ing, the glacier end­ing in a wa­ter­fall down ice-scoured rock. We had just put the third reef in when we ar­rived at Caleta Olla, a more open bay than many of the cale­tas, but still very shel­tered. This lovely bay is fre­quented by char­ter boats and fish­er­men, and sadly its pop­u­lar­ity was ev­i­dent in the amount of rub­bish along the beach.

The warm sun­shine tempted me to go for a swim – but with the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture at 7°C, once round the boat was quite enough. More fun was bor­row­ing Aleko’s spare pad­dle­board to ex­plore the bay and up the river.

Leav­ing Caleta Olla, we sailed past Punta Di­vide and out into the main Bea­gle Chan­nel. Soon after the Ar­gen­tinian border on the north shore, we be­gan to see signs of habi­ta­tion – a few build­ings, a road – and soon the city of Ushuaia came into view. Stay­ing on the Chilean side, our last an­chor­age, Caleta Vic­tor Jara, was re­mark­ably like western Scot­land.

Leav­ing Chile

On the last day we even set the spin­naker, not a sail I ex­pected to see. I was in no hurry to get to Puerto Wil­liams and civil­i­sa­tion, but I came to like the most southerly town in the world. The yacht club is the old steamship Mi­calvi, which has been half sunk to form a pon­toon. There is no longer a bar but there are showers and Wi-Fi.

Most of the other yachts were char­ter boats, be­tween trips. Of the pri­vate yachts, a ma­jor­ity seemed to be OVNIs, but Ithaka was the only Bri­tish boat. We all en­joyed a very in­ter­na­tional Christ­mas party at the sail­ing school, or­gan­ised by some of the char­ter crews. Puerto Wil­liams has a thriv­ing sail­ing school with lots of en­thu­si­as­tic young sailors. Even when it was far too windy for any of the ocean-go­ing cruis­ing yachts to set sail, the lo­cal kids were out sail­ing their Op­ti­mists round the har­bour.

Leav­ing Chile was an an­ti­cli­max. In­stead of head­ing east for the At­lantic, we first had to re­turn 28 miles up the Bea­gle Chan­nel to Ushuaia, the only port of en­try into Ar­gentina. There was so lit­tle wind we mo­tored all the way. In the new year we would be head­ing east for Staten Is­land and then the Falk­lands – but that’s an­other story.

Ni­chol­son 32 Be­duin sail­ing east down Brazo Noroeste from Seno Pia, Patag­o­nia, Chile

Colin and Ana Ladd on Ithaka, Patag­o­nia, Chile

Isla Gor­don Ushuaia Puerto Wil­liams

A hump­back whale in the Mag­el­lan Strait

Patag­o­nian match-rac­ing: Be­duin at­tempts to get past Ithaka to wind­ward, off Isla Clarence

Ithaka in Canal O’Brien

OVNI 435 Ithaka un­der spin­naker with Be­duin ahead in the Bea­gle Chan­nel

Be­duin ex­pe­ri­enc­ing heavy weather in Canal Cock­burn

Colin and Ana Ladd on Ithaka in Canal O’Brien

A pair of up­land (or Mag­el­lan) geese – Chloephaga picta – in Caleta Cam­pa­mento, Mag­el­lan Strait

The yacht club (Club de Yates Mi­calvi) in Puerto Wil­liams, Isla Navarino, Chile

Ithaka and Be­duin shel­ter to­gether in Caleta Brec­knock, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Be­duin at Ven­tis­quero Guilcher, Seno Pia

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