Patag­o­nia in Win­ter

A sail­ing fam­ily ven­tures to the far south and dis­cov­ers the wrong sea­son might be the best time to go there.

Cruising World - - Con­tents - By Mike Lit­zow

A sail­ing fam­ily ven­tures to the far south and dis­cov­ers the “wrong sea­son” might be the best time to go there.

My wife, Alisa, and I were de­ter­mined not to make bad weather the fo­cus of our trip to Patag­o­nia. But there was one night when the con­di­tions lived up to their rep­u­ta­tion. Galac­tic, our 45-foot steel cut­ter, was swing­ing at an­chor in Puerto Natales, half­way down the 900 miles of fjords that make up Chilean Patag­o­nia. Puerto Natales is on the in­land side of the An­des, where we found the dry grass­lands of pam­pas in­stead of the drip­ping rain­for­est of the coast. Sail­ing around Natales was just like sail­ing around Colorado — if Colorado had salt wa­ter, flamin­gos, and more dra­matic moun­tains and glaciers.

But Puerto Natales has no well-pro­tected an­chor­age. The fa­mous Patag­o­nia & Tierra del Fuego Nau­ti­cal Guide, more com­monly called the “Ital­ian guide,” which is the de­fin­i­tive ref­er­ence for sail­ing Patag­o­nia, calls the an­chor­ing sit­u­a­tion there “just a step short of tragic.” And be­ing in­land of the An­des means that Natales is also sub­ject to winds that come scream­ing down moun­tain slopes to sur­prise vis­it­ing sailors.

We had just put our boys, Elias and Eric, to bed. With­out warn­ing, winds be­gan fun­nel­ing over the An­des and into the open an­chor­age. A rou­tine night on the hook sud­denly turned into some­thing be­yond our ex­pe­ri­ence in eight years of full-time sail­ing.

We rushed to get our dinghy on deck and de­flated as the winds be­gan to howl in the rig. And then con­di­tions be­came com­pletely un­rea­son­able. Galac­tic was knocked from side to side in the dark night, tak­ing punches of wind so vi­o­lent that Alisa won­dered whether the mast would touch the wa­ter. We were caught out with only 4-to-1 scope as the wa­ter started foam­ing and spray­ing around us, and our trusty 88-pound Rocna dragged a tenth of a mile be­fore we got an­other an­chor in the wa­ter. And we were the lucky ones. The 70-foot com­mer­cial boat an­chored next to us was blown out of the an­chor­age com­pletely.

This is the kind of story that comes to mind when you think of Patag­o­nia, right? Paint-peel­ing winds, driv­ing rain, piti­less con­di­tions?

What if I men­tioned that this hap­pened in mid-june, just as the south­ern win­ter was lock­ing down, and that we were about to head far­ther south in the very heart of win­ter, down into the far reaches of Tierra del Fuego. Our con­di­tions would be cat­a­clysmic, right?

Well, no. First of all, win­ter in Patag­o­nia is a not-so-se­cret golden sea­son, when the po­lar high ex­tends over the south­ern tip of South Amer­ica, bring­ing long spells of set­tled con­di­tions.

But Patag­o­nia also suf­fers from a rep­u­ta­tion

prob­lem. The need to tell a good story has cre­ated an out­size pic­ture of the chal­lenges in­volved. Alisa and I read a lot of tales about sail­ing Patag­o­nia be­fore we ar­rived, and too many of them read as ac­counts by self-styled “ex­pert sailors” who wanted us to know they were deal­ing with “ex­treme con­di­tions.” Their sto­ries be­gan to seem like end­less rep­e­ti­tions of “Patag­o­nia: It’s re­ally windy!” Surely, we thought, there must be more to it than that.

Luck­ily, we were right. Oc­ca­sion­ally rot­ten weather is a part of Patag­o­nia, sure, but it isn’t the essence of the place. That essence has more to do with qual­i­ties such as still­ness, majesty and soli­tude. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing these as­pects of Patag­o­nia from the deck of your own boat is still one of the great ad­ven­tures to be had on the planet. And by do­ing the trip in the win­ter, we dou­bled down on that ad­ven­ture. Go­ing in win­ter gave us soli­tude in an­chor­age after an­chor­age. We went months with­out meet­ing an­other cruis­ing boat. And win­ter turned a place that is per­sis­tently gray in the sum­mer into a crys­talline won­der­land of blue skies and frosty white moun­tains.

The wind raged for three hours that night in Natales, and then was sud­denly gone. Alisa and I were both a lit­tle dazed by the ex­pe­ri­ence, and im­pressed at how our two boys, who have spent their en­tire lives at sea, could sleep through the nau­ti­cal up­roar. Com­pletely un­will­ing to trust the weather at that point, we stood an­chor watches un­til drowsi­ness and dull calm con­vinced us it was OK to sleep.

The next day, the har­bor was mir­ror-calm. But when I went to the Ar­mada de Chile, the Chilean navy, to re­quest a zarpe, the pa­per­work that would give us per­mis­sion to con­tinue south­ward, I learned that the port was still closed and no de­par­tures were al­lowed. Bureau­cracy hadn’t caught up with the change in con­di­tions. I was told the port would be closed a day or two more. And no, I couldn’t have a zarpe un­til it was open.

In Patag­o­nia the weather might not be that bad, but the bureau­cracy can re­quire your most de­ter­mined go-with-the-flow at­ti­tude.

Even­tu­ally, the ar­mada of­fi­cer agreed to give me a zarpe on the off chance that the port might be open the next day. This made me as pleased with my im­prov­ing Span­ish as it did at get­ting a lit­tle con­ces­sion from of­fi­cial­dom.

When we left Natales, the whole crew was gripped with the ex­cite­ment of head­ing far­ther south. We al­ready had enough snow to let the boys make snow­men on deck, and that first taste of real win­ter made us ea­ger for more.

Leav­ing Natales, we tran­sited the nar­rows of An­gos­tura White, where the tidal cur­rents can run 10 knots. The ex­cel­lent cur­rent ta­bles pro­duced by the ar­mada saw us through safely, and Galac­tic was soon tied into Caleta Mousse, a per­fect lit­tle cove, or caleta, tucked into the base of a moun­tain wall. Only a day from the rel­a­tive bus­tle of Natales, this was a place that gave us ev­ery­thing we had dreamed of in Patag­o­nia. Dol­phins played in the caleta, An­dean con­dors soared over the high moun­tains across the fjord, there was good hik­ing through the Dr. Seuss-like veg­e­ta­tion on the hill­side above us, and we had a per­fectly shel­tered nook where Galac­tic could wait out a few days of driv­ing snow while held in place by four lines tied to mas­sive trees.

An­chor­ages like Caleta Mousse are the key to Patag­o­nia. There are hun­dreds of lit­tle coves where the deep wa­ter al­lows a cruis­ing boat to tie se­curely to the trees, of­ten only a few feet from the shore. With high trees block­ing the wind, and shore­lines fore and aft, there is noth­ing in the weather that can bother a boat tied in to points on­shore in these places.

But get­ting in and out of such pro­tected spots is when things can go awry.

And so it was when we tried to leave Caleta Mousse. The morn­ing was calm. I started row­ing around the an­chor­age, un­ty­ing our lines from the trees while Alisa and Elias pulled them to Galac­tic. With the lines re­trieved, we started to pull the an­chor.

It was then that we re­al­ized the shape of the moun­tain wall west of the caleta was per­fect for pulling the wind down into the an­chor­age. All we knew on this morn­ing was that when the an­chor was just about up, we were sud­denly hit by willi­waws that made the wa­ter smoke. Alisa quickly spooled out chain, but it was no good. There wasn’t enough room to swing. We needed shore lines again.

I jumped into the dinghy and rowed like a mad­man to the up­wind side of the caleta, a shore line tied around my waist. Once I had fi­nally tied us off to a tree I looked back in re­lief. And then I saw a sight that made all my con­fi­dence evap­o­rate, a sight that turned all my dreams of sail­ing through Patag­o­nia into so much fluff blow­ing in the breeze.

A willi­waw had Galac­tic in its teeth and wasn’t let­ting go. I stared at the un­der­body of our float­ing home while the mast leaned over at a crazy an­gle. Surely we weren’t so close to the shore that the mast­head was over the rocks? Alisa was des­per­ately try­ing to power into the wind blast. She was trapped at the wheel and un­able to go up to the bow to tie off the shore line that would solve all of our prob­lems.

It was only for a mo­ment, but that mo­ment stretched out in the sus­pense of what might hap­pen. Stand­ing there on the beach, the adren­a­line of the row ebbing from my veins, I felt my shoul­ders slump at the knowl­edge that I was noth­ing but a spec­ta­tor. For that one mo­ment, I just stood on the beach and watched what­ever would hap­pen, hap­pen.

Of course, the willi­waw passed, and Alisa soon had the shore line tied off. We agreed that we would have to be more cau­tious about pick­ing our mo­ments to leave an­chor­ages. And Alisa re­ported to me, with some won­der in her voice, that through it all the boys hadn’t evinced any kind of worry. They had been down be­low, laugh­ing their heads off and cheer­ing the wind on

to give them a bet­ter ride.

Com­plete ig­no­rance at what might re­ally go wrong — it must be one of the great­est bless­ings of child­hood. And our de­ter­mi­na­tion to see Patag­o­nia as more than a se­ries of con­fronta­tions with out­ra­geous con­di­tions? That was get­ting a lit­tle thread­bare.

When the weather fore­cast was ideal, we pulled the shore lines and slid out of Puerto Pro­fundo at first light. In the weeks since we left Natales, I had be­come in­tox­i­cated with how sail­ing through Patag­o­nia was such a lin­ear ad­ven­ture. It wasn’t at all like the in­cred­i­bly open spaces that we were used to from the Pa­cific. We were al­ways hemmed in on two sides by moun­tain walls, so the only de­ci­sion open to us was whether to move for­ward or go back. Which was no de­ci­sion at all. We trav­eled far­ther and far­ther south. The days grew shorter with ev­ery pass­ing mile, and the scenery grew more and more splen­did. The sail­ing was fan­tas­tic, with a scrap of jib be­ing all that was needed to see us speed­ing along on the pre­vail­ing north­west wind. On Galac­tic, fam­ily life slowed down as we found the nat­u­ral pace of liv­ing through the long nights of win­ter with­out any of the dis­trac­tions of the In­ter­net or tele­vi­sion to di­lute our ex­pe­ri­ence of the place and the sea­son. I was in heaven.

And things were about to get even bet­ter. From Puerto Pro­fundo we mo­tored into the Strait of Mag­el­lan. As we made the turn into the western en­trance, the sun cleared the clouds to il­lu­mi­nate the snowy moun­tains on ei­ther side of us. Who couldn’t feel the mo­ment? We were at the very spot where Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan be­came the first Eu­ro­pean to sail into the Pa­cific and, find­ing it on the same sort of calm day that we were en­joy­ing, gave it the name that we all know it by.

That night we tied in at Puerto An­gosto, where Joshua Slocum an­chored Spray dur­ing his first solo cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the globe. Slocum was at An­gosto for some­thing like a month, and made six un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to set off from that spot be­fore the weather let him get away. We were sail­ing leg­endary wa­ters. The eastern Strait of Mag­el­lan is a night­mare of huge tides, ex­u­ber­ant winds and few good an­chor­ages. After Mag­el­lan made it through the strait, at­tempt after at­tempt to re­peat his route failed. Luck­ily, cruis­ing boats can leave the strait around Cabo Froward, the south­ern­most point of con­ti­nen­tal South Amer­ica, and con­tinue along the fjords into the Land of Fire — Tierra del Fuego. We fol­lowed that path, and found we had the whole spec­tac­u­lar cruis­ing grounds pretty much to our­selves. There were a few fish­ing boats around, and ev­ery morn­ing we came up on the Patag­o­nia cruis­ers SSB net and emailed

our po­si­tion to the ar­mada. But even with those oc­ca­sional re­minders of the rest of hu­man­ity, our fam­ily mostly seemed to be car­ry­ing our own en­ve­lope of soli­tude around with us, from an­chor­age to an­chor­age, through crys­tal day after crys­tal day.

The snow line came down to the sea. The moun­tain­ous is­lands through which we trav­eled were ma­jes­tic, re­mote and po­lar. Each an­chor­age was mys­te­ri­ous, and a study in ice and snow and cold when com­pared to our ex­pec­ta­tions of what a nor­mal cruis­ing an­chor­age should look like. The best an­chor­ages were sur­rounded by hills where the fam­ily could walk in the snow and build snow­men, and the boys could in­dulge in the lim­it­less joy of throw­ing snow­balls at their cap­tain and gen­er­ally caus­ing a ruckus.

After we en­tered Canal Bea­gle, con­di­tions seemed to be build­ing to more and more deliri­ous lev­els of thrills. Our des­ti­na­tion of Puerto Wil­liams, Chile, the south­ern­most town in the world, was less than 100 miles away. With ev­ery mile, the sail­ing got wilder, the moun­tain scenery more spec­tac­u­lar. It felt like we might reach take­off be­fore the trip ended, might at­tain some oth­er­worldly plateau of sail­ing ad­ven­ture that we couldn’t have imag­ined be­fore we set off but which be­came ob­vi­ous, even in­escapable, to us now. Fully half of the an­chor­ages we in­ves­ti­gated were frozen over, and we got used to the sound of ice grind­ing against our hull at night with a change in wind or tide. Turn­ing a cor­ner with Galac­tic might bring us face to face with a cathe­dral of glacial ice spilling over moun­tain but­tresses to the sea.

And then the day ar­rived when we came out of the metaphor­i­cal cold. After months of wan­der­ing on our own, we called the Puerto Wil­liams ar­mada on the VHF to give no­tice of our ar­rival. We pulled into the “ut­ter­most yacht club in the world,” a 1930s-era freighter named Mi­calvi that has been scut­tled in a shal­low in­let to make a club­house and dock for vis­it­ing sail­boats. We found about 40 boats rafted to the ship, most of them left for the win­ter while their own­ers flew home. Our ar­rival bumped the num­ber of in­hab­ited boats to six. We found our­selves im­mersed in a warm so­cial scene of like-minded peo­ple who shared the bonds of com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence.

I can’t say enough about choos­ing win­ter for our first visit to the far south. Win­ter makes ev­ery­thing lonely and mys­te­ri­ous, the way Patag­o­nia should be. We ap­proached the whole un­der­tak­ing with hu­mil­ity. We were con­fi­dent, but we as­sumed noth­ing. We pre­pared ad­e­quately, and we con­sciously worked at mak­ing good de­ci­sions. Our goal was to make it look easy, with as few close shaves or har­row­ing tales as pos­si­ble. And more than that, we wanted to have a blast. We wanted Patag­o­nia in win­ter to be a re­ally good time.

That part worked. The kids had a blast. Alisa had a blast. I had a blast.

And the sense of mov­ing through the out-ofthe-way cor­ners of Patag­o­nia in­de­pen­dently? The feel­ing of choos­ing our pace and tak­ing

re­spon­si­bil­ity for ev­ery­thing? The rel­ish of dream­ing about a trip like this and then do­ing it, and find­ing our­selves equal to it?

It’s no won­der peo­ple find the sail­ing life so hard to give up.

At press time, the Lit­zows were cross­ing the Pa­cific, en route to Hawaii. You can fol­low the fam­ily and their trav­els aboard Galac­tic at the­life­galac­tic.blogspot.com.

The prom­ise of win­ter sur­rounds Galac­tic as we sail through Canal Bal­len­ero in Tierra del Fuego. Ski gog­gles proved handy while stand­ing watch dur­ing a snow­storm in Canal Bea­gle.

Alisa and the boys are on a mis­sion: set a pot for cen­tolla, the king crab of Patag­o­nia (op­po­site). In Es­tero Peel, Alisa wields the boat hook to fend off ice as Galac­tic slowly makes way through the bergs.

In Puerto Con­suelo, Elias, 8, finds it’s just like sail­ing in Colorado, only with salt wa­ter, flamin­gos and big­ger moun­tains. Op­po­site, far­ther south, clear­ing snow is of­ten a ne­ces­sity; Eric, 5, lugs trash bags up the Puerto Natales fish­er­men’s dock; a crab feast awaits.

Alisa pays a visit to the Mi­calvi in Puerto Wil­liams, Chile, the south­ern­most yacht club in the world (top). Be­sides an­chor and chain, stay­ing put re­quires run­ning lines to shore (op­po­site).

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