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Winter in Fireland


Beagle Channel (left) and Yendegaia Bay (right)

Bosun Bird spent much of the winter tied up snugly on the inside of a beached ex-military cargo ship, the Micalvi, in a cove west of Puerto Williams. Once the charter yachts had closed up shop for the season and the other cruisers had deserted Williams for the brighter lights of Ushuaia, on the Argentine shore of the Beagle Channel, we had the place to ourselves.

Downtown Puerto Williams The Beagle Channel looking west, from above Pto Williams

When the snow was falling and the creek covered in ice, it was eerily quiet; maybe the only person we would see all day was a naval rating on his rounds, wrapped up in a heavy greatcoat.

Puerto Williams in winter Wintering over, tied up to the Micalvi

Other days we went walking in the wild interior of Navarino Island; one week-long trek memorably took us to Wulaia Cove, the old home of Jemmy Button and favoured anchorage of the Beagle; today there remains the gaunt shell of a 1940's vintage radio station, where shepherds still occasionally overnight. When it was clear there were spectacular views across the Beagle Channel to the mountains north of Ushuaia and from Mount Scott King we could see the Wollaston Islands, of which the island of Cape Horn itself is one. When the cloud came down and the wind blew, the water in the channels was whipped up into frightening spirals of spray – williwaws, in Spanish rachas – and we would shiver in anticipation of the onward voyage.

The old radio station, Wulaia Bahia Orange from Navarino Island

It wasn't long before we made friends in the local community. A daily call was Mario the Baker; for special treats we had a night out at Williams' one and only restaurant, the Dientes del Navarino, where Dona Carmen regaled us with stories of her forty years on Navarino and lamented what the place had come to. One morning she greeted us in great excitement to tell us that there had been a robbery at the Dientes: a side of ham, some onions and a bottle of Sprite had been stolen from her fridge, and her grandson was now nailing up the side door through which she presumed the thieves had come. Nick watched the World Cup finals from Germany in the Dientes; it was so cold you needed your complete offshore foul weather gear on.

Don Mario, the village baker, Puerto Williams Jenny and Dona Carmen, proprietor of the Dientes del Navarino

Beto and Yesica come visitingMauricio, a young rating working in the engineering shop, helped us out with his lathe and we returned the favour by giving him weekly English classes; one evening Mauricio and his wife Yesica came visiting and their naughty little boy, Beto, nearly wrecked Bosun Bird's interior.

In the very depths of winter there was a town-wide talent show, a kind of American Idol, but sponsored by The Illustrious Municipality of Cape Horn and the Antarctic. Every evening for two weeks, after an intro of fuzzy video footage from March of the Penguins, schoolchildren, housewives and shy off-duty sailors performed their party pieces, the highlights of which would be reprised again and again, interspersed with footage from last year's show. The high school seniors cooked up hot dogs and popcorn and, for the final night, a judge was flown in from Argentina; mercifully, he was a lot kinder than Simon Cowell.

Julio the diesel mechanicWe took advantage of the break to strip down the engine and even had the block flown to Punta Arenas for overhaul. Our mentor was the town's only civilian mechanic, Julio. It was said of him that, once he had taken apart and reassembled your engine, you were sure to have some unexpected spares, but we had no complaints. Come August and in spite of the intense cold, the engine was now starting at the first attempt.

We took a couple of breaks, once flying up by Twin Otter over the rugged peaks of Tierra del Fuego to the Big City of Punta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan. Here we not only took advantage of the bright lights but explored some of the sights, including the remote and haunting grave site of Captain Robert Pringle Stokes, Fitzroy's predecessor on board the Beagle, who found navigating and charting these waters so daunting that one gloomy winter's evening he shot himself in the head – and took nine days to die.

Punta Arenas, mainland Chile Grave site of Robert Pringle Stokes, HMS Beagle

Moustique, tied up in Mar del PlataOne day, via the cruisers' grapevine, we had sad news. Over the weeks since we had seen young Antoine Duguet leave Mar del Plata aboard his tiny Mini Transat 21, Moustique, we'd followed Antoine's travels with interest. He'd made it safely to the Beagle Channel and had then fallen in with another French yacht, Agur. They'd sailed together through the meandering waterways of Tierra del Fuego and, when they reached the Strait of Magellan, Antoine decided to follow Yves and head back into the Atlantic again. At the eastern mouth of the Strait, they became separated. Yves then braved the storm of a lifetime: his boat, much larger than Antoine's, was rolled and dismasted. He limped north to Puerto Deseado. But Antoine was never seen again; the wreckage of Moustique was sighted on a beach in the Steeple Jasons, outliers of the Falklands, months later.

More: Tierra del Fuego

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