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Chilean Channels
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Chilean Channels

We had some of the most wonderful sailing where we had least anticipated: in the western half of the Strait of Magellan.

From Froward (the southernmost point of the continent), the Strait points like a gun barrel, for 250 miles, to the northwest. The usual winds are from precisely that direction and are funnelled by the steep mountains on both sides; advancing into the Pacific can be such a trial for sailing vessels that the clippers always preferred, instead, to face the hazards of the Horn. It says it all that the record for the fastest east-west transit exclusively under sail is no less than eighteen days (and is still held by Sir Francis Drake, who was so exhilarated by this “speedy” passage that he renamed the Pelican as the Golden Hinde). Three hundred years after Drake, Joshua Slocum, the first man to circumnavigate the world alone, fought his way out to the very mouth, at Cape Pilar, only to be forced south towards Cape Horn and back into the Fuegian archipelago again: it took him another month and thirteen attempts before he finally was clear.

So it was with some trepidation that we had emerged from Acwalisnan. But unusually there was a low-pressure system passing to the north of us (usually they favour the Drake Passage, to the south), which gave us unaccustomed easterlies.

With great ramparts of snow-capped mountains on either side of the three-mile wide waterway we sped west under shortened sail for three days, past Port Gallant, named by the corsair Cavendish on the third circumnavigation of the world; past Mussel Bay where Slocum deterred fierce Alacaluf Indians by spreading carpet tacks on deck; u
p English Reach and Crooked Reach, to Cape Crosstides where the waters of the two oceans meet and Orcas lurked; finally into Sea Reach, with the flat horizon of the Pacific now visible far ahead, a 35 knot gale up our stern and little Bosun Bird romping home at an exhilarating (and frightening) eight knots.

Reaching to the northwest, Strait of Magellan North shore of the Strait of Magellan

Quite fortuitously, as we sped along, we were slowly overtaken by Klaus and Maria on Ludus Amoris: the only other sailboat at sea between Puerto Williams and Puerto Montt; we were able to take pictures of each other and talk on the VHF. We would not see another human being for six weeks.

Ludus Amoris overtakes Bosun Bird Bosun Bird in the Strait of Magellan

Unfortunately, as we turned north, into Smyth Channel and past Fairway Lighthouse, that was the last of our good sailing. It didn’t matter what the weather forecast said: in the channels the winds were either calm or against us, never with us. If it was calm or less than 15 knots we unabashedly motored. When it was stronger, as it usually was, and we could make no headway with the engine against the wind, current and chop we would tack our way onwards under sail, in short zig-zags and start looking for an anchorage. Beating into 25 knots, gusting to 40, with sleet in the air and freezing spray coming aboard was, to put it euphemistically, exhilarating – to put it honestly: not much fun. On many such days we were pleased to make ten miles, and on one day d id only two. We never actually turned back, although this was largely because we had a policy of not leaving an anchorage if we thought it might be difficult to re-enter and/or our wind generator was whining and putting out more than 2.5 amps (a sign it’s blowing quite hard…).

Smyth Channel Paso Tamar, where Smyth branches off from Magellan

Our longest wait for fair weather was at Caleta Ideal. Here we sat for a numbing thirteen days, waiting for a break of 24 hours that would allow us to venture into the ominously-named Golfo de Penas (Gulf of Sorrows) with a favourable slant on the wind. By now even The Brothers Karamazov had been exhausted and we were down to re-reading Tom Clancy and Charlotte Bingham (both suffering, by now, from advanced mildew). In the end, the winds in the Gulf were kind to us but not the seas. In the middle of the night, already feeling queasy at this exposure to the ocean after so long in the relatively protected waters of the channels, the captain was called upon to climb half way up the mast to free the jammed mainsail; if you can imagine clinging in the dark to the mid section of a 10 metres pole that is swinging 30 degrees from side to side, plus random forward and backward surges, while trying to execute a task that requires both hands, then you can probably also imagine the resultant mess on deck (which was fortunately being swept clean by breakers every few minutes).

In the Channels At anchor in the Channels

Two weeks later we had another long wait, at Caleta Pico. The rain lashed down non-stop for five days and Bosun Bird tugged uneasily at her four lines strung to land, and two anchors.

Dodging brash ice near the Amalia GlacierLest all this sound rather arduous and possibly not worth the effort, well it’s certainly not for everyone. But we had moments, too, when it all seemed worthwhile. There was Magellan, of course. Later, in utter stillness, we one day puttered gently among icebergs calving straight into the ocean from the continental icefield. Here we were sailing “in the white” - The crew of the Juan Antonio come visitinguncharted waters close to the Amalia Glacier, where fifty years earlier sailing legend H.W. Tilman had one of his many adventures aboard the aptly-named Mischief. While storm bound (again...) at Caleta Cliff the 7-man crew of the Juan Antonio II had us aboard for the evening, cramped in their tiny warm wheelhouse while the rain lashed, and plied us with tea and pastries.

And off Cabo Raper, with the Gulf of Sorrows finally behind us, the sun came out, the sea and sky turned brilliant blue, the albatrosses wheeled, the penguins called and we watched breakers smashing 30 metres high onto the black cliffs below the lonely lighthouse. 


Albatross near Cabo Raper The lighthouse at Cabo Raper

Wrecked coastal steamer, Chilean ChannelsThere was a sense of excitement and achievement, too, in sailing in a small boat waters that had seen so many dramas and that had tested so many famous ships and yet which had changed so little. The capes and headlands of the great Strait are today exactly as Magellan’s chronicler Pigafetta described them; Puerto Bueno is as it was when Sarmiento wintered over one year in the vain hope that the scourge of the Indies – Drake again – Caleta Millabuwould sail into the trap he had set for him; and the channels near Acwalisnan are as remote today as when the German battle cruiser Dresden hid here while the entire British South Atlantic squadron hunted vainly for her. At Caleta Suarez we anchored in the shadow of the sugarloaf-shaped Monte Cono that Darwin climbed and named in 1837 and at San Pedro, on the southern tip of Chiloe, we could see exactly why the Beagle ratings Darwin took with him to climb another mountain had joked about the density of the vegetation by calling out soundings as they went.

A little further north on Chiloe, at the spot that in Spanish times was considered the end of the civilised world (“El fin de la cristiandad”), we met Hector, an old man who told us with a straight face that he had seen witches fly and one night had glimpsed the mythical caleuche, a kind of Flying Dutchman that haunts these waters.
The isolation could be scary if you thought about it too hard. But with our SSB radio we were in almost daily contact with other vessels from Puerto Montt to Ushuaia and up the Argentine coast; several days when Wolfgang, the usual net-controller who is based in central Chile, was away Jenny was promoted to run the net. And one day we were abruptly shaken out of our dreamy solitude by the roar of an engine, and the shadow of a small aircraft passing right over us: although we had broken no rules, the Chilean navy had become a little concerned about how slowly we were going and had sent up a patrol to look for us. We reassured them and they flew off happily.

Hector, Chiloe Island The Navy rescue plane

There were one or two tiny settlements, too. The first was Puerto Eden, pop 150, 600 miles out and home of the last 15 Alacaluf Indians. Here we were able to have an internet fix at the school library, put in a vast order of bread to be baked, and buy a few old onions and carrots that had come in on the last supply ship. We had dinner out at Dona Maria’s place, and I hand-painted a sign for her, in English, reading: “Bread-Laundry-Meals-Handicrafts”. Red tide hit the coast some years ago and the mussel fishery is in decline, but the Navy earnestly assured us that the Argentines, from the other side of the ice-fields, have covetous eyes on these waters: the Navy will never abandon Eden (!).

Puerto Eden Dona Maria, Puerto Eden

Another 350 miles north in the Chonos archipelago was Puerto Aguirre; here the locals assured us there was no red tide and encouraged us to try the shellfish; but a few weeks later we read there had been several deaths….in Puerto Aguirre. And towards the end of the voyage we were off the great island of Chiloe, a bucolic place where you can hear cows mooing and sheep bleating from your anchorage, black-necked swans cruise sedately by and you can stock up on Gato Negro wine at the tiny store down the dirt road.

1200 miles in four months, and so to Puerto Montt, pop 110,000.

The greatest thrill on arriving? That hot shower. It had been four months and, although we’d taken advantage of streams at frequent intervals, dousing yourself in glacier run-off as the wind whistles and there is sleet in the air doesn’t quite compare.

Puerto Aguirre Puerto Montt docks; Osorno Volcano behind

More: Chile to Tahiti

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