Tierra del Fuego

Today began much like the rest. An early start delayed in the ten minute intervals offered by the snooze button. Rain pounded the deck above as the wind spun the generator, the sound reverberating through the fiberglass. I dashed from my bunk for the warmest clothes as the damp cold hung below deck.

Coffee boiled on the stove as we untied the lines from shore, two off the bow, two off the stern, the usual arrangement for security in the land of rachas, violent gusts of cold air propelled as they passed over glaciers and high mountain peaks. I weighed anchor as we drifted slowly from shelter. 

I hung my coat, already soaked through, in my cabin, the door of the engine compartment removed in an attempt to warm and dry my eternally wet gear. 

The wind, slow and from all directions grew with the swell as the hours passed, eventually settling to a gentle 25 knots right off our stern. We sailed on a run, just the head sail pushing us down the canals at a swift 7 knots. Our regular companions, a pod of austral dolphins swam alongside, their dorsal fins breaking the white capped surface with a sharp exhale. Standing on the bow in between walls of rain, I watched as they moved effortlessly under our hull, turning sideways at times to make eye contact, both of us staring with a shared curiosity. 

When the rain began to darken my jacket I returned to the cockpit and stood behind the wheel, my body swaying unconsciously with the pattern of the swell. Beads of water clung to the isinglass walls, as I stared through them. The dolphins parted ways for a moment, trading places with a pair of sea lions, before returning after a few minutes. The aroma of toasting granola pulled me below where a few degrees of heat from the night before still remained in the damp air. Removing just one of the many layers I wore, I attempted to dry my hands over the engine.

Snow line creeping down the mountains

Moving south, the mountains began to shed their ragged peaks. Glaciers hanging from rock faces became less common, their absence revealing the work they had done thousands of years ago. Bare rock turns a silvery gray in the glimpses of sunlight, glossing over the lichens below of pinks, whites, greens, and black. Deep veins of moss marked channels cut by the glacier, eroded by water and time. Within a single square foot, an abundant community of mosses, succulents, and dense cypress scrub sip the water moving slowly through their roots. 

This morning we woke to a placid cove at the mouth of Canal Smyth. The rain fell only in mist and the wind a steady breeze. In this part of the world, heading this direction, the wind follows you at your stern, like an apology for your clothes and your mattress collecting each drop of humidity. In the Strait of Magellan we headed south east, leaving the Pacific behind, lying on the horizon between the mountains of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, the mouth growing smaller with each mile east.

Looking east down the Beagle Channel

There’s a history in these waters and you can feel and see its presence. The geological history is marked by the glacial formed U shaped valley we sail through. Explorers such as Magellan, Drake and Slocum, all sailed here without engines or any modern convenience. Although, Slocum had a wood stove… must have been nice. But most impossible to imagine for me are the natives, the Selk’nam and Yaghan people. Before colonization led to their extinction by murder, disease, and forced relocation and cultural erasure, they were a relatively large population, traveling as family units in canoes from one area to the next. They carefully harvested what they needed from each site before looking for the next, consciously consuming in a way to preserve the health of the land they relied on. Living in minimal clothing in such a harsh climate, diving in the frigid waters of Tierra del Fuego for shellfish, they warmed themselves by fire, a fire that was said to never go out, kept alive in the mud lined hull of the canoes and brought to shore in embers.  I, with cold toes in rubber boots, wool socks with synthetic base layers, wool sweaters, down coat, and the latest in foul weather gear, am a different type of human from them. They lived in admirable harmony and evolved alongside their surroundings.

That night we found our way into Ola Playa Parda, a deep lagoon with steep rock walls with moss between, eventually giving way to frosty mountain peaks that fed the cold streams running down their faces. This cove held many navigators and their crew, and that night we were one more.

Anchored in the lee

As we headed east, the mountains started to grow once more. The rounded windswept knolls gave way to saw-like ridgelines. Our charts showed a sheltered inlet further down the Beagle Channel, a web of squiggly lines indicating glaciers slipping directly into the sea. At the mouth of the bay, the wind shifted from our stern to our bow as it blew down the valley and across the cool surface of the glaciers. Bits of ice began to appear, growing in size as we made our way down the channel, before turning into a deep bay, free of wind, current and ice, an especially dangerous obstacle in a fiberglass boat. Two lines off our stern and the anchor well embedded, we set off to explore before the moon called us home. 

Sailing in to our anchorage

Our feet eased into the fine sand below with each step. At the terminus of the glacier, we sat for a moment on a grounded iceberg, listening to its cracks and moans. With each sound pockets of ancient air were released, trapped in ice for thousands of years, only to be reintroduced to a changed world at this very moment. 

At the end

From our seat, we could see an exposed patch of rock a few hundred feet up the dense wall of forest. Scrambling up the slick granite, we eventually reached the forest edge. Coique, lengas, cypress and a myriad of other plants grew from the thick bed of moss below, each step like walking on a wet sponge, immediately soaking through our boots and clothing. I brushed my hands through chaura bushes for a game of flavor roulette, their berries sometimes puckeringly sour, sometimes candy-like, rehydrating myself with palm fulls of glacial stream water. After a few hours, we had only made it a fraction of the way up, as the dense growth slowed our ascent, our faces and hands marked by sharp branches. Realizing our time was being cut short with the falling sun, we each climbed a tree, peering through the branches for a view overlooking the valley, before beginning our way back to the boat.

View from the tree tops. Fisaga at home, the little white dot to the left of the peninsula.

We sailed past the convergence of the arms of the Beagle Channel, bringing us back in close proximity to the human world. Nearing Ushuaia, my phone began to ring. I thought I was looking forward to contact from the outside world, but the idea filled me with intense, almost paralyzing anxiety. In the wild I am unhinged, unafraid, and unaffected by judgements from others. In a world with cars, roads, and stores packed with choices, I’m afraid. It is much easier, with an ample supply of food and water, and maybe a good book, for me to simply exist in remote places, to be present, to be alive, to be conscious, rather than slip into the drone like autopilot required of us. 

An anchor set to the side, I ran two lines ashore, bow and stern, before we pulled the boat to starboard, sideways at the mouth of a small cove. Eli and I went to shore, deciding, with little energy to bushwhack, to instead find a nook on the shoreline where we could read and observe, sitting on solid ground with the sounds of waves in the kelp, passing geese, gulls, and ducks, and the whispers of the lenga trees, our backs turned to the city of Ushuaia. 

We sailed through a field of kelp, albatross circling and ducks departing, before furling the sails and turning the key at the last possible moment. Our engine, well patched with a fuel rail injecting into a jerry can, rests as we pulled anchor this morning without the thud of cylinders, just the unraveling crinkle of the sail and the clicking of the winch pulled us from a cove to the channel. 

It was a perfect day, the wind so calm the albatross sat still on the surface, awaiting the breeze we both hoped would come. The sound of lungs traveled along the surface, the deep breath of whales with lungs the size of humans, and the short whiskery exhales of fur seals as they stopped for a moment between bounding from the surface, lazily floating in the current, their flippers relaxed and unmoving. We heard the croaks of magellanic penguins and the cries of gulls and skuas, their webbed feet propelling them below the surface, unseen. The clouds passed over the peaks in a wind too high to come down and bless our sails with stiff momentum. Passing by Ushuaia, a busy port town, where people go to work in bars, bakeries, restaurants, fish piers, and bureaucratic desk jobs while we drift by in the gentle current, watching it all unfold before us.

Nearing Ushuaia

A few hours passed and we were headed into port for the first time in two months. Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world, is not an easy place to live. A “city”, officially founded in 1953 with now under 2,000  inhabitants made up mainly of members of the Chilean Armada and the few surviving Yahgan people, functions as a jumping off point for those hoping to round Cape Horn or begin Antarctic expeditions. On Isla Navarino, on the south shore of the Beagle Channel, facing Argentina, is the Puerto Williams Yacht Club. This yacht club distinguishes itself from the others in even its construction. The building/dock is nothing more than a grounded munitions carrier equipped with one shower sinking into the floor and a seating area that once functioned as a bar. The walls are covered in burgees from around the world, as boats from Brazil, Sweden, Australia, South Africa and anywhere with a coast line raft up against each other outside. Crew members are forced to walk along the decks of their neighbors to get ashore, creating a guaranteed community that is necessary to such a remote place. Boats are plagued with problems from the moment they hit the water, and getting things fixed and replaced in places like Puerto Williams is not as easy as a trip to west marine. A friend we met later on told us of how he was dismasted on a non stop trip from Australia, about 50 miles south of Cape Horn. The armada came and rescued him and his wife along with their four children and floating mobile home. The officials would not let him leave the port until the boat was repaired. He tried everything, from making and rigging a mast out of wood, to mounting his boom upright, until eventually having to succumb to the high price of ordering and shipping a 70 foot mast from Australia to Chile. So when we arrived at port, we made sure not to let the armada know about our blown fuel injector.

Military housing in Puerto Williams

The cruising world has a way of bringing people together with little effort. Each person you meet holds one thing in common. They left behind what they had before to do what they’d always wanted. With each escapee, comes a skill in tow. Computer science experts become incredible marine electricians, tradies become sufficient in the art of jerry rigging, and lawyers help to navigate the cloudy details of the ever changing bureaucratic processes. Puerto Williams has become a microcosm of this world. Almost every boat rafted up to one another has something wrong with it, and for each problem, there is someone in the vicinity to make it work. During our time there, we repaired engines, re-calibrated a busted hydraulic auto-pilot, and tuned up out of shape rigging, all in exchange for a few words of conversation, a refreshment that comes as a craving after months with the same few people.

DIY fuel barge

In Puerto Williams we heard the advice we expected regarding the Drake Passage. One Australian captain summed it up by saying “Get around that rock and get the fuck out of Drakey as fast as possible. It’s not a place to fuck around”. Other captains told us “there’s either too much wind or not enough” and that most people end up waiting for calm and motoring around the sacred rock. But with a compromised engine that can only be trusted for a few minutes to get us out of dangerous situations, we kept our eyes on the weather, hoping to be able to round in conditions that allowed us to sail the entire way. When a weather window appeared capable of allowing just that, we began to prepare. 

Sailing around Cape Horn is no longer the feat that it used to be. With satellites delivering high resolution weather data and a safe port only a day's sail away, a safe passage can almost be guaranteed. 

A 4am departure from Puerto Toro, gave us 35 to 45 knots on the beam as we headed south towards the Wollaston Islands. Once we reached Paso Bravo we were in the lee, with the occasional gust sneaking its way over the mountains. Off our stern and off our bow the sea was white, the water at the crests of each white cap were pulled off the surface in the violent breeze, creating plumes of mist that danced across the surface. Meanwhile, we sailed close hauled in calm seas, our sails luffing and well reefed, in preparation for what lay ahead.

The second we reached the end of the pass and entered into the Franklin Channel we were laid over with a 45 knot gust as we sailed west, our sails close hauled. We spent the next two hours tacking back and forth, gaining only fractions of the five miles we needed to cover in order to begin easing the sheets and start our passage around Cape Horn. Having sailed in similar conditions for the past two months, we were comfortable as the water flowed over the leeward rail, hail the size of ball bearings pelting the sides of the eisenglass with a deafening power. Dodging rocks and fields of kelp in the tight channel, we pinched into the wind until we rounded the tip of Herschel Island, bringing Cape Horn into view, illuminated by the setting sun. 

Rough seas in the Drake Passage

The wind on our beam began to settle between 25-35 knots, the steadiest breeze we’d experienced since we left the exposed pacific coast a few months back. Passing Isla Hall, our comfort was interrupted with a gust testing the strength of our sails. The boat began to round up towards an exposed reef only a few dozen yards to windward. Eli turned the wheel hard over, forcing our rail completely under, funneling water right next to the cockpit as the boat fought against its own instinct. When the gust subsided, we found ourselves in the lee of the island. Around us were ten to fifteen foot waves without a riffle of wind, pushing us back toward the rocks that we had avoided. With some failed attempts to gain ground, we turned the key and motored back into the wind. 

With the swell and wind on our beam, we passed Cape Horn. Its infamous coast line of jagged cliffs was covered in lichens strong enough to withstand the regular barrage of hurricane force winds. I sat on the leeward side, mesmerized as the blue waves battered the coast line, sending walls of white water up its face. It may be just another check mark for a sailor, as many motor around in their sail boats or hire other captains to bring them around for the experience, often piercing their ear on the side they pass in keeping with tradition. But to me it was more than that. 

Since we left Rhode Island about a year and a half ago, this particular passage loomed in the back of my mind. Horror stories from the Drake Passage and the surprised concern we got from tropical sailors when we told them our plan to round Cape Horn have kept me up at night. But the 12,000+ miles we’ve sailed since have changed me. We’ve navigated difficult currents and winds in uncharted areas of Patagonia, sailed through lightning storms in the Caribbean, tacked our way into insanity between Panama and Peru, felt the sheer power of the sea by only experiencing a fraction of her capabilities, and dealt with the complicated emotions that come from saying goodbye to the people we’ve had the good fortune to meet along the way.

It may be just a rock to sail around and another bucket list item for some. Yet as I sat staring at the cliffs, I felt a feeling of appreciation for everything that unfolded on the way and the unusual life that I am fortunate to live. 

Cape Horn