Although the wild beauty of Patagonia is remarkably similar to B.C.'s north coast, cruisers are truly on their own in this southern wilderness. Better try our north coast first....
HAVE YOU EVER thumbed through a book about Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, dreaming about testing your sailing abilities in the great Southern Ocean? Or sighed as you watched the video of Irving Johnson runding Cape Horn, the "real" sailor's ultimate challenge?
Well, my sailor hushand Don had, from the time he was a young boy in the1940s until 1975 when the two of us tried to round Cape Horn on our own sailboat, a 42' William Garden ketch. His dream, however, became a nightmare when, 800 miles north-northwest of the Horn, we pitchpoled and dropped vertically into the raging trough of a phenomenal wave. With booms sheered, masts severely cracked, hull-to-doghouse seam parted, instruments ruined, engine dead and dinghy gone, we fought our way to the west coast of Chile and limped 350 miles south through the channels of Patagonia to the first outpost of civilization-Punta Arenas.
Despite our life-threatening struggles, I fell in love with southern Chile and Tierra del Fuego (the big island between the Strait of Magellan and Beagle Channel-shared by Chile and Argentina). This is a wild, stunningly beautiful, unpopulated region where dwarf cypresses cling to mammoth granite slopes, and glaciers spill down into thc sea from cirques in mountains high above. It's a place where a lone tree on the desolate windswept pampas is a striking understatement on an artist's canvas; an area of 360° skies where every hour brings spectactular new cloud displays.
The southern coast of Chile is an archipelago that stretches 700 miles from the Gulf of Peñas to Cape Horn (47° S to 56° S). Its islands, fjords and inlets are rimmed on the east by the southern Andes-some of the youngest uplifted terrain in the world; mountains 4,000-5,000' high that plunge equally deep into the Patagonian Pacific. There are no towns, no roads and no trailheads along these waterways. The only access to thousands of square miles of wilderness is by boat from Punta Arenas or Puerto Natale (a small town on Seno Otway several days by water from Punta Arenas), or from Puerto Williams or Ushuaia, Argentina on the Beagle Channel.
ULTIMATE SOUTH It wasn't until I made an extended visit to southem Chile early in 1996 that I realized the similarities between the north coast of B.C. and the "Ultimate South." During my previous visits to Chile I had not been privileged to spend nearly a decade cruising the waters of "upper B.C." and had no basis for comparison. So for those who might dream of the ultimate challenge but lack the means and time, or for those who have no desire to experience severe heavy-weather sailing, the northern coast of B.C. makes a great altemative.
Naturally there are vast differences in these opposite ends of the hemisphere, just as there are striking similarities. The Strait of Magellan is the meeting ground for the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans-the dividing line between the jagged peaks of the Andes to the west and the raw pampas to the east. The mountains and channels of the Chilean South are probably the features most reminiscent of northern B.C.
In Patagonia, massive, striated granite slabs rise vertically to bald, dome-shaped peaks that hold permanent snowfields or glaciers. Numerous waterfalls rush over towering stone faces and bright turquoise waters announce the presence of glaciers. Take the trip up Portland Canal to Stewart, turn down South Bentinck Arm from Burke Channel, or follow Gardner Channel to its bitter end at the outflow of the Kitlope River, and you will see these same sights on the B.C. coast. One thing you won't see is glaciers calving into salt water-a common sight in southem Chile where glaciers occur in such abundance that many are uncharted and unnamed. On the other hand, odds are you'll have more benign weather.
WILLIWAWS Deep atmospheric depressions squeeze between the Gulf of Peñnas and Antarctica, bombarding the coast with gales and storms. The locals have an apt expression for the weather: Hay cuatro estaciones en un dîa- "There are four seasons in one day." On board Mahina Tiare, in February 1996, Don experienced eight different hail-storms in one 24-hour period at the west end of Beagle Channel! Even when the barometer is high, williwaws shriek down the slopes at night slapping your boat like a mother bear scolding her cubs-just when you think you're safely anchored in a small landlocked cove.
Patagonian flora must struggle to find soil in such rugged, new terrain. There are forests of Austral cypress and beech trees but the lush, varied and nearly impenetrable rain forests of upper B.C. are absent. Life in the remote south is tenuous and harsh-small bushes and minuscule plants cling to moss-laden cracks. Everywhere, the trees are stunted and wind-blown, like those along the west coast of Aristazabal or Banks Island. There are few areas where tree branches overhang the salt water, and the wind is present all the time.
Along B.C.'s central and north coasts, it is the steep angle of the granite, not the young age of the land, that prevents the buildup of soil. Follow the east shore of Burke Channel for five miles above Cathedral Point to see nearly vertical walls, too smooth for plants to gain a toe-hold. Or visit Belize Inlet, behind Nakwakto Rapids, where tiny plants and mosses grow thick in crevices on the granite faces. Both mountains are similar, but the miniature rain gardens at Belize are more luxuriant, as if they'd been tended by a loving hand.
WILDLIFE From a boat, you are less likely to spot land mammals in the far south than in the north, and there are fewer species. Foxes, guanacos, rabbits and a small rodent named the tuco-tuco are common on the pampas, but rare along the channels. Southern sea otters and sea lions-once hunted to the brink of extinction-are now staging comebacks. Orcas, dolphins and porpoises occur in great numbers and can freqently be sighted from boats. On one occassion, more than three dozen of the lovely, small Commerson's dolphins (found only at the southem tip of South America) followed us out of an anchorage near the Strait of Magellan. The cold waters of the Southern Ocean, with their abundant sea life, are summer grounds for whales but, unlike on B.C.'s north coast, you rarely see them because their travels usually take them far outside the coastal channels. You might, however, mistake one of their principal food sources-krill, a tiny crustacean that resembles shrimp-for red tide.
One of the thrills of cruising in either hemisphere is sighting the many varieties of birds. The list for the Northwest is long-puffins, murres, surf scoters, loons, mergansers, harlequins, goldeneyes, bufffleheads, grebes, cormorants, great blue herons, Canada geese, oystercatchers, sandhill cranes and, of course, the magnificent bald eagle, to name just a few.
The list for the south is shorter but just as interesting because many southern species are seldom if ever seen in North America. The great wandering albatross, for example, is commonplace; with a wingspan of up to 12' it rides the winds for hours on end without once flapping its wings. Closer to shore you can spot petrels, including the giant fulmar, small and curious Magellanic penguins, graceful blacknecked swans, night herons, ruddy-headed geese, kelp geese, and the amusing steamer duck, a flightless duck that uses its wings to propel itself through the water like a paddle-wheeler. On inland saltwater lagoons are pink flamingos; while the pampas are home to rheas, large flightless birds similar to ostriches. In the forests there are colorflll austral parrots.
ON YOUR OWN In terms of support services and navigational aids, the far north and far south represent opposite extremes, so if you're still dreaming of a trip to the far south, read on....
Patagonian waters are either poorly charted or entirely uncharted. Furthermore, the charts carry no horrizontal datum, so if you're using GPS, your positions won't be accurate. Fueling and provisioning can be done only in Ushuaia, Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales. (Although Puerto Williams has the most protected harbor and is the choice of moorage for cruising boats that elect to winter over, supplies available are entirely at the whim of the Chilean navy.)
The distance between settlements in Patagonia is anywhere from five to 14 sailing days. Although it's possible to find anchorages in between, the number of choices available in over 700 miles of coastline don't begin to approach the selection in B.C. Aside from a book published by a Chilean admiral that covers the area from 41° 50' S to 56° S, there are no cruising guides that tell you what kind of protection you can expect, anchoring depths or the nature of the sea bottom.
VHF radio communication is problematical and, unless you have your own weatherfax, you have to rely on the barometer for your clues. When you're anchored at the end of Gardner Channel in B.C., your radio is silent, too, but at least you're only a day's travel from good reception. You're truly on your own in this southern wilderness where summer weather is often as dynamic as winter conditions off Cape St. James. Nevertheless, this is what draws some sailors to Patagonia and makes Cape Horn the "ultimate challenge," the sailors' Everest.
I, for one, love this rough, untamed region, with its dazzling beauty and ferocious weather-one of the few untouched areas remaining in the world. And I would be delighted to have a comfortable boat dropped in the middle of these southernmost channels so I could be free to spend a month or two cruising the fjords and inlets. I can handle the tempestuous weather as long as I'm "inside," protected by outlying islands and reefs. But I never again wish to tackle the great Southern Ocean whose waves roll incessantly round Antarctica, building to unimaginable heights. I never again want to look up from the trough of an 80' wave. Since the odds of having a boat set down for me are slim, I'll probably do my southern sightseeing by hopping a LAN-Chile flight for Punta Arenas and renting a four-wheel drive. I'll save my cruising for northern B.C., where I an enjoy much the same pleasures, but with much less anxiety!
Réanne Hemmingway-Douglass is the author of Cape Horn: One Man's Dream, One Woman's Nightmare, the Douglass' story of their attempt to round Cape Horn. She also co-authored, with her husband Don, the Exploring the British Columbia Coast series of cruising guides. In 1984, she led the first women's team to mountain bike across Tierra del Fuego, from the Strait of Magellan to Beagle Channel and back.