After three weeks at sea en route from St. Helena in the mid-South Atlantic, with no company other than our own, Rio de Janeiro was overwhelming.
We remembered all the warnings we had been given, along with past experiences of being mugged in Rio, and not only chained our inflatable dinghy to the wall when we went ashore for the first time, but carried our attractive white pine oars with us (it’s more difficult than you might think to lock a pair of 2 metre long oars..). But, without even enough money for the bus to the city centre, it was then a long and hot walk from Urca, the upper-class residential quarter off which we were anchored, to Botafogo – “downtown”. Then a quest for a branch of the one bank that would accept Bank of Montreal bank cards in their ATMs, and a further puzzling half-hour trying all the ATMs in the bank until we found the one that was actually geared up for foreign exchange. By now we were wilting: the prospect of spending the rest of the day dealing with Latin American bureaucracy so as to check in formally to Brazil was too daunting, and we fled back to the tranquillity of Bosun Bird.
Foreign yachts arriving in a new country are in most places treated exactly as 500,000 ton supertankers are: when we finally braced ourselves to sally out again, it took us all day. First you must locate the appropriate set of immigration officials – in this case in an obscure office in an echoing warehouse in the docks that, on the rare occasions cruise ships call, is used as a disembarkation terminal. Then to Customs, where a temporary import license for the boat must be obtained (the boat gets a longer stay than the individual in Brazil, which is mystifying but typical); in this case the evidently underworked and overqualified customs officer (he had only processed 33 yachts in 2005, and it was now November) was keen to practice his English, so it was two hours before we could break away, all the time clutching our oars. Next to Health, here located behind an unmarked steel door and up a staircase at Warehouse 18, reached via a workers’ bus that runs the length of the docks; here we were asked if we felt alright, and were given a fine-looking “certificate of pratique”, which entitled us to take down the yellow Q (for quarantine) flag we had hoisted on entering Guanabara Bay. Finally, with three voluminous sets of papers now in hand, to the Port Captaincy – a branch of the navy; most ports have such a presence, and at each, you must check in and out, obtaining clearance for the next destination. In compensation for this tedious rigmarole, the captain was pleased to note that on all official documentation in Brazil, he appeared either as “Master” or “Commander”, occasionally both, much to the envy of the crew, in whom official interest was very perfunctory; Russell Crowe eat your heart out.
As at all anchorages after a long passage, we had a long list of jobs to be accomplished before the next leg. Some of these were routine for every stop: climbing the mast to check the fittings, lights and antennae at the top; checking the hull underwater; replenishing the water and diesel, restocking the galley and so on. Then there would be repairs or modifications to be effected: in Rio we had a whisker pole (a lightweight aluminium spinnaker pole, used for holding the staysail out when running before the wind) made up to our specifications, bought a handheld VHF radio as a backup for our VHF in the boat in case of power failure and/or the need to hail a passing ship from our liferaft (!), chased down otherwise hard-to-obtain stainless steel fittings and bought some 400m of line in preparation for mooring in the South Bizarrely, the camping/outdoors shops where one could usually find these items doubled as pet shops, which made for many delays as Jenny paused to stroke kittens and poke her finger into budgie cages.
As we were now leaving the tropics, where the weather is typically steady and predictable (there are no hurricanes/cyclones in the South Atlantic), familiarising ourselves with regional weather behaviour and searching out reliable sources of forecasting also took up much of our time. Unlike when we were last out cruising in the 80’s, a wealth of weather forecasting was now available online and you could obtain quite good seven-day wind speed, wind direction and swell forecasts for any area of the world, available in various formats but all using sophisticated models devised by the USA marine weather agency, NOAA. The principal snag was that while an increasing number of sailboats are now set up to receive e-mail on board (we were not, for now), accessing the Internet from your boat is quite another matter; thus, two or three days out from port, when the reliability of your seven-day forecast starts to fade, you’re in the same situation as in the old days; scanning the sky for signs of an impending front and, above all, the barometer: we have both a normal barometer and a barograph (a moving finger that traces an inky line up and down) on board.
In very crude terms, in these waters high pressure that gradually slips down brings north or northeasterly winds (favourable for us), that become stronger as the pressure dips faster; when it bottoms out (flatlines…) you should prepare for a reversal of wind direction, and the passage of a front bringing southwesterly or southerly winds (the wrong direction for us).
With so much to do, we had relatively little time for sightseeing. However, we rode the cable car to the top of the Sugarloaf (for the third time), and caught a movie (Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, set in Kenya and Sudan). We also ate out, but the common wisdom was that we needed to be back on board, with the dinghy chained and locked to the boat, by dark, so this inhibited our night life. Although we grew tired of carrying the oars onto buses (which have very tight turnstiles and are often very crowded), into department stores, to restaurants and so on, we had nothing stolen; the crew survived a rather halfhearted mugging attempt by four youths in the area known as Flamengo; perhaps they were deterred by the captain making motions to assemble one of his oars as a club.
Our next leg at sea was a very short one: 60 miles west, to the bay of Angra dos Reis. Sixty miles is an awkward distance: at an average speed of just over four knots, given reasonable wind and no adverse current, to accomplish this in daylight we would have to leave at the crack of dawn and risk arriving after dark. Better to leave in the early evening, sail overnight, and then have all of the next day in reserve should the wind and current not cooperate. On this occasion, Murphy’s Law was operational: we had very strong following winds, plus a knot of current in our favour, which meant that by 02:00 we were already close to arriving, and had to spend an uneasy several hours tacking back and forth off Ilha Grande, at the eastern entrance to the bay. Although our GPS was giving us a constant readout of our position, our confidence was not enhanced by the fact that two key lighthouses simply failed to materialise and, as if to compensate, there was an unexpected large and brightly lit oil terminal, with several attendant ships offshore, in a location that our chart showed to be uninhabited swamp.
We spent the next ten days cruising the spectacular islands and bays of this region, sailing only very short distances and anchoring every night in a different cove – each with dense tropical jungle tumbling from hundreds of feet to the shore itself, mirror-flat calms, and warm swimming. Occasionally a fishing boat would pull in late at night, and at the weekend there were some more power boats and yachts around, as the Sao Paulo crowd materialised. Our final stop was off the beautiful old colonial town of Paraty, once the seaward terminus of the road from Ouro Preto and Diamantina, at which the Portuguese galleons were loaded. The town is so close to the water and so low that the streets flood at high tide (an efficient means of clearing them out), and the old centre has been declared car-free.
Opposite Paraty, we made use of the “international yacht club”, an abandoned house by a small and isolated beach, with a spring channelled into a hose, that has over the years come to be used as an informal gathering spot for foreign yachties. Here we met two of the very few foreign yachts we had so far encountered: Feng Shui, French-flagged, 20 years out from France (!) and just back after wintering in Buenos Aires, and Marie Galante, from Puerto Madryn, Argentina.
From here, two long day-sails took us to our last Brazilian stop: the island of Ilhabela. This is the Cowes or Newport of Brazil, with hundreds of yachts swinging on moorings off the small town of Ilhabela itself, match racing every weekend, and thee yacht clubs.
Brazilian yacht clubs, like in most of the rest of Latin America, are not necessarily welcoming to cruising sailors who, with their washing hung out to dry, their cluttered decks and their typically unkempt appearance, are seen as lowering the tone. At Ilhabela, the Iate Clube da Ilhabela shared its entrance with a Vuarnet boutique and we sensed it wasn’t even worth asking; some Brazilian sailors warned us that the Iate Clube de Santos (which had very elegant gold and black flags on its moorings) was just “out of the question”, touching their noses and tipping them upwards significantly. However, at the scruffier Clube Pinda, we were kindly guided to a free mooring and given the use of the club facilities (including hot showers) for a week – which is more typical of international practice.
We checked out formally from Brazil at the nearby oil terminus of Sao Sebastiao, breezily assuring the immigration official that we would be off “immediately”, even though – as it turned out – we had to wait several days for the right weather conditions (and hoping no official would ask to see our passports, with their exit stamps all too prominent).
Notwithstanding our diligence on the Internet, the ensuing 1000-mile passage to Argentina threw more bad weather at us than we had experienced in four years and 36,000 miles offshore in the eighties, circumnavigating the globe.
Four successive fronts swept across our track, which was fifty miles or so offshore: for three of them, we had to heave to for 24 to 36 hours, but we managed to sail through the fourth. In the intervals, we had frustratingly light winds, or too much: for one twelve-hour period we had 35 knots up our stern, which meant we rushed on at about five knots, with just our tiny storm staysail flying. In these conditions we found it necessary to disconnect our otherwise reliable self-steering gear, so as to hand steer: you needed to take every onrushing wave at something of an angle (lest you career headlong down the face of the wave and dip your bows into the trough) and then straighten up again, so as not to be caught sideways onto the following wave. This could be quite tiring and required a lot of concentration, especially at night.
There were a couple of times when our evening ritual of marking up our position on the chart showed – depressingly – that we had gone backwards, but gradually we worked our way past the Brazil/Uruguay border and into the mouth of the River Plate. Somewhere to starboard we passed the spot where Joshua Slocum accidentally put Spray on the beach: in a rare understatement, he remarks “this was annoying”. We were also in the waters where in 1941 a small squadron of British warships forced the German pocket battleship Graf Spee into Montevideo, where her captain scuttled her rather than venture out again (until very recently the stub of the Graf Spee’s funnel could be seen sticking out of the water).
A little more worryingly, we were in a zone infamous for short lived but very fierce squalls known as “pamperos”, that can reach 70 knots or so for an hour; we had read that signs of an imminent pampero included moths and other small insects congregating in the rigging (blown in front of the squall) and one morning this did indeed occur, but nothing out of the ordinary materialised. At night we could simultaneously seem the looms of Montevideo, Punta del Este and – more distant – Buenos Aires; encouragingly, they gradually faded (hove to, we had spent three successive nights gloomily contemplating the glow of the Brazilian city of Rio Grande do Sul).
For the last couple of days we had favourable winds and we pressed on as fast as we could so as to make Mar Del Plata before sunset on our sixteenth day at sea. It had been a far from relaxing passage. Unusually, I had been able to read only one book: Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which was sufficiently slow-moving and ponderous for one to be able to read two or thee pages, rush to tend to the sails, and then pick it up again in only the approximately right place, without losing the plot. There was also usually too much going on at night for us to want to listen to music on our portable CD player. .
In Mar Del (as the cruisers call this large Argentine beach resort) it was fun finally to catch up with some boats going our way. There was the usual wide variety of boats and personalities:
Tom and Vicky, both in their late fifties, retired teachers, aboard the beautiful wooden 40 footer Sunstone, which they have raced in the Fastnet and the Sydney/Hobart;
- Malcolm and Joan, early sixties, from the South Island of New Zealand, where they owned a boatyard and designed and built their amazingly plush kevlar-hulled 55 footer, Sarau (complete with heated towel rails and electric-flush toilet); they had crossed from NZ to Patagonia, had rounded the Horn and were now on their way North;
- Antoine, a young French singlehander on his 21-foot “mini Transat” called Moustique, who had sailed here from Brest and was now carrying on South; he could sail at 12 knots but his very light boat demanded that he hand steer nearly all the time;
- Roger, a Brit in his fifties single handing an ancient 25ft wooden boat called Herschel, two weeks before we arrived he had set off for Cape Town but had turned back 400 miles out after springing a leak and was now fitting a new plank
- Ron, former Australian military, aboard Sula; quite well known on the cruising circuit because, en route from Australia to Cape Horn, he had been overtaken by a 950 millibar depression (i.e. an extremely bad storm, even for these waters) and lost his mast; he had spent the winter in Ushuaia, putting his boat back together again.
This made for an active social scene: we collectively booked a large table at a local fish restaurant for Christmas Eve, and there was a beach party on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, we had the usual long list of boat jobs to do, also spending at least an hour every day in the internet cafe in the port, poring over the weather maps.
Mar del Plata has been one of Latin America's prime beach resorts since the 1920's; any Buenos Aires family that can afford to do so simply decamps here for all or part of December, January and February, when the heat and humidity in the capital are at their worst. Hundreds of tents, that can be rented by the day, fill the city beaches and a vast casino dominates the skyline; famous soccer teams base themselves here for pre-season training; all the stage hits from Buenos Aires transfer to Mar Del; starlets are spotted daily strutting their stuff on the boardwalks. But it is a strangely wild city as well: from the marina we could at all hours hear the bark of hundreds of aggressive sea-lions that had occupied erstwhile tourist beaches to the south – and which seemed to beckon us ever southwards.
Discouragingly few windows of favourable wind seemed to open up – everyone said this summer had been unusually unstable so far, but we seem to hear that everywhere we go – but in early January 2006, as much to feel we were actually making progress as anything, we made an overnight hop to the next suitable stopping place on the coast; the grain-loading port of Quequen.
This place sees very few foreign visitors – only two foreign yachts over the previous year. There are reasons for this: the first of Quequen’s two yacht clubs, that we passed on our left as headed up the Quequen River, was abandoned and overrun with menacing two-ton sea lions; and the second, a tiny jerrybuilt shack known rather optimistically as the Vito Dumas Yacht Club (after Argentina’s first circumnavigator), is further up the river than the chart goes, and was reputed to have insufficient water in front of it for keelboats. However, some very friendly fishermen assured us otherwise and, after we had gingerly nosed our way upstream past miscellaneous rusting wrecks and a collapsed bridge, we were given a very warm welcome.
We were soon back into our daily routine of checking the weather on the Internet, at a corner Internet café decorated with old movie posters; the booth we were usually assigned was beneath a less-than-encouraging poster for The Day After Tomorrow, showing New York being engulfed by hurricane-force winds and a tidal wave. By now, we had lowered our sights: we would set off with a forecast of only two days favourable winds (we had hitherto been hoping for three).
On Friday January 13th (we weren’t happy about the date, but what could we do?) the first two-day window in a fortnight opened up; we hurriedly did our paperwork, radioed for permission to leave the port, and motored out of the harbour, “con destino a Ushuaia, via la costa patagonica”.
As we edged south, every morning at 09:00 we would tune in, on our Single Sideband (SSB) radio to the Patagonian Cruisers’ Net, run by the ever amiable Wolfgang from his home in Valdivia, Chile; we would report our position and weather, listen attentively to the weather forecast for our area (an analysis rebroadcast by the British-flagged Islander, cruising the Falklands), and hear what other cruisers south of us (in Argentina, Chile, the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica) were experiencing. The news was not always encouraging; our good friends Nick and Jan on board Yawarra, whom we had last met in Cape Town, had run at 6 knots under bare poles (i.e. with no sails at all) before 50 knots of wind as they approached Puerto Deseado, while a flotilla of French yachts was marooned in the inhospitable open roadstead of Puerto Madryn, awaiting fair winds to continue. I couldn’t get out of my mind a tune from the last CD we had played in Quequen: Highway to the Danger Zone, from Top Gun…
Barely had the GPS clicked over to the magic figure of 40-00-00 South, than the expected first front hit; we were in the middle of a bight formed where the coast of Argentina runs due West to Bahia Blanca, then turns abruptly south, known appropriately as El Rincon (the Corner) and had plenty of sea room, but it was discouraging to spend the best part of a day hove to and to record an advance of only twelve miles in that day’s log.
As the wind fell and reverted to the north, we were able to set sail again, and were soon off our next landmark: the hammer-shaped Peninsula Valdes, famed for its wildlife, especially its whales. Here, as so often happens following a severe front, we then had too much wind coming from astern, and spent a few hours sailing at four knots without any sails up at all (“bare poles”). Next: an all-night thunderstorm, with lightning strikes seeming to crash down into the ocean all around us, and light winds as far as Cabo dos Bahias. Here there were actually some options for anchoring, notably the reputedly bulletproof Caleta Horno, but Les on Islander promised more Northerlies, so we decided to press on: again we soon had 35 knots astern, and were moving fast across the gaping maw of the Gulf of St George, aiming to make our landfall at Cabo Blanco.
A niggling worry now developed. The few times we had turned the engine on of late, there seemed to be some strange vibrations in the cockpit area. We laboriously emptied both cockpit lockers in the hope of identifying something that might have shifted and that could be provoking the new noise, but to no avail; after two days, a minute examination of the engine itself showed that a bolt on one of the four engine mounts (i.e. the L-brackets that secure the body of the engine to the boat) had sheared, so that the engine was effectively supported by only three mounts, and was consequently vibrating more than it should. The bolt was not only in an inaccessible position, but it had broken off, leaving half its body embedded in the engine.
We spent the best part of two days wondering what to do. The forecast was favourable for carrying on, but we knew we would need the engine for various critical stages later on, notably Le Maire and for entering remote anchorages in the Beagle Channel. With some reluctance, we decided to backtrack some twenty miles, and try to effect repairs in what is the last reasonably accessible refuge on the Patagonian coast: Puerto Deseado (sometimes known in English as Port Desire).
Puerto Deseado was of considerable historic interest. Magellan had probably stopped here on the first circumnavigation of the globe, to see if this inlet (technically a Ria, or flooded river – unique in South America) could be the hoped-for passage to the Pacific, but the place was named (in 1584) after the flagship of Sir Thomas Cavendish, the Desire. It was one of his Welsh crew who gave to the quaint, ungainly birds that here abound the name “pen gwyn” (white head, in Welsh) and it was one of his captains, John Davis, who – according to Bruce Chatwin - inspired the Rime of the Ancient Mariner when, at Port Desire, he victualled his ship with 14,000 dried penguins; they went rotten on the return voyage to England, turning Davis’s vessel into a hells hip, nearly all of whose crew died from maggot infestation; “there was nothing they did not devour, only iron excepted”, recounted one of the sixteen survivors. Later, HMS Beagle made two visits and Charles Darwin explored extensively inland.
But it wouldn’t be plain sailing. A careful reading of the Voyage of the Beagle reveals that Captain Fitzroy, most uncharacteristically twice struck a rock in the middle of Port Desire’s entrance channel; indeed the blurry photocopy of the 1963 chart we had on board showed “Roca Beagle” quite clearly; nor was it reassuring to read in the dry Admiralty Pilot that the iron beacon that once marked Roca Beagle had been repeatedly blown over in gales and the obstacle was no longer marked. But the main obstacle was Port Desire’s large tidal range – about five meters – and the near-constant tidal race in the entrance channel, which would run at five or six knots for most of the day, only very briefly slackening – to reverse itself – at high and low tide each day.
We arrived off the entrance just as dusk fell but, although it was now low tide and there would be a few minutes of slack, we were not yet tempted to enter: the channel is a dogleg between reefs, and the only suitable place for anchoring, once inside, is in a tight location only a few meters from the shore; this was no place to explore, for the first time, at night. The alternative was not attractive, though: anchoring off the coast, entirely exposed to any wind from the north or east.
It was a restless night, as a northeasterly wind inexorably built up, with unlimited fetch; by dawn Bosun Bird was bucking at anchor, her bows dipping under the oncoming waves, and we thought briefly that we would have to cut our anchor line and return to retrieve it later. More by adrenaline than strength, though, we were able to retrieve our gear, as slack approached, and set off into the entrance, half under sail and half under the power of our ailing engine. As the crew, below, called out our GPS position on an ongoing basis, indicating to me “left”, “right”, or “ahead” we dodged Beagle Rock and other obstacles, and – for our efforts – were welcomed in by a gambolling school of the rare and beautiful Commerson’s Dolphins and flotillas of Magellanic penguins.
We got to know Puerto Deseado well; by the time we left people were greeting us on the main street of this small wild west Patagonian town and enquiring keenly in shops as to how our “problemita” with the “patas” (literally paws, here used to denote the engine mounts) was going. Our land base for operations was the local Club Nautico, off which we occupied one of two moorings kindly laid for visiting yachts; with its bar run by two expat Brazilian sisters (who seemed out of place here), it doubled every afternoon as the broadcast centre for Deseado FM and the local cable TV station; in fact, when there wasn’t much happening on TV (most of the time), the camera was focussed on Bosun Bird, bobbing just offshore. On hot afternoons (yes there are a few in Patagonia in January and February) le tout Deseado would flock to the narrow pebbly beach and a surprising number of people, given the frigid water, would go swimming.
Puerto Deseado's hinterland, meanwhile, is classic gaucho country. We were lucky enough to coincide with an annual parade, when the owners of nearby estancias despatch their most rugged old cowboys to process through Deseado in traditional dress – enormous spurs, great black leather leggings, 50cm knives thrust in their waistbands – to process behind a statue of the Virgin, carried on the back of a venerable red Model-T.
But we spent much time too at the cluttered and dark workshop of Coco, the diesel mechanic invariably recommended to us the best in town by all our contacts. Coco was nearly seventy and not in great health; he had three gown-up daughters who lived in BA and who he complained never visited him; in his younger days he was one of the top mechanics on the Argentine motor racing circuit, specialising in tuning hot rods (same term in Spanish…) and he was very impressed when I dropped the name of Andres Vianini, a one-time racing great, whose son I had happened to teach twenty five years ago in Buenos Aires. Coco rarely appeared at his workshop before noon, by which time there was a line-up to consult him, and much of the afternoon would be spent in companionable Mate (tea) sessions with anyone who happened to show up, squatted around a gas stove in one corner, under a grimy picture of the 1978 River Plate soccer team (“the best ever”, Coco assured me emphatically, dismissing the currently more fashionable Boca Juniors as upstarts) and a more modern calendar (2002) featuring a skimpily clad Miss Dayco Fanbelts. But Coco knew his stuff. He pondered our problem long and hard, made several trips on board to inspect the engine in situ, and for his fine-tuning session, worked with us until 01;00 a.m. He would accept only token payment. A wonderful character and a true gentleman.
Many others were just as helpful. Miguel, captain of the tugboat Yamana and also secretary of the yacht club, moved us back and forth while we were engineless, tied to the side of his boat, and even came out solicitously the windy night we were waiting to come into Deseado to see if we were OK. Santiago, the radio technician, spent two hours cleaning and repairing our SSB radio, and would accept no payment whatsoever. Pedro El Tornero (the “lathe man”) realigned our engine and gave us much valuable miscellaneous diesel advice, and the Brazilian sisters plied Jenny with feijoada.
When we arrived, there was one other yacht in – our German friend Mark, aboard Zanzibar, whom we had met in Mar del Plata, and who had beaten us here by a day or two. He had chosen to take an offshore route and had taken quite a thrashing: his canvas spray dodger was wrecked, stanchions were bent by the force of waves breaking over him, and his crew for the passage, a young Israeli, had hightailed it out of Deseado within minutes of arriving, swearing never to go near the sea again. But Mark’s adventures were not yet over. After a few days, he set off again, bound for Punta Arenas on the Magellan Strait (an alternative route to the one we were taking, shorter but with some very difficult stretches of tidal rapids, and Punta Arenas offers next to no shelter for small boats). We had a farewell coffee with him at our favourite Confiteria, the Santa Cruz and thought we would not be seeing him again, at least for a while.
Ten days later, we were amazed to see Zanzibar once again entering Deseado, this time under sail; given the difficulty associated with doing this, we assumed he had lost the use of his engine. Back at the Santa Cruz and obviously relieved to be alive and to tell his story, Mark told us the grisly details: a saga of storm-force winds, groundings and mechanical problems. “But I’m not going South again”, Mark concluded. “Panama has got to be easier than this”.
All rather interesting food for thought. But in the meantime Mark’s boat was leaking and needed to be taken out of the water. Miguel and the crew of the Yamana rallied round and, after making a few telephone calls (Puerto Deseado is that kind of small town…) they had lined up a crane and a flatbed truck. We spent the day helping and the next day Mark organised a traditional Argentine asado to thank everyone who had participated.
In between such episodes and daily visits to Coco’s workshop, we did the sights of Puerto Deseado. Among these is a grandiose railway station that would not have been out of place in a large city. But the line from Deseado runs inland for about 230km, to an even smaller location called Las Heras, and then stops. This had been one of several grand infrastructure projects dreamed up at the very end of the nineteenth century when it was feared that the continued emptiness and underdevelopment of Patagonia might lead some European power (or, worse, arch-enemy Chile…) to stake a territorial claim; the hope was that a network of new lines would encourage settlers and stimulate the wool business; this although the population of Puerto Deseado at that time, we are told, consisted of exactly five families. The money, of course, ran out, a new administration came into office in BA and when the Welsh colony in nearby Chubut voted to remain Argentine rather that offer themselves up to Chile, fears of foreign occupation no longer seemed so urgent. For seventy years or so, two steam locomotives maintained a sporadic service up and down to Las Heras, but this was abandoned in 1978. The station and its small museum are now maintained by a dwindling band of elderly gentlemen who used to work on the line; one showed us around.
Another tiny museum contains artifacts retrieved from HMS Swift. The Swift was a Falklands-based British warship that struck a rock and sank in Deseado in 1770. It was close to shore and only three of its 100-member crew were lost. But the situation was nevertheless dire. The nearest known help, overland, was Buenos Aires – 2000km across trackless and unexplored desert, roamed by rather unfriendly Tehuelche Indians. Accordingly a junior officer, Mr White, asked for volunteers and calmly set off to row back to the Falklands in a small whaler that had survived the wreck – 400 miles, in some of the windiest and roughest waters in the world. Amazingly, they made it to Port Egmont and a rescue expedition was mounted successfully; Mr White, for his pains, was “permitted” to present himself for the next available promotion exercise but alas we do not know if he was successful; the ratings who rowed him to the Falklands, of course, remain anonymous and unrecognised. The Swift was then forgotten until the 1970’s, when an Australian descendant of one of the crew tuned up in Deseado, asking if the site of the wreck was known. The answer was a mystified “no”, but the interest of several local teenagers was piqued and, by deduction and careful study of the charts, they located the wreck in about 20 metres of water in 1982; the items that have been retrieved thus far are in amazingly good condition and include fine Chinese ceramics, hourglasses and one glass in which was found, intact, a penguin egg.
Meanwhile, the search goes on for the remains of another historic vessel: the Hoorn. In 1615, Dutch ship owner Isaac le Maire commissioned mariner Willem Schouten to search for a route West that might be easier than the Magellan Straits; Le Maire, like Francis Drake before him, did not share the widely-held belief that Tierra del Fuego was the tip of a great continent further to the South; he noted that one of Drake’s captains had sailed as far South as 57 degrees and reported only open sea to the West. Schouten’s flagship was called the Eendracht, but one of his smaller vessels was named Hoorn, after the small Dutch town from which most of the crew hailed. They called in at Deseado to rest and also to careen – i.e. clean the weed and barnacle-clad bottoms of their hulls. But in an episode that smacks of both farce and tragedy – and which must surely not have been career-advancing for the individual concerned – the fire lit under the bottom of the Hoorn to burn off the weed got out of control and the entire vessel burned. In spite of its ignominious end, the Hoorn is of course now immortalised in the name of the great cape that Schouten went on to discover in January 1616. Inexplicably and inappropriately, the Spanish version of the Cape’s name is Cabo de Hornos, which translates literally as Cape of Ovens – a name that thus carries no echo of the place’s history at all.
And then there was Darwin. For much of our stay in Deseado we shared the anchorage with Harrier of Down, a bright yellow Peterson 26 crewed by the very English Julian Mustoe. Julian was retracing the voyage of the Beagle around the world and, as a result of his studies, was able to point out exactly where the Beagle had anchored; indeed Captain Fitzroy’s journal includes an engraving, itself taken from a painting by Conrad Maartens, entitled “HMS Beagle at Port Desire, Christmas Day 1833”. Darwin encountered large herds of guanaco here (many can still be seen) and recounts “ransacking” (his word: political correctness would now surely frown..) an Indian grave. He also speculates on the age of the great plains around him, implicitly questioning (as he does so many times) his captain’s conviction, and the common wisdom of the time, that the earth was only a few thousand years old. He quotes Shelley:
“…all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue,
Which teaches awful doubt”.
But by now, we were obsessed by our own customary “awful doubt” over when to leave. More agonising in the internet café, discussions on the SSB with Les, our weather guru in the Falklands, pondering of the charts – should we make a beeline South for the Straits of Le Maire, or hug the coast in case of strong Westerlies? Finally, the decision to go for it on the evening tide of Friday February 17th (oh dear, another Friday…), and to steer a compromise crescent-shaped course: first SSW, then SSE.
For an hour or so we sailed in company with a French boat that had briefly been moored alongside us, Atao, but they were twice our size and soon overtook us; Atao was crewed by a young couple with no less than five children under the age of eight; their main reason for stopping in Deseado had been to have about half a ton of nappies laundered.
And so we crept from the Roaring Forties into the Furious Fifties. Ironically (although we weren’t really complaining) we now had more periods of sustained calm than anywhere on our voyage so far. So, although we covered eighty miles in our first twenty four hours, our average soon started slipping and, four or five days on, we were doing well to be making twenty five miles a day. It was tempting to resort to the engine to power through these calms, but yet another set of mechanical problems had by now developed; these seemed ultimately to stem from an alteration made to the engine’s cooling system by our boat’s previous owner, but the net effect was that our alternator kept overheating, at which point it fails to charge the batteries (which leaves one possibly unable to start the engine at all next time around).
Thus we crept closer to our nemesis: Le Maire (which appropriately rhymes with nightmare).
The gods of diesel may not have been favouring us lately, but someone else was surely looking after us that night. With incredulity, we found ourselves approaching our GPS waypoint, at the Northern entrance of the Strait, at the exact speed that would place us there at the optimum time, to the minute: 03:49 a.m. Less positively, it was a moonless, overcast night, with occasional squalls of cold, hail-like drizzle: as we coasted in we could see neither of the key lighthouses that mark the two sides of the channel (Tierra del Fuego on the right, Staten Island on the left – the Staten Island light was the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Le Phare au Bout du Monde), let alone land itself. Instead, phosphorescent wave crests were breaking all around us; every few minutes, although the wind was quite steady and remained astern of us, there would be a flurry of breakers, with one wave train suddenly appearing from a new direction to meet the more regular train; these were in fact “whirlpool” effects caused by the current rushing along with us; one or two breakers climbed into the cockpit and gave us cold baths, but there was nothing too threatening.
As dawn came up, the wind eased and, out of the all-encompassing murk we made out the faint lights of a cruise ship heading north; bound for New Island, in the Falklands, the surprised watch officer told us when we called him up. And then the mist started to lift on the starboard side: there, tantalisingly revealed for a few minutes at a time as the clouds swirled in then out, were the steep, menacing mountains of the very tip of Tierra del Fuego and there – we were now past the most threatening point – was Buen Suceso (“Happy Event”) Bay – a happy moment indeed for Bosun Bird and her crew.
There was more stress in store. For now the wind died and – yes – reversed itself by 180 degrees. The current that had until now favoured us also started to wane and, we knew, would soon reverse as well. For the best part of a day we tacked anxiously back and forth across the southern entrance of the Strait, only too aware that we could easily get washed back in and blown north again; for hours our GPS showed we were making literally no progress, or maybe half a knot, and we became far too familiar with a distinctive set of rocks called Sail Rocks. The crew, it should be recorded, was somewhat despondent at this point and contemplating making for Port Stanley (Falkland Islands) or even running back to South Africa (a mere 5000 miles through the Fifties and Forties)…..
Gradually, we began to make some headway, though, and started to inch our way west, the steep and uninhabited shores of Tierra del Fuego’s Mitre Peninsula now to the north of us. By midnight, it looked as though we had a chance of making safe haven in Bahia Aguirre, a large indentation in the coastline giving some shelter from the southwesterly gales that blow straight up from the Horn, now only eighty miles to windward of us. The moment the anchor went down, at 01:30 a.m. in Spaniard Harbour, a nook in the northwestern corner of the bay, marked the end of what had been a stressful period and was celebrated, notwithstanding the hour and the miserable night (more rain, wind, no stars visible), with a couple of glasses of wine.
Aguirre, was beautiful, wild and yet a little scary: there were still many more miles to windward before we would reach the relatively protected waters of the Beagle Channel, and just around that rocky point off our beam, there was nothing between us and Antarctica. It felt like we were hanging on to the bottom of the world. And it wasn’t as though the place had a very happy history.
All of the first white settlers in this part of the world were missionaries, who saw the hardy and aggressive aboriginal peoples of Tierra del Fuego and its channels as one of the last great challenges remaining for any evangelical worth his salt. One of these was Allen Gardiner who, after retiring from the Royal Navy, had made converts to his muscular Christianity in Zululand, New Guinea and Bolivia before he tried his luck here. In September 1850 he had himself put ashore, with six companions at Banner Cove, Picton Island, where they hoped to establish a mission among the relatives and descendants of the famous Fuegian Indian – Jemmy Button – whom Captain Fitzroy had, years before, taken to England aboard the Beagle. But barely had they landed and the ship that brought them had disappeared over the horizon, than a horrific oversight came to light: they had left all their ammunition, which they would need for hunting and/or for self-defence, aboard the Ocean Queen. Within days the party was under siege by the Indians, and they had to retreat to their small boats for some degree of safety. Eventually, they fled downwind to Spaniard Harbour, Bahia Aguirre, leaving on a large rock at Banner Cove the painted message: “Go to Spaniard Harbour; March 1851”, this in hope of some rescue party miraculously appearing.
Winter set in. One of their boats was lost in a storm. In an exceptionally high tide, most of their supplies, which they were keeping in a cave, were ruined. All of the party started to show signs of scurvy; all they could find to eat were shellfish, seaweed and the odd dead seabird. One by one, they died. On August 26th, Gardiner’s assistant wrote a last testament, but – either hallucinating or casting himself as a latter-day martyr - wrote that he would not change his situation with anyone on earth, and concluded: “I am happy beyond words”. Gardiner himself wrote his last words on September 5th, apparently in a similar state of religious ecstasy. All the bodies were found a year later by a passing ship.
Gardiner’s cave can still be seen. There are two or thee semi-derelict buildings remaining from an estancia that was last a going concern in the 1970’s; a caretaker occasionally visits to repair the fences, and when I ventured ashore two horses rushed over excitedly to take a look at me. The British Admiralty pilot book for the area (a kind of nautical travel guide with a thee-hundred year old vintage) notes that the nearest permanent human settlement is Ushuaia, “five days’ hard ride”.
We spent nearly a week at Aguirre, waiting for some respite from the fierce westerlies outside. Every morning we would check in to the cruisers’ net for the best weather estimates. It was of some selfish consolation to know that others were daily facing much greater hardships than ourselves: Ron on Restless was wrestling with a wrecked engine in a nearly-iced-in bay on South Georgia; the nearest assistance in things mechanical would be Cape Town, 4000 miles downwind.
At last the break came: we made an overnight dash 45 miles to Picton Island, at the very mouth of the Beagle Channel, and a Chilean possession (it is in fact one of a group of three islands over whose sovereignty Chile and Argentina came to the brink of war in 1978). Gardiner’s message on the rock has long since faded, and there are no longer any aggressive natives stoning passing boats. Quite the contrary: barely had we anchored and run our lines ashore than the crew of a fishing boat, the Macarena, came over and asked if we would like some centolla (king crab). In front of us, they pulled the eight 30cm-long legs off each of two enormous and rather discomfited crabs, and were pleased to accept our last remaining bottle of Argentine plonk in return.
We thoroughly explored Gardiner Island, the islet that protects the entrance to Banner Cove, as we waited yet again for a break in the Westerlies: up the whitecap-dotted channel and in luminous visibility we could now make out the great snow capped mountains of Navarino Island and the range that backs Ushuaia. Reasoning that we were now nearing civilisation again, we turned on our radio one night in the hope of picking up Puerto Williams or Ushuaia. To our astonishment, all we could get was live football commentary, in English, from Highbury (London); we waited until the end of the game (Arsenal vs Real Madrid) and learned that we were listening, in fact, to The Voice of the Falklands, from Port Stanley.
One more stop, at Puerto Eugenia – a remote estancia on the Eastern end of Navarino - and we were entering the narrow confines of the Channel proper: here only a couple of miles wide, Argentina on the right, Chile on the left. We were not completely alone; relations between Argentina and Chile are ostensibly correct, but Chile maintains a very large and vigilant naval presence in the area, and we were politely ordered to report all our movements first to the naval outpost on tiny Snipe Island, then to Puerto Williams itself.
And finally to Williams itself. The southernmost town in the world, the southernmost yacht club, in fact pretty much the southernmost everything (to the chagrin of Argentines, who have now all but given up claiming such accolades for Ushuaia, which is indisputably several miles north). An efficient but warm welcome from the naval authorities, a little chit-chat with the two or three other boats in (a Kiwi, a Canadian and a German) – and it began to sink in.
The voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to the vicinity of the other Great Cape – now a mere seventy miles to the south of us – had for the past two years loomed as a kind of personal Everest. Getting down from the summit would doubtless be just as difficult, if not more so. But for the time being we were just enjoying being here.
More: Winter in Fireland