Cruising the challenging waters of the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn
The change in the weather is as emphatic as it is fast. One moment we're meandering along, running wing-and-wing before a light northerly breeze that's just enough to get our heavy 56-footer trundling along at 5 knots. The next, the sky to the west takes on a gunmetal hue and the jib shakes itself as the wind starts to back. Our skipper, Hamish Laird, and fellow charter guest Steve Colgate furl the jib and muscle the big mainsail down to the second of four reef points as the clew pennants dance madly. Why the second reef? The sea is flat, and the wind isn't that strong—yet. You need only look under the eased-out boom to figure out why Hamish favors discretion over valor. Not five miles away lies the brooding silhouette of Cape Horn, ship killer and seaman's graveyard, and the shades of a thousand sailors whose bones lie in these waters would tell you that you take this place lightly at your peril.
We've come down this morning through the Hermite group, a cluster of barren islands whose southern tip is marked by Cape Horn. There are seven of us on board the Chuck Paine–designed cutter Seal: owners Hamish and Kate Laird, guests Paul and Ellen Dinkel and their son Michael, Steve, and me. We're on day three of a two-week voyage in the Beagle Channel, and, Hamish assures me as the wind begins a mournful fluting in the shrouds, we're fortunate to have gotten to the Horn so early in the piece. He's had trips on which clients never even got to see the fabled island; down here at the end of the world there is no climate, there is only weather, and days or weeks of 50-knot westerlies make a mockery of such things as cruising plans and schedules.
We're getting a taste of Southern Ocean weather now, as the wind speed hovers in the 30s, then climbs past 40 knots. As Seal heels to the gusts, Steve and I exchange grins. A couple of hours earlier, as we motored down through the islands, I'd been afraid that we were going to round the notorious Horn under the iron genny. Even though a calm arrival would have let us land on the island and get the coveted "Cabo de Hornos" stamp in our passports, what an anticlimax that would have been. So we did all the things sailor superstition says you shouldn't; Hamish scratched the backstay, I blew the whistle on my Musto jacket as hard as I could. It obviously worked. It hasn't been blowing long enough to build up the seas, and with the wind on her quarter Seal rumbles along at hull speed under eased-out mainsail, shouldering the small waves aside. The Horn draws closer, its southern frontage rising almost sheer out of the water to a thousand feet; white water seethes at the base of the cliff, and, farther up, patches of scrub cling grimly to the veins in the rock. How tenacious is life, to thrive in such a place. Four hundred miles to the south is Antarctica.
This is an oddly emotional moment for me. The Horn has been an icon for all of my sailing life; I've read countless accounts of the struggles sailors have had here, the tragedies and the triumphs, and I do not believe there is a seaman alive who would not feel a sense of awe down here, with the spray in your face and the cold west wind pushing you in the back. Steve Colgate looks pensive too. As founder of the Offshore Sailing School and veteran of countless heavy-weather ocean races, he's never sailed in these latitudes before. Hamish appears with a bottle of champagne, lops off the top with a hatchet, and we toast each other. I pour a libation over the side, just in case Poseidon is watching. Have we rounded the Horn? No, we've visited the Horn. To be able to say you've rounded the Horn you've got to do the hard miles through the Southern Ocean, and we haven't done that. But for now, visiting is more than enough.
We get a better taste of Cape Horn weather as we gybe below the cape, tuck in another reef, let out some headsail, and harden up toward our anchorage on Herschel Island, just to the north of Horn Island. Soon we're out of the Horn's lee, and the wind picks up to 45, 50 knots on the beam. Whitecaps smash against Seal's raw-aluminum topsides and great dollops of water blow back into the cockpit. It feels as though the Horn is shooing us away, and we go gladly. That afternoon, as we anchor in Caleta Martial on the east side of Herschel, the skies clear and the sun comes out. It's a tranquil scene, if you can ignore the wind moaning in the rigging, for it's still blowing a good 35 knots. With Seal's 108-pound CQR laid out at the end of 250 feet of half-inch chain, sleep comes easy to all of us. Tomorrow we'll go north in search of glaciers.
Two days later we're in a tiny anchorage called Cabo Rees, on Navarino Island, right at the entrance to the Beagle Channel. Through the trees I can see the whitecaps in the channel. It's blowing 50 knots from the west out there, and the Chilean authorities have closed the channel to shipping. Seal sits back on her anchor as rainsqualls come through, and we lounge inside the deck saloon and watch the rain batter the big windows. The heater is on, and every few hours Kate delivers another culinary masterpiece from the galley, accompanied by excellent Argentine wine. Yes, life could be worse. In a clear spell, we explore the rocky beach and hillside. The vegetation here is unlike any I've seen. Thick growths of indigenous beech trees mingle with patches of lichens and sphagnum moss, and an undergrowth of small spiky plants bursting with tiny, delicate flowers. A few days later, in the fjords, I would walk on a bouncy, 2-foot-thick shag carpet of moss that covered an entire island. The trees huddle together on the lee sides of the hills and in any shelter they can get. Some stand alone, or rather crouch, bent into tortured shapes by the strong and constant westerly wind. Banderas arboles, they're called, flag trees.
Eventually the wind goes into the south and fades away to almost nothing, leaving us with a long motor west along the Beagle Channel. This is only 100 miles long, though I doubt Captain FitzRoy would have used the word "only" in this context when he surveyed the region in the 1830s aboard the Beagle, along with his naturalist companion, Charles Darwin. That voyage stretched out for nearly five years; they were hard men in those days. The real hard nuts, though, were the Yaghans, the native people of Tierra del Fuego, who eked out a tough living here. They traveled the length of the channel in dugout canoes, foraging for shellfish and hunting sea lions and guanaco, and were perfectly adapted to this harsh climate. FitzRoy describes a meeting with them during which the Englishmen huddled close to a blazing campfire trying to stay warm, while the Yaghans sat 20 feet away, sweating in the unaccustomed heat. Huddled inside several layers of wool, I find that hard to relate to. As was often the case when native peoples came face to face with the civilizing influence of Westerners, the Yaghans gradually died out.
The Beagle Channel is quite stunningly beautiful when the light is good enough to let you appreciate it. Flanked to the north by the lower reaches of the Andean chain and in the south by the vertiginous slopes of Navarino and Hoste islands, for most of its length it forms part of the border between Chile and Argentina, and these two nations have engaged in what amounts to a century-long staring contest. Each is very jealous of its territory (and would not mind some more of it), and each suspects the other fellow wants to cheat him out of some. Hence the Chilean navy maintains a series of posts within VHF range of each other all along the southern side of the channel. This is good in the sense that if a cruising boat does run into trouble, a call for help will usually be heard, but on the other hand, as Hamish grumbles, you have to check in with each post as you pass it. You certainly can't rely on other boats for assistance if something does go wrong. We've seen exactly two in five days, not counting two cruise ships encountered steaming out of the channel and heading for Antarctica. Even in midsummer the place isn't exactly crowded, except with cormorants, Magellanic penguins, and sea lions. There are only two towns—Ushuaia, on the Argentine side, and Puerto Williams, on the Chilean side.
Hamish and Kate have promised that the beauty of the channel's western end will make the long slog to windward worthwhile, and as usual they are right. The anchorages we visit over the next week are some of the most spectacular I have ever seen. Where the landmass flattens out at the Channel's eastern end to rolling hills and plains, to the west the Cordillera Darwin thrusts its snowcapped peaks thousands of feet into the clouds. Between the mountains, glaciers have carved out narrow fjords flanked by cliffs three thousand feet high. Garibaldi, Alemania, Holandia, Agostini—a strange hodgepodge of names, after countries or climbers.
Our second anchorage here is at Seno ("fjord") Pia, a Y-shaped affair with a glacier at the top of each arm. Waterfalls trace silvery lines down the dark cliffs on either side, and Andean condors—what a thrill, to see these giant birds—wheel lazily high overhead. Nudging floes the size of cars out of the way, Hamish gently pilots Seal to within a hundred yards of the blue-walled glacier. We go ashore and walk on the moraine, where the ice has bulldozed its way through soil and rock. The ice sheet is stories high, and the sounds of gunfire and cannon shot as it cracks betray the intense pressure it is under.
Later, Hamish backs Seal up to one of the waterfalls, and we tether her to the shore. He disappears up the hillside carrying a hose, and soon our tanks are being filled with fresh, sweet snowmelt. That evening we cool our drinks with thousand-year-old ice harvested from the fjord. The wind howls and rainsqualls buffet Seal as yet another system moves through, but with shore lines tied to trees and all 300 feet of anchor chain deployed, we ride it out. There is good cheer on board, and dancing.
Such is the pattern for the next few nights. We sail maybe ten or twenty miles, then sneak into another fjord. We all help work the boat, but it's obvious that Hamish and Kate could do it all by themselves. They used to run the well-known expedition boat Pelagic, and both are first-class seamen. I quickly develop a great respect for their quiet competence, their knowledge of their boat, and their love of the area. Preferred procedure in these waters is to drop anchor, back into some sheltered cove or bight, and then run the four lines housed on reels on the deck to rocks or trees ashore. Thus secured, Seal is proof against even the wildest williwaws—whirlwinds—that come howling like banshees down the flanks of the mountains at 60 knots or more and accelerate across the water. They'd lay a small boat on her beam ends, and even on board hefty Seal we sometimes feel as if a giant hand is pushing us over.
It may be possible to suffer from glacier overload, but not as far as I'm concerned. In one anchorage, the aptly named Caleta Beaulieu, I watch the clouds lift above the glacier a mile away to reveal the 8,000-foot glory of Mount Darwin, its snow-covered peak tinted gold in the afternoon sun. In another, we walk up to the edge of the ice cliff and chip pure crystals off for the evening's G&Ts.
In large part, the sailing lives up to the surroundings. I like cool air and strong wind, and these are both in plentiful supply down here in Tierra del Fuego. As much as the scenery, there are some episodes that will stay with me for a long time: the great ride around Cape Horn; a mad reach across the Beagle Channel in 40 knots under a hard blue-gray sky; the long, gentle sail back toward Puerto Williams, making a lazy 6 knots with the headsail poled out, a rainbow in the distance and the sun and clouds making a shadow play on the mountainsides. It may take some time, but I'll be visiting these parts again.
TIERRA DEL FUEGO
WHY GO: This is one of the last great sailing experiences, and who could resist the lure of Cape Horn?
WHEN TO GO: During the Southern Hemisphere summer, November through March. Don't expect summer temperatures, though. Average daytime temps are in the high 50s, although it can reach the 70s.
HOW TO GET THERE: I flew to Punta Arenas in Chile, via Santiago, and then caught a
short-hop flight to Puerto Williams, also in Chile. You can also fly to Ushuaia, Argentina, and get a ferry to Puerto Williams.
HOW TO GO SAILING: There are probably more charterboats working the waters of Tierra del Fuego than ever before, yet the area is still remote and far from oversubscribed. Seal's owners, Hamish and Kate Laird, with their two children, divide their time between Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and South Georgia Island; charters are available in all three areas. Check their Web site, www.expeditionsail.com.