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Sailing Patagonia

Navigating thousand meter high granite walled channels barely wider than the yacht; five meter swells, waves crashing over the cabin, crossing the Golfo de Penas; rounding the notorious Cabo Raper in dense fog and rain by radar; to days of gentle winds, gazing at glaciated volcanoes.

Caleta Tortel was our safe harbor, and the start of my sea adventure. I passed through the small timber economy town as part of my travels north along Chile’s notoriously rugged Carretera Austral highway, which didn’t exist down here until 2003. This is indeed a remote part of Patagonia. But still, not the raw landscape that lines the Pacific coast. Few have travelled it. In fact, this section is less populated than when Darwin made his famous journey aboard the Beagle in 1835 and looks as it did when men first set eyes on it.

I had spotted Faraway, a 39 ft. Colin Archer double-ender ketch, the ship made famous by turn of the century high latitude sailors, in the caleta and, although a certain long shot, I figured I would track the captain down and test the odds of me getting to explore a bit. By chance, some French travellers I had spent the Christmas holiday with had a beer with the captain, John, and relayed his desire for a crew to me. John had been attempting the coast for the past six months solo, a daring feat, and was eager for a crew. His experience was vast; three circumnavigations and, this making, his eighth crossing of Patagonia.

After a week in Tortel waiting on the Southerlies, we set off down the Baker River channel. The landscape is amazing and the sailing intense. Each night we would stay in cozy little coletas. The entries were often no wider than the boat and would go in a good distance (some several kilometers). We motored the whole first day in still wind. Sounds simple enough, but the currents were sometimes strong and the channels narrow, sheer granite walls hundreds of meters high, the boom scraping land. The nights anchorage, typical for the trip, was picture perfect; a calm caleta caped by a small waterfall. The water from it pristine and drinkable untreated.

Next up was the Golfo de Penas, earning its reputation for big sloppy swells. Twelve hours of waves crashing over the cabin, bow and sides sinking under the five meter swells. A few hours in we had a fuel leak. John siphoned the tank out to cans that took up the entire cabin, leaving a strong diesel smell. Sure enough this was more than my stomach could handle, and I got sick a few times throughout the day, each time after I went down into the cabin. At least that was the only day that got me.

After a couple of days of trying to capture the right conditions for rounding Tres Monte, we got out with calm weather turning to dense fog and steady light rain. We navigated notorious Cabo Raper by radar. Being frightened for my life several hours a day was a trend for the trip.

Next up, Skyring Peninsula and Bahia Pink. All around were dangerous reefs to watch for. Winds shifted and picked up, John was happy to be saving on fuel. I was, once again, concerned for my life. The boat keeled hard in the 30 knot wind as we wound our way through the narrow channel.

After that things got calm. We entered the wider Canal Moraleda, with a slight tail wind. I could actually read while taking the helm! That is, until the horse flies caught up to us. They were relentless.

Low on fuel – 5 gallons diesel, propane for cooking ran out two days before, water was nearly gone; John finally decided we shouldn’t go on without getting more. The engine had cut out three times. The final one left us coasting into an anchorage at Puerto Aguirre. I figured this was enough. Once I realized there was a ferry to Puerto Chacabuco in the morning I jumped on the chance to bail. John wasn’t thrilled and didn’t understand my desire. No sense in explaining all the rationale, listening wasn’t a strong suit of his. Feelings aside, this was also a perfect spot for me to rejoin my prior itinerary, hitting the many parks of the Carretera.

A week and a half and six hundred miles of coast sailed. Overall, wild, memorable experience. But happy to be on land.

Photos from the chill times:

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