For more than three months we sail through the Patagonian wilderness, fighting headwinds, cold, and rain. The spectacular nature reinforces our conviction that it needs to be preserved for future generations.

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Puerto Williams (CHL) – Puerto Montt (CHL)

It’s the question of the day among sailors in Puerto Williams: when are you leaving? Our steadfast answer draws bewildered looks. “We’re waiting for easterly winds” is not a common strategy around here. Are we sarcastic or serious? It hardly ever blows from the east here, so we understand the confusion. Yet we are determined: We want to use the power of the wind instead of the engine as much as possible during our trip to Puerto Montt. 

Most of the 1400-nautical mile trip will be through uninhabited wilderness. Without any possibilities to provision for weeks, we’ll have to rely on what we have on board. In the previous weeks, we filled every compartment of our boat with food and stacked the front cabin with firewood. Based on books and other sailors’ stories, we can also expect harsh weather: strong winds, a lot of rain, and cold. These conditions make the trip our most challenging endeavour so far. At the same time, spectacular nature and abundant wildlife await, so we are very anxious to set sail.

False Start

After two weeks of strong westerly winds, at last a little bit of northerly wind is predicted. It should be perfect for our trip westward. We bid farewell to the other sailors and leave the next morning before dawn, only to find the Beagle Channel dead calm. “It’s always quieter around here” Ivar suggests. “We just need to get out of this windless corner.” Floris hates to break our resolution and turns on the engine with a heavy heart, hoping for some wind further west. Alas, the wind never comes and we end up motoring to Bahía Yendegaia. We feel a bit like failures, but the spectacular setting consoles us. A green valley, enclosed by mountains and glaciers, forms the backdrop of a derelict farm. We couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque first anchorage.

Yendegaia Rewilded

The land stretching out in front of us was once purchased by Tompkins Conservation, a foundation set up by Americans Doug and Kris Tompkins to protect and rewild large swaths of Patagonia. Thanks to their investment, the land has remained unspoilt. A few years ago, the foundation donated it to the Chilean government, which turned it into a National Park. Marvelling at the vast and pristine surroundings, we are thankful for the Tompkins’s efforts to conserve nature through private means and will highlight them in a separate article and video.

On a land expedition, we discover that the farm, now abandoned, has many traces of its former inhabitants, a gaucho and his Belgian girlfriend. Pieces of furniture and tools are scattered in and around the buildings, giving the property an eerie ambiance. In the vegetable garden some plants are beating the weeds and Ivar fervently harvests rhubarb, raspberries, and fresh mint as if our boat still had space for more food. Under sunny skies we hike around the property over paths once used by the farmers. Wild horses shy away from us and we can’t help but wonder, were they left behind when the gaucho withdrew from the farm?

Reality Check

When we get up the next day and take a look on deck, we feel the wind blowing from the valley towards the Beagle Channel. “It’s our chance to sail out of the bay!” Ivar shouts. Moments later we lift the anchor, roll out the gennaker, and glide the six nautical miles towards the Channel. On the other side of it is an indentation in the coastline that offers a sheltered anchorage right next to the Channel. It’s an ideal spot to observe the Channel and wait for good conditions to move on. We sail effortlessly out of the bay, but as we enter the Channel, the ride suddenly gets bumpy. The wind races over the Channel, funnelled by the mountains on both sides. While waves inundate the deck, Floris rescues tools that he had carelessly left next to the anchor winch. A bit shaken we make it across, where our American friends Cindy, Willy, and John from SY Pazzo help us moor. “Never underestimate the Beagle Channel!” Willy reminds us with a smile. They have problems of their own, unfortunately. Because of engine problems, they are returning to Ushuaia for repairs. It makes our dinner together extra special. Will they be able to catch up?

Getting into the Rhythm

The following weeks we experience conditions that set the tone for a large part of our trip. Days of strong winds from the west keep us at anchor in the protection of the bay. We spend them on board, writing and making videos, or outside exploring the land around us on foot. In some of the bays where we anchor the vegetation is so dense, our excursions don’t get further than the shores of our bay. In other places, we can hike up to high points of islands, from where we get panoramic views of our surroundings. On such occasions, the natural grandeur and the understanding that we are almost alone make us feel insignificant. 

On days with less strong headwinds, we execute our plan and sail criss-cross in the channels between countless islands that shelter us from the Pacific. Tacking our way west and north this way is tiring and time-consuming. Some days we progress less than 20 nautical miles. We have to hand steer all day, as our windvane Herbie isn’t sensitive enough to pick up the many wind gusts and shifts that plague this area. Besides, we have to go about every five minutes or so. Yet it’s also rewarding. We get to see all sides of this awesome area and anchor in many stunning bays. Mountains rise straight out of the sea, shrubs and mosses defy the inhospitable conditions and cover every square centimetre around the shores until the rocks get too steep and the glaciers take over. Even when it rains and clouds cover the skies, they radiate a bright blue hue.

Our Daily Routine

The days fly by. Sometimes we are lucky and catch some southerly wind, leading Floris to cry “no tacking today!” in jubilation. To get the most out of days with good wind, we rise before dawn. It is freezing cold in the cabin, so getting out of bed takes some serious will power. We quickly put on our thermal underwear, have breakfast, and prepare the boat for departure inside and out. With the first daylight, Floris rows the dinghy to shore to untie the long shore lines, which we attached to trees or rocks the night before to keep Luci firmly in place. As he rows from one line to the next, Ivar puts them away in bags, which we keep on deck. Doing it tidily takes a lot of time, but saves a lot of hassle in the evening. When we need to tie the boat at our next anchorage, we don’t want the lines tangled up like spaghetti! 

As soon as the dinghy is stored on deck, it’s time to lift the anchor. With the anchor winch control in one hand and a bread knife in the other, Floris retrieves the anchor chain metre by metre. He frequently interrupts the flow to cut off kelp that is wrapped around the chain and anchor. With the anchor back in its place, we carefully manoeuvre out of the bay and set the sails. We take turns hand steering, as the charts aren’t very reliable, necessitating us to keep a sharp lookout for rocks and other obstacles at all times.

Towards the end of the day, we pick a bay (“caleta”) that we can still reach in daylight and which gives protection from the prevailing winds. Thanks to the “Patagonia Bible”, the pilot book of an Italian couple that describes anchorages along the entire route, we can always find one in the labyrinth of islands. Upon arrival, we perform the morning ritual in reverse: we drop the anchor, row the dinghy to shore and tie long lines to trees or around rocks. After the last line is tied, we can relax. Ivar gets the wood stove going to heat the cabin, us, and our clothes.

Nature at Its Best

Our hard work of sailing up the Chilean coast doesn’t go without rewards. The breathtakingly beautiful views on green mountains, white-blue glaciers feeding icebergs into the channels, and countless wildlife keep us in good spirits. We regularly see humpback and sei whales, playful dolphins, shy penguins and curious seals. At every caleta a couple of flightless steamer ducks welcome us, just before they frantically flap their short wings to paddle away. We also spot otters, condors, albatrosses, king fishers, and many other birds. Never before have we seen so much unspoilt nature. Much of the area is national park, which is why it still looks as it did 300 years ago, when Fitzroy and Darwin sailed here on the Beagle.

Sun, There You Are!

After 22 days we approach the first settlement: Puerto Natales. To get there, we have to squeeze through a narrow gap in the Andes mountain range. Steep cliffs on both sides make the wind fierce and the current vicious, so we have to time our passage carefully. Just before slack we shoot through the narrows and as soon as we are on the other side, the weather changes. The clouds have stayed behind the mountains, clearing the sky for the sun to shine on us. We can’t get the smiles off our faces for the rest of the way. 

At the anchorage opposite the town, we reunite with the crew of MV Iron Lady, Susy, Lane, and James. We shared two anchorages with them on the way here and are excited to see them again. Over dinners and lunches we exchange stories of our trips, philosophize about life, and play games. They spoil us by providing rides to shore in their rib, helping us to provision, and letting us have a warm shower on board. As if that’s not enough, Susy even does our laundry!

Melting Beauty

After a week we move a few miles away from town and leave the boat at anchor at a farm named Estancia Eberhard. We need to renew our visa for Chile and the easiest way is to cross the border to Argentina. To make optimal use of our rental car, we use the border run to stretch our legs. A few hours driving north of the border is El Chaltén, Argentina’s hiking capital. The area doesn’t disappoint. We give our legs some serious workout to reach viewpoints that grant spectacular views of Fitzroy and its neighbouring mountains, all under a warm sun. What a change from being at sea! 

We also visit more familiar territory, a glacier. The Perito Moreno glacier descends from the South Patagonian Icefield and feeds into a lake over a width of five kilometres. From the other side of the lake we marvel at its size and beauty. Every now and then, colossal parts break off, causing thundering roars and big waves. The spectacle reminds us of the glacier’s threatened existence because of climate disruption.

We witness more glacial melting when we are back sailing in the Chilean channels a few weeks later. Taking a short detour, we sail to the Pio XI glacier. Under a sunny sky and with wind from behind we slowly glide towards the impressive wall of ice. Although the pilot book warns of floating icebergs, we don’t encounter a single one on our way. When we reach the glacier, we understand why: the glacier no longer reaches the sea. Instead, hundreds of metres of grey, clay-like beach separate it from the water. Although it is still spectacular and beautiful, we also feel saddened. If humanity doesn’t act in time to stop climate disruption, we might be the last generation to witness this natural beauty. On top of that, the melting water stored in these magnificent ice sheets will further contribute to sea level rise around the globe.

Reunion in Paradise

After another few weeks in the channels, we reach the next settlement, Puerto Edén. The tiny village can only be reached by sea and is inhabited by descendants of Chile’s native inhabitants. Having lost their communal lands, they are confined to this area, miles and miles away from the rest of the world. To call this place paradise seems almost cruel, also considering that it is the wettest village on Earth.

Still, we are happy for the change of scenery. Coloured houses line the shore of the bay where we drop our anchor. Next to us are some of our fellow Patagonian sailors and friends. We spend time with them exploring the area during dry spells and wait for the weekly ferry to arrive. When it does, we have to be quick. Minutes after the locals’ small boats return to shore from the ferry, we make our way to the shops to provision. The baskets full of fresh fruits and vegetables make us feel like children in a candy shop! We fill our bags with these treasures and return to the boat to refill our empty storage nets.

Fellow Dutch sailors Minke and Jaap of SY Eastern Stream then take us to a neighbouring island to see a dead whale. Vultures circling in the sky mark its position. More of them are on the carcass taking turns picking at the very last bits of meat on the whale’s bones. We marvel at the size of the skeleton and wonder why it died. Natural causes, plastic pollution, seismic blasts, ocean warming, or the effects of industrial fish farming? We can only guess, but when shocking news of mass deaths of whales in this area reach us a few weeks later, we seriously doubt that its cause was a natural one.

Painful Peñas

When favourable winds reach Puerto Edén, all of the boats continue their trip north. We stay in close contact with their crews, as we all prepare for a notorious passage: the Golfo de Peñas. For around 100 nautical miles we will leave the shelter of the islands and be exposed to ocean swell and winds. The bottom shallows very quickly, so we can also expect waves breaking dangerously in heavy weather. “It sounds like penis because it can really screw you” our friend Willy warns us via e-mail. How we will deal with this challenge after many weeks in the relative calm of the channels? 

Feeling empowered by a favourable weather forecast, we head towards the Golfo with a light breeze from the southwest. “Excellent for our way across” Ivar assesses. Yet as soon as we leave the lee if the islands, the wind increases to 25, then 35, and up to 40 knots. We reef just in time to keep the comfort level manageable, while the waves grow steeper and increasingly start to break. It makes for a rough and tiring passage. But fast, too, until the wind all but dies long before the next safe anchorage. Waiting for the wind is not an option because the waves toss us around violently and the next depression is not far away. On engine power we make it to the calm and safety of the channels. There, the swell subsides and we can sail on our genaker for a few more hours. Darkness falls on our way to the anchorage. As Floris uses a flashlight to illuminate the walls of the fjord we are entering, Ivar steers the boat to a suitable spot to drop the anchor. As soon as it holds, we unwind. The passage was far from ideal. The wind was too strong and too short, but all that matters now is that we made it across safely.

Getting Closer to Civilization

The other four boats made it across unharmed as well, and in the next days we reunite with them. All of us share an anchorage together. With Minke and Jaap, we spend a night at the marina of tiny Puerto Aguirre and sail onward together. We have fun exploring the area, alternate dinners on each other’s boats, and play cards together. We notice a stark difference compared to the channels south of the Golfo de Peñas. The trees are larger and more diverse, indicating a less windy and harsh climate. The more hospitable landscape leads to more small settlements, boats, and fish farms. These “salmoneras” are controversial, as they are often foreign-owned, meaning profits go abroad, and they are polluting. Antibiotics, some of which are banned in other countries, are used to fight diseases, which can spread to the wild fish population, thus threatening ecosystems and the livelihoods of traditional fishermen. We sign a petition to ban these farms, and decide to avoid eating Chilean farmed salmon.

The further north we get, not only the landscape gets milder, but the weather, too. Sunny spells last longer and southerly winds are more frequent. We sail through the night twice to make full use of such favourable conditions. Although we are a bit ashamed to admit it, being privileged to sail in Patagonia, we long for a change of scenery after almost three months in the wilderness. At Chiloé we get just that. We arrive with the first light one morning and imagine ourselves in southern England. Rolling, grassy hills with sheep and cows form a stark contrast to the rugged mountains we saw only the evening before. We tie Lucipara 2 to a mooring at a small settlement and even pick up a mobile signal. The shops in town stack fresh food, there are roads and cars. The change is a bit overwhelming, but we easily adjust to our newly found luxuries. In the larger town of Dalcahue, we spend some time behind our anchor to catch up with our email, blogs and vlogs.

With a favourable southerly wind, we sail east to the mainland. On our way there, we spot the snow-capped volcano that sits in the middle of Pumalín National Park. The closer we get, the more we recognise the typical Patagonian features: the lush vegetation, rocky shores, and wildlife. Seals, dolphins, and steamer ducks seem to welcome us back in the wilderness. We anchor at the end of the fjord, in a lovely bay which provides shelter during a week of northerly winds. We use it as a base to explore the area and learn more about the park, which was the first property purchased by Doug and Kris Tompkins.

Mission Accomplished

When the wind changes to the south again, we keep on sailing north until we reach Puerto Montt during the night, three-and-a-half months after leaving Puerto Williams. Thanks to a rigorous sailing-regime, we did it on only one fuel tank, which we used mostly to manoeuvre in and out of caletas and for making hot water for showers. Some other boats made the trip much faster, but they relied primarily on diesel power. We are happy to say that it is very well possible to sail almost the entire distance, provided one takes the time. Having spent this much time in Chilean Patagonia leaves us with a deep appreciation of the wilderness and a reinforced believe that we need to conserve it for future generations.

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