The Patagonia Expedition takes off! We explore the challenging and wildlife-rich waters along the Argentine coast to the magical Staten Island. The last bit takes us to Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world.

Mar del Plata (ARG) – Ushuaia (ARG)

“Eh Ivar, can you please wake up? The wind is almost 40 knots now”. Lars is on watch from 01:00 to 04:00am and needs help. The boat’s bumpy movements had already awoken Ivar, so he’s quick to get out of his bunk and into his sailing gear. When he enters the cockpit, he realizes just how much the wind has strengthened since his last watch. Luci is listing a lot. Steep, short waves splash over deck in quick succession. “Our reefed genua is too large now”, Ivar assesses. “But I see thunder nearby. Let’s wait until the storm has passed,” he continues, evidently not eager to go on deck in this foul weather. But the storm doesn’t pass and the reefed genua keeps us from sailing close to the wind. We cannot hold our course to stay clear of the approaching lee shore. There’s no choice but to roll in the genua and hoist the cutter jib.

That’s easier said than done. When we ease the genua sheet, it slams violently. Only with a lot of force we manage to furl it away. Then Ivar makes his way to the bow to hoist the cutter jib. Secured by his safety line and on his knees, he gets hit by one wave after another. Still, he manages and we’re able to steer away from the lee shore. Back in the cockpit, a soaking wet Ivar apologizes. “I should have changed the sails earlier. I guess they don’t call it the ‘Roaring Fourties’ for nothing.” Lars is relieved. “Thanks for volunteering to change that jib”. He must have felt somewhat hesitant to do it himself, despite being an experienced sailor.

Monument in Puerto Madryn

The rising sun brings back the daylight as we approach Puerto Madryn. At the anchorage in front of the Yacht Club the wind suddenly dies. We paddle to the beach and are met by members of the club. “Yes, of course I remember Bram and Vivian!” José-Luis’s eyes shine brightly when we ask him about our friends who landed here nine years ago. “The trailer they built is still here!” he continues, pointing to a structure on the beach. We can’t suppress our curiosity and check it out right away. The story of the self-built boat trailer made headlines in the Netherlands at the time. When the engine of their boat Duende failed out at sea, a storm caught up with them and damaged their rudder. Crippled but still afloat, they were able to reach the safety of Puerto Madryn. Confronted by the lack of facilities to make the necessary repairs, they built their own trailer, and fixed Duende themselves with the help of local people. “It looks like it hasn’t been used much lately”, Lars notices, pointing out the rust and a missing wheel. “Yeah, but look how firmly it’s constructed” Ivar says while looking at a welded piece of metal specifically positioned to strengthen a joint. “Amazing, what a truly outstanding job they did here!” he continues, and kisses the trailer like a pilgrim.

Getting to know the Golfo Nuevo

After our check-in at the authorities, we buy some fresh food and stroll through the uninspiring town. Back at the beach, we notice that an onshore wind has picked up, and sizeable waves break where there was calm water only a few hours ago. “This wasn’t forecast, must be a sea breeze”, Ivar says. Just like the night we arrived, the Golfo Nuevo surprises us. Local weather effects are strong, and with its diameter of around 30 nautical miles this deep bay is large enough to cause steep waves at our anchorage with winds from north to southeast. “The wind will probably strengthen further when the land warms. If we want to get back onboard, the time is now”, Ivar assesses. We manage to kayak back to Luci before the wind increases even more. It forces us to stay on board while Luci rides the steep waves like a crazy horse.

The next day the wind increases to a strong southwesterly, blowing directly from the shore. Finally, the anchorage provides the shelter we came here for. We plan to leave as soon as these strong winds have passed, but the Golfo Nuevo isn’t letting us get away that easily. When the wind veers to south, it blows more parallel to the coast. Not much later the waves grow steep again. Around high tide we suddenly notice the boat moving. “The anchor is dragging”, Lars shouts. The anchor chain proves to be too short for these conditions. While Ivar keeps the boat in place against the howling wind, Lars and Floris attach a line to the end of our anchor chain, getting soaking wet in the process. Adding thirty meters of strong rope proves to be sufficient to keep Luci firmly in place. When we anchored it was three meters deep, but we a tidal range of six meters and the big waves, our 45-meter chain was clearly was too short.

Canyon in the Coast

The next morning the Golfo Nuevo is in a good mood again. We tack our way back to the Atlantic Ocean in calm winds. A fresh breeze from the northeast picks up, so we enjoy a sunny downwind sail along the rugged coast. There are few all-weather shelters here, one notable exception being Caleta Horno. We reach this natural canyon in time before the next depression arrives. Since there is no room to swing freely, Lars and Floris jump into the dinghy to put our long floating lines to use for the first time. Our American friends from Pazzo also arrive and tie up next to us.

A curious guanaco, a type of llama, watches us from the distance. During a land excursion, we see shy herds of them in the barren landscape. The soil is dry and only some shrubs grow here, as the Andes Mountains block most of the rain on this coast. It’s a fascinating landscape.

Wildlife and Waste

Together with the Pazzo crew we visit the neighboring island Isla Leones. Hundreds of sea lions occupy its beaches. While we anchor, a group of them swim towards the boat and jump and dive all around us. We land with the dinghy at a deserted stretch of the beach and slowly approach the sea lions. The large bulls roar, their impressive size and teeth reminding us to keep a safe distance.

There is a large penguin colony, too. When we get close, they slowly wobble to a hole under a shrub. From there they give us a we-can-see-you-but-you-can’t-see-us-look. We feel like privileged guests on this remote island, never having been surrounded by so much wildlife before.

On a neighboring beach we are saddened by the large amount of old ropes, crates and other plastic waste that has washed up here. It’s a testament to our collective impact on nature. Here the plastic lies for the sunlight and seawater to break it down into tiny particles that will inevitably enter the food chain. We pick up some of it, but there’s just too much to clean it all. “I think I can put these to good use”, Lars says with a smile as he picks up two plastic crates.

Deseado or Desperado?

Our next destination is Puerto Deseado. Except for one buoy, there are no yacht facilities. The crews from sailboats Dada Tux and Obélix arrived before us and tied up to a shipyard’s floating pontoon. We join them, so we also have a secure berth with easy access to the shore.

We read stories about sailors who were forced to stay here for weeks due to the bad weather. The other boats on the pontoon have been here for a week. Some crews started to get desperate in this desolate place. Our perspective is quite different. It’s sunny and there are reasonably good stores where we can replenish our fruit and vegetable stock. After only two days a weather window opens. It promises a few days of northeasterly and northwesterly winds. It’s an exceptionally good window for “the furious fifties”, so without hesitation all boats jump at it.

The favorable weather forecast almost makes us forget that the next leg is the most challenging one on our route to Ushuaia. The direct route from Puerto Deseado to Staten Island, our next stop, is more than 400 nautical miles, without shelter from southwesterly storms. This part of the southern Atlantic Ocean is notorious for storms developing quickly and frequently. We therefore decide to sail close to the coast. According to “the Patagonia bible”, the Nautical Guide to Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego by Mariolina Rolfo and Giorgio Ardrizzi, we could make a stopover at Cabo Virgenes at the tip of Argentina’s mainland, in case a storm decides to cross our path.

Staying in the Lee

When the outgoing tide flushes us out of Puerto Deseado’s river, too much wind seems to be a distant problem. Under a sunny sky, a gentle breeze barely fills the gennaker. A pod of black and white Commerson’s dolphins swim at the bow, the first time we see those. Grey and white Peale’s dolphins join them for an entertaining start of our trip.

After two days the light winds leave us and our speed goes down to under two knots. The updated weather report promises us a strong southwesterly wind in about half a day. “Wow, the weather really does change quickly here”, Lars summarizes our collective thoughts when we look at the blood red grib files on the screen. “Welcome to the furious fifties”, Ivar says. We are near Puerto Santa Cruz, where the coastline curves to the southwest. Exactly the direction from which the strong winds are forecast to blow. “Let’s prepare the boat for storm, better safe than sorry”, Lars suggests. “We’ll try to make mileage towards the coast while we still can, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best”, Ivar summarizes our tactics.

When the southwesterly wind arrives, our sails are reefed, the canvas cockpit tent removed and everything below deck is securely stowed and tightened. As wind gusts reach about 35 knots, the waves are growing larger and our course towards Cabo Virgenes is no longer feasible. For many hours we sail closely hauled, bouncing our way through the steep, breaking waves. We end up around 70 nautical miles away from the coast. Under these conditions, Cabo Virgenes is simply out of reach and we realize we’re completely at the mercy of the weather gods. “I see a strong wind coming your way, but luckily the AIS shows you’re in the lee of the Argentinean coast”, Ivar’s dad writes. “Yeah right, like IJmuiden is in the lee of Lowestoft”, Ivar jokes. But the weather gods have mercy. The strong southwesterly winds don’t reach storm force, and make room for a moderate northwesterly wind later that day. We decide to leave Cabo Virgenes for what it is and set course to Staten Island.

Faith in the Bible

“Put on your thermal underwear, it’s really cold outside”, Ivar advises when he wakes up Floris for his watch. The closer we approach Staten Island, the more the temperature drops. With some 100 nautical miles to go, it’s around five degrees Celsius and raining, quite a contrast to the weather further north. Through the drizzle we can hardly see the difference between the clouds and the grey sea water. It’s not until the morning of our fifth day at sea that we see Staten Island, at first only on the radar. When we are near the entrance to our bay, Puerto Hoppner, the rocky coastline finally becomes visible.

“A very narrow entrance leads to the inner bay of Puerto Hoppner. There should be at least two meters of water”, Floris reads from the Patagonia bible. Ivar look at the rocks in front of him. “Ok, let’s do it”, he says more confidently than he feels. He puts his complete faith in the pilot book while carefully steering Luci towards the narrow opening between the rocks. The bible proves to be right, and our faith is rewarded by the most stunning lagoon we have ever seen. Amidst overwhelming natural beauty we anchor in a sheltered corner and tie long lines to the surrounding trees. Bright green, dense forests team-up with mosses to cover the rugged, mountainous landscape. Only the steepest granite rocks remain exposed. Snow covers the highest mountain peaks. Countless cormorants and penguins try to catch food underwater close to our boat.

Silence on Staten Island

Not much later Pazzo arrives and together we explore the island that was named by our countrymen in the 17thcentury. It feels like not much has changed since. There is no airport, no ferry service, not even a harbor. There are no roads, no homes, no mobile phone network, not even hiking trails. As we make our way through the forests and thick layers of wet moss, we realize how very remote this place is. The Argentinian navy has four people stationed in the next bay, but without any infrastructure even that is far away. All we hear is the wind rustling through the trees and the songs of an occasional bird. The silence is peaceful.

Chief Crab Officer

The day after our arrival, the furious fifties live up to their reputation in the form of dark red grib files, indicating very strong winds. They are predicted for a full week, and they turn out to be correct. The wind gusts in the mountains are so strong that on hikes we have trouble staying upright. On the horizon we can see the waves breaking against the tide in the Le Maire Strait, the notorious passage between Staten Island and mainland Argentina that we still need to cross to reach Ushuaia. But while it blows southwest way-too-much at sea, our anchorage is remarkably calm. Perhaps we are overdoing it a bit with anchor and seven shorelines, but it helps to sleep well.

A week flies by. During our hiking expeditions we not only discover stunning lakes, waterfalls, forests, condors and countless types of moss, we also start to recognize our own trails. Mussels the size of avocados grow on every rock and although they look tempting, eating them is dangerous due to the red tide disease. The king crabs (centollas) are not affected by this, so Lars goes on a mission. He constructs a crab trap from the plastic crates he collected close to Caleta Horno. Using opened mussels as bait, he indeed manages to catch them. Although the thorny red crabs look big from a Dutch perspective, they don’t seem to be very meaty. So Lars goes on setting his crab cage until he has caught seven. Their legs make a nice salad. “Delicious! You’re our Chief Crab Officer now”, Ivar compliments him.

Christmas at the End of the World

After a week the strong winds finally abate. We decide to use this rare opportunity, even if it means motoring through the Le Maire Strait. We leave in the middle of the night and find the passage dead calm. It’s the same in the Beagle Channel, so we carry on to Ushuaia, watching the mountains on both sides of the waterway pass by.

At Club Náutico, harbormaster Uka welcomes us. “Tie up firmly. It’s sunny now, but as we say here: ‘If you don’t like the weather in Ushuaia, then wait five minutes!’” Not much later, we understand what he means. A cloud passes with rain and winds gusting up to 60 knots. The temperature drops and we seek shelter at Ramos Generales, one of the oldest pubs in town.

“Well done guys!” Ivar says as he pours beer from a penguin-shaped jug. We all feel a sense of achievement to have made it to Ushuaia a few days before Christmas. After a celebratory lunch we head back to the boat, where a small Christmas tree decorates the cabin. Of course, we miss our family and friends back home even more during holiday season, but together with the crews from Pazzo, Dada Tux, ZoomaX, and Simon de Danser we get together like family. A sense of relief runs through all our veins to have made it through the furious fifties safely!

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