Ushuaia (ARG) – Puerto Williams (CHL)
“It’s deserted. I don’t think there will be celebrations tonight,” Lars reports when he’s back on the boat. He’s defied the strong winds to climb onto the pontoon and assess the situation in the marina and town. It’s New Year’s Eve and we’re in a festive mood, but westerly blows of 40-50 knots quench our hopes of ringing in 2019 with other sailors in Ushuaia. “Again those strong westerly winds. This city is not just the most southerly, it’s also the windiest in the world!” Floris complains. Ivar worries what the winds may mean for our trip ahead. “How do we deal with these winds when we need to sail against them? We don’t want to motor, and our timetable is tight to reach the South Pacific before next year’s hurricane season…”
We put those worries to rest for now and wake up to a very celebratory New Year’s Day. Helen and Hansueli host a brunch aboard Dada Tux for the crews of Simon de Danser, ZoomaX and us. Swiss home-made bread and Italian cake please our palates, while Argentinian bubbly wine lifts our spirits. The sun even shines now and then. “Ushuaia keeps surprising me,” Floris smiles.
Errands and the City
We’ve had fantasies about Ushuaia ever since we decided to take the “classic” route to the Pacific (as our friends Marjolein and Henk call it), rather than the Panama Canal. Yet the illusion that it is a charming little town tucked away at the tip of South America evaporated when we set foot ashore. Campervans are parked along the road, motorbike groups drive by and cruise boats discharge hundreds of passengers each day. The town’s main shopping street is lined with outdoor shops, hotels, and restaurants. Most buildings are made of concrete with a thin wooden façade. We feel like we’re walking through a hastily built French ski resort.
Still, we are happy to make the most of the conveniences of the city. In specialty stores, we find quality cheese, nuts, and dried fruits – ideal for our upcoming trip into the wilderness. Along the coast, we collect washed-up driftwood for our stove. Despite it being summer here, we will need lots of it in this climate. We even go shopping in the main street’s outdoor shops for a good headlamp and rain pants. “They will come in handy on hikes,” Floris says, winking an eye. “Remember, we’ll be on the rainy side of the Andes soon!”
Boarding the Earthship
As we continue our exploration of Ushuaia, we notice how the city has grown along the Beagle Channel and well into the hills. Forest is cleared to make room for homes and provide energy for heating. The most waste ends up in a landfill bordering a natural reserve. Wondering if there are local solutions to some of these challenges, we are excited to find an Earthship by American architect Michael Reynolds not far from our marina.
At the site, we meet Alejandro Bauducco. He explains that it is a model home which was built according to sustainability principles. “The concept of this Earthship, or Nave Tierra in Spanish, is self-sufficiency with no negative environmental impact. The building is mostly constructed of natural materials such as wood and clay, as well as recycled and up-cycled materials, such as empty glass bottles, aluminum cans, and old car tires.” We tell Alejandro that we have seen this concept used at schools. How does he cope with the climate conditions at the end of the world? “We generate renewable electricity with solar panels and wind generators, which we store in batteries. The indoor temperature is controlled using natural cooling and heating methods. We also have a wood-fueled rocket stove. Rainwater is harvested from the roof, stored in tanks and filtered. Sewage water is cleaned and reused for the plants. And the hallway acts like a greenhouse. We grow fruits, vegetables and herbs here”, Alejandro explains.
We also meet Argentinean actors Elena Roger and Mariano Torre, who took the initiative to build the Nave Tierra in Ushuaia. “We wanted to create a place for the community that also demonstrates that we can build so much better. Waste is a big problem in this remote place, and most of it just goes to landfill. We have actually proven how to reuse much of it”, Elena explains. “If an Earthship building is possible here at the end of the world, it’s possible everywhere”, Mariano summarizes. We couldn’t agree more.
Mooring at Micalvi
The arrival of our friend Annemiek not only provides an excellent opportunity to explore the nearby Chilean glaciers but also to test the water of our next cruising area. Trainee Lars is keen to see the glaciers, too, and he decides to stay onboard. Together we sail 25 nautical miles back east on the Beagle Channel to Puerto Williams. The glaciers are the other way, but it is in this small town that we have to check into Chile. Within minutes of our trip, Annemiek is immersed in the marine environment that Lars and we have enjoyed for the past two months. Penguins, albatrosses and sea lions compete for her attention against the panorama of snow-capped mountains along the Channel. She can’t get a smile off her face and the camera out of her hands. Ivar, too, is happy. “Going east with westerly winds, how pleasant!”
The yacht club in Puerto Williams is something special. Not only is it the most southern marina in the world, but also its appearance is unique. The former navy vessel “Micalvi” was sunk close to the shore, so sailboats can simply tie up next to it. The interior is still intact and serves as a place for sailors to hang out and socialize.
Our check-in procedures take us all over the small town. Despite the heavy armada presence, Puerto Williams feels laid-back. There are a few shops and restaurants, a fire brigade, hospital, and a church. Even now in summer, it is very calm. The only other foreigners we see – besides fellow cruisers – are hikers who come here for a multi-day trek, the “Dientes de Navarino”. We, too, hike a part of it the next day and are treated to endless vistas over the Beagle Channel, captivating mountain lakes and granite mountain tops.
Hola Caleta Olla
The next day brings sunny, calm weather. “We won’t get better conditions to head west to the glaciers this week, so let’s go!” Ivar commands the crew after studying the weather forecast. Realizing Annemiek’s return flight is only eight days away, we’re now on a similarly tight schedule as the many charter boats that also cruise the Chilean channels and glaciers. We cross a mirror-flat Beagle Channel and are all delighted when we spot a whale, watching in awe at its size and graceful movements. It distracts from our aversion to motoring and nascent fears that this may be the only way to make progress on a westbound journey with on a tight schedule.
The good company once again overpower those feelings. When we arrive at our first stop, Caleta Olla, we anchor next to our American friends from SY Pazzo. Next to them is a Dutch boat, Eastern Stream, with Jaap and Minke and visiting family on board. A common friend had told us that they were sailing in this area and we are excited to meet them. The crews get together around a campfire on the beach that evening.
A glacier, the Ventisquero Holanda, feeds into a lake which is within hiking distance of the anchorage. Despite the grey and wet weather, the four of us set out in the dinghy to the other side of the caleta. From there, we follow a path along the beach and up the mountains. The further up we get, the more we can see of the glacier and lake. Sadly, the weather worsens and we get cold and soaking wet. But Ivar has the remedy: hot chocolate on board makes us forget the hardship quickly.
Ice Ice Baby
“My hope to sail this area is restored!” Ivar rejoices when a rare easterly wind enables us to sail to the next glacier, the Ventisquiero Pia. Like most other glaciers around here, it originates in a huge ice field that runs parallel to the Beagle Channel. It allows us to admire the spectacular masses of ice that make their way down to the water from the boat. In combination with blue skies, it really feels like sailing in a winter wonderland.
As we enter deeper into the fjord at the head of which is the glacier, icebergs ranging in size from dinner plates to small cars start to appear. Annemiek and Lars go on ice watch at the bow to help Ivar avoid the biggest bits, which gets trickier as we close in on the glacier and the iceberg density increases. The ice wall’s imposing size and blue reflections leave us in awe. “Picture time”, Floris shouts and gets the dinghy ready. Annemiek and he board it, armed with cameras, and row away from Luci. Meanwhile, Ivar steers as close to the glacier as he dares. Deafening explosions, followed by large chunks breaking off and falling into the fjord remind him to keep a safe distance. Floris and Annemiek click away until their memory cards are full, determined to record these moments for posterity.
High on ice-induced adrenaline, we head across the Beagle Channel to a protected bay, Caleta Cinco Estrellas. A group of dolphins jumps around the boat all the way into the pond-like bay, pushing our excitement levels to stratospheric levels. A hike up one of the surrounding hills keeps the “ohs” and “ahs” coming out of our mouths. We pause a moment and realize that we are completely alone in this breathtaking setting. The all-weather protection and spectacular surroundings of the bay truly make it deserving of the five-star name.
“Do you see those stacks of crab traps over there? Can we…? Lars asks. “Sure, I don’t think the fishermen would mind if we borrow one”, Ivar says, smiling. Together they drag the large and heavy device from the rocks and collect a bucket of avocado-sized, deliciously looking mussels. Unfortunately, they are possibly infected by the red-tide disease, which makes human consumption dangerous. This does not affect the centollas or king crabs, so we open the mussels and put them in the trap as bait. Excited, we pull up the trap the next morning. One large, red crab has found its way into the trap. Lars holds it with a proud grin on his face. “Now this is a proper-sized crab. Much larger than the ones from Staten Island indeed!”
When it’s time to head back to Puerto Williams, we can finally make full use of the strong westerly winds. On just the genoa, we fly over the Beagle Channel, past Ushuaia and all the way to Puerto Williams in just one day. “This is great! Sailing the Chilean channels is much easier going the other way. But I can’t help thinking about our plan to go west”, Ivar sighs.
After a quick check-out the next morning, we head back to Ushuaia. Annemiek is heading back home and Lars is going hiking. He spent eight weeks aboard Lucipara during which he made himself almost irreplaceable. As a helping hand on deck, an additional watchman, an aspiring cook, and the unchallenged Chief Crab Officer, he truly was a part of the team. He provided great company and was a joy to have with us. The crews of Dada Tux and Pazzo also took a liking to him, and Lars to them, so he invites them to a home-cooked farewell dinner on his last evening.
Sailing to Antarctica?
With our guests gone, it’s decision time. Another continent is drawing our attention: Antarctica. From Ushuaia boats small and big leave for Antarctica every day. Some time ago, we decided that we would not sail there on Lucipara2, as that would have taken a lot of extra preparation, additional gear, and diesel fuel. Might there be a chance to join a larger sailboat as crew or passengers?
Via Instagram, we meet Leentje, the Dutch manager of the three-master Bark Europa. She lives in Ushuaia and comes over for lunch. “The Europa is leaving for Antarctica in a few days”, she tells us, “but there are no spaces left. But come have a look onboard tomorrow!” We gladly accept her invitation, so the next day we witness the preparations for their Antarctic expedition. Skipper Janke tells us how the cruising industry has been growing exponentially, and that it is putting great pressures on Antarctic wildlife. “Perhaps it’s better to exercise restraint and respect the serenity of this unique place”, Ivar considers as we walk back to Lucipara. Floris agrees, recalling that under the Antarctic Treaty, the area is to be used for research only. “But remember that it expires in 2041, so we need the governments of all signatory countries to agree to extend the restrictions beyond that year” he cautions.
Back at Micalvi
After a last run to the supermarkets, our front cabin is completely filled with food and firewood. It’s time to swap Ushuaia for Puerto Williams again. There, we find a free spot at Micalvi. “Waiting for good weather to sail west has started! For the coming week, strong headwinds are forecast” Ivar sighs. We make the most of it and catch up on our blogs and vlogs, go on hikes in the area and hang out with the other boaties. We also join a demonstration against salmon farms. Together with some 30 fishermen, descendants of native Indians and their children we protest the plans for industrial farming in the Beagle Channel. They pollute the waters, poison marine wildlife, and threaten the livelihoods of traditional communities. It’s a reminder that the pristine natural surroundings of this magnificent area are under threat, so we also sign a petition calling for their ban.
As the wind still blows from the west, we get a chance to visit Ecolodge Errante. Owners Constancia and Jorge, two young dentists, enthusiastically explain that they used natural construction materials. Solar panels provide nearly all the electricity they need and the couple is looking into ways of getting off fossil gas for the lodge’s heating. At a barbeque that evening, they tell us about their ambition of becoming a place for sustainable tourism and showing guests the beauty for the natural world around them. An apt and praiseworthy initiative in this unique place!
Adjusting our Sails
On the first windless day after a week of strong westerlies, a few boats leave Puerto Williams for the long journey west and north through the Chilean Channels. Some of them have dozens of diesel jerrycans stored on deck, prepared to motor most of the way. We discuss our options. Sailors who went before us confirm that the winds are mostly from west and northwest at this time of the year, often strong, and the currents are predominantly south. Some had to wait for weeks in one place before they could move on. Our trip with Annemiek and Lars served as a useful test. We not only learned that, although rare, days with favorable winds do exist, but also that nature in the Chilean Channels is impressively beautiful.
We realize that it will be difficult to sail as much as possible rather than rely on our engine. Still, we decide to take on the challenge, which means that the South American leg of the journey will likely take much longer than originally planned. We had reserved two months for the 1,400 nautical miles long trip to Puerto Montt in order to reach the South Pacific at the end of the hurricane season in April. Instead, we will take it slowly and postpone our plan to sail to the South Pacific until next year. That will give us enough time to sail through the unspoiled Patagonian wilderness, see more of Chile and discover inspiring sustainable solutions in South America. “You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails!” Ivar reminds Floris of his motto with a wink.