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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

Chile and Cape Horn


Trying to go against the wind never works.

Cape Horn from the south.
an ambition fulfilled

Tierra del Fuego is a very challenging area to sail in with very high winds being the main feature. However, you can get used to anything and it's amazing how quickly gales can become acceptable until they grow into storms. Magellan Strait wins the prize for winds and the story of them comes in three parts - or rather sets of gales. To transit the two sets of narrows, or Angosturas, at the eastern end of Magellan has long been on Peter's ambitions list and on Christmas day last year we rounded Punta Dungenes (very like it English counterpart) into the strait and into the teeth of a westerly gale. After 2 days, and only 40 straight miles, of frustrating beating into fierce tides, dodging oilrigs and kelp patches we were squirted through the mile wide gap of the first narrows at about 15 knots. In the 10 mile long bay before the second narrows we motored in sleet showers and eerie calm only to be hit by another gale on the nose at the next angostura and had to anchor for another 2 days until it passed.
  The strait then runs south, past Punta Arenas, to Cabo Froward (the most southerly point of continental America) and then north-west to the Pacific and the prevailing wind here is north-westerly giving us our second taste of incredible weather. As the depressions form so close to the tip of South America it is difficult to predict the weather even one day ahead and in practice you wait out a 3-5 day gale and if you wake to a calm morning off you go to motor against light headwinds and usually some current. This will only last one day or perhaps less before the next gale. After a fortnight of this and covering only 100 miles we eventually found ourselves just 3 miles from the end and a radical course change when the wind increased, at dusk, by a force a minute to reach and stay at force 10 from ahead. Making only half a mile forward in 4 hours we were forced to turn and run, and did 5 knots under bare poles, arriving back wet, cold and thoroughly miserable at the morning's anchorage. The area is poorly charted and going anywhere off the recommended track at night is not clever. If you do get into trouble there isn't a house for hundreds of miles and only limited shipping using the channel. Being at anchor isn't too relaxing either as you are then subjected to the infamous williwaws. Because the strait is surrounded by very high mountains the wind is accelerated and changed in direction funnelling down the valleys at, often, 180 degrees to the true wind and the stronger the true wind the stronger the williwaw. It is quite nerve wracking to be sitting in an enclosed anchorage watching clouds scudding overhead from the north only to be facing a gusty southerly breeze. Then all of a sudden the wind will change again and come screaming across the bay from astern with the spray being driven before it like smoke on the water. When one of these hit us it lifted the 8mm Mirror type plywood dinghy up though 90 degrees in the davits and poked one of them right through its foredeck with no more effort than blowing the head of a dead dandelion.
   After these setbacks, for the first time that I can remember, we abandoned a voyage and limped back to Punta Arenas 200 litres of fuel poorer, with a damaged dinghy and badly ripped main. Only 24 hours after returning we had the third and worst winds of our time in Magellan and, in fact, the highest winds ever, yet, experienced. The continental high pressure was further south than normal creating a steep pressure gradient between it and the depressions that track continually eastwards just off the Horn. This caused us to have force 12 sustained winds for 48 hours. With no swell it wasn't as frightening as a storm at sea but was more depressing as there was no sailing away to escape it. Already,  only 100 metres off the shore, the spray was being blown into rainbows and dashing the wheelhouse windows in sheets. The anchor held firm for 12 hours and then moved but quickly rebedded itself. The same happened after another 24 hours. The yawing of the boat must dig the anchor out and then it drags a little and rebeds. The port was closed with no-one being given permission to leave. We kept an anchor watch the whole time - giving ourselves a heart attack each time we got the street light transits mixed up - and hoping that we wouldn't end up in the same position as many of the other ships drifting quietly downwind as their anchors refused to take for more than an hour at a time. After the 2 days we were able to get alongside the jetty and at last could sleep securely. As we moved south to Beagle Channel the weather improved dramatically as you are then in the wind shadow of the Andes and the winds are somewhat cut off. But when you leave this shelter for Cape Horn the winds increase again especially in the passages between the islands. Undoubtedly the weather was the most unpleasant aspect of the area often coming up strong in the night. It's not a cruising ground for big drinkers as you need your wits sharp at all times. On the occasions that the wind does drop the sun can be very strong and the air very clear. It's not unusual to have visibility of more than 50 miles on a good day. We didn't find it too cold either with daytime temperatures of 12-15 Celsius and ashore it would be much warmer.
  It's a really wild part of the world though which is, of course, part of its charm. In Magellan the weather was really too harsh to see much although we did get close to a group of Hump back whales each about 45 feet long. They were feeding close inshore right amongst the kelp and put on a nice performance of flipper waving and tail slapping for us often surfacing with kelp streamers on their noses. In Beagle we saw sealions swimming with dolphins and jumping out of the water just like them. While out for a row  just north of Horn Island we surprised an otter floating on his back cracking mussels with a stone and singing contentedly to itself. There are penguins by the multitude which sit in the water like short-sighted cormorants. One breed has a very human call which makes the hairs on your neck stand up when you hear, at night in mid ocean, a pathetic, strangled voice calling "help". I went on a bus trip from Punta Arenas to see a Magellanic penguin colony where they nest in burrows and in the evening you can watch them surfing ashore. These penguins are patterned black and white and look like a pair of 1920s spats. They were well used to tourists and almost posed whenever they heard the whirr of a zoom lens. Waddling in single file to the burrows they were remarkably like the p.p.p.ick up a penguin ads. When becalmed on the Argentine coast we had flocks of black browed albatross keeping us company. They are superb gliders but need wind to perform and are big ungainly birds in a calm, landing with as much stealth as a Concorde. They have very expressive faces and obviously some had never seen a boat before as they landed ahead and drifted slowly down past us only to take off and land again ahead for another look. Ashore we saw parrots which came as a surprise, many birds of prey and most entertainingly beavers. They create a lake by building a dam of clay and gnawed sticks and in the middle build a lodge from which they emerge about an hour before dusk to feed and check the dams. Most evocative for me were the giant size oyster catchers which have the most haunting flight call which they sing in slow unison as they flock. Walking ashore was difficult due to the prolific growth and decay. Fallen trees are quickly buried under a carpet of moss which is deceptively solid looking. But as soon as you walk on it you fall jarringly through the branches below.
  The landscape generally was heavily wooded up to the snowline and then just bare rock. Magellan was a very stark and grand scene of snow covered sharp granite and stunted windswept trees their branches often growing at 90 degrees to the short trunk under the impact of continuous west winds. It was a bit like the Outer Hebrides but bigger and bleaker with nothing in the scenery that could be called pretty or comforting. Beagle is a little less hostile and has many stunning glaciers. We now had 4 visitors from Norn Iron on board and they were fortunate in having sunny and calm weather and to see the biggest peak in the area the snow covered Monte Sarmiento which is usually wreathed in cloud. We navigated our way crunchily through ice strewn fjords to the glaciers at their head which now in summer were melting and had huge waterfalls alongside. Frequently a big lump of ice would break off and land in the sea with a roar and a fountain of spray. The colours of the ice were spectacular blues and greens glinting in the sun. There is a part of the channel that the charter skippers call glacier alley with a string of glaciers each more impressive than the last. On days of bad visibility the Beagle is a dismal place - glaciers aside - with mist and rain to chill you to the core but on a bright day you can see up to 100 miles in the super clear air with the Darwin range laid out in spectacularly jagged granite glory. Once south of Beagle among the islands near Cape Horn the scenery reverts to Magellanic bleakness and greenery of stunted trees and mossy rocks. Cape Horn itself is a massive bluff headland on a small island. On the day we rounded it there was a low groundswell and good visibility so we sailed close to it. There is a modern monument to all the sailors that have perished in this part of the world and a not very impressive lighthouse manned by the Chilean navy who call routinely on vhf for the ships details as if this were a busy thoroughfare.  And in a way it is as there are about 8 charter boats taking people round the Horn and back to Chile in a week. There is a landing in the lee of the island so that you can go ashore and sign the visitors book and buy a "seen it, done it" certificate from the navy. As you might expect these intrepid charterers are all French and sail in the most appalling weather to meet their deadlines. There are also charters to Antarctica which last a month and cost $8,000 per person! About a fortnight of that time is spent getting there and back.
  The Chilean people were another highlight of our voyage. They were lovely, friendly people and if  that sounds a bit patronising as well as a generalisation it is nonetheless true. They are extremely polite and helpful. The fishermen and ship crews were always helping with pulling the boat in or passing shopping across and even helping me carry bags down the pier if I was by myself - I don't think this happens in Britain any more!! Even in Punta Arenas a city of 110,000 people everyone was kind and helpful even though few people spoke English. The city itself is a curious mix of majestic colonial architecture and wild west shanty town tin houses. There are Irish connections in the statues of the liberator and first president Bernardo O'Higgins which, believe me, is almost impossible to pronounce in Spanish and popular political discontent is voiced by banging bin lids! Between Argentina and Chile there is a dispute over who owns what in Beagle Channel which separates the two. The Vatican last settled it in the 1970s but relations are never good and there are no public communications between Ushuaia on the Argentine side and Puerto Williams the most southerly town in the world and Chilean on the south side of the channel. Tourists wanting to visit the two have to bum a very expensive lift with one of the yachts. We dropped our visitors in Puerto Williams and after a couple of days decided to visit Ushuaia and by chance 3 French tourists asked to come with us. On asking around we found that the usual fare was $50 for the 25 Mile run so obviously we were delighted to take them on. We also carried equipment for the BBC who had been filming the Whitbread boats off the Horn and needed their gear in Ushuaia to film Silkcut coming in with her broken mast. They were unable to fit it into their own small chartered plane so we were delighted to assist - for a fat fee of course. Later we took more people back to Puerto Williams. Williams is a very poor town of dusty streets and corrugated iron shanties. It is really a naval garrison but has an old Rhine barge which serves as a yacht club and jetty with water and electricity and so is popular with visiting yachts of which there were only about 4 in the whole area; plus the charter fleet. Ushuaia on the other hand is a very touristy place with many cruise ships calling. The people aren't as friendly and the most notable object in town is the memorial to the Falklands war. It is a huge carved relief map of the islands with the promise "we will return" carved under it along with the list of dead from Belgrano. We had beautiful weather in this area and Peter even managed a couple of afternoons snoozing in his hammock on deck - it was a bit odd looking up at snow covered mountains from the hammock that was last used in tropical Brazil with a view of palm trees and stands of swaying bamboo. We did a lot of shopping in Ushuaia which is most notable for the price of its gin - 3.50/litre. We ended up spending most of the money earned from our ferrying activities in anticipation of expensive living costs in the Falklands and we were quite correct.
  The only other thing I really have to tell you about are things that happened to the boat none of which have been serious, thankfully. We ripped the genoa on the way across the Atlantic but had a new spare one to replace it with. Peter has been busy this last week repairing it and the main with the sail makers sewing machine. The stainless steel ring from the furling gear that takes the genoa halyard at the top of the mast broke and the genoa fell down. This would seem to be a design fault on the part of Profurl so if you have this type of gear check the ring at the top. On the day that we rounded the Horn we intended motoring to a nearby anchorage to open the bottle of champagne that had been given to us by the French yacht Penduick in return for a weather fax programme for their computer but the wind came up strongly on the nose and when we tried motoring into it we found that we had no ahead gear. We had to turn away and head straight for the Falklands. Peter took the gearbox out and dismantled it when the wind dropped sufficiently and found that the clutch plates were worn. As a temporary measure we put some spacers in made from the ends of a couple of baked bean tins and this worked a treat. It's a good job I had bought more than 50 tins when we were in U.K. last!! 
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copyright Geraldine Foley.