While most cruisers take the Panama Canal to the Pacific, Ivar Smits and Floris van Hees head south sailing Patagonia and sailing through the Chilean fjords

Everest mountaineers have the Himalayan Base Camp, those sailing Patagonia have Mar del Plata. It is the last significant town in Argentina before the coast gets more rugged and inhospitable; safe harbours are few and far between. Those who pass this point can expect to sail through the wilderness of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties.

We stocked up on food and bought long, floating mooring lines to keep our boat clear of the rocks in narrow Patagonian inlets, known as caletas. Violent south-westerly storms can appear within no time, so we had planned our passage carefully. With a north-easterly wind forecast for the next four days it was time to face the challenges and head south.

We still had one hurdle to leap; bureaucracy.The Prefectura, the Argentinian coastguard, meticulously checks our boat and safety equipment. Only after they issue their stamp of approval can we leave the safety of the base camp.

While leaving with sunshine and a light offshore breeze, we can’t help but worry a bit. Will we reach Puerto Madryn, our next destination, before a storm arrives? Barely.

The town is at the head of a large natural bay, and the protection in strong winds proves to be questionable.

Sailing Patagonia – a barren landscape

As soon as the winds abated, we sailed on to Caleta Horno. Surrounded by steep rocks, this natural cove provided excellent shelter. There was no room to swing freely, so we put our long floating lines to use for the first time. Now our Buchanan 47, Lucipara 2, is like a spider in her web and can comfortably deal with the williwaws that the next depression brings. The barren landscape is typical for the entire stretch of coast here, as the Andes mountains to the west keep the rain on the Chilean side.

Strong headwinds can be a common feature of cruising Patagonia, so expect plenty of tacking and sailing close-hauled. Photo: Ivar Smits & Floris van Hees

We explore neighbouring Isla Leones, where hundreds of sealions occupy the beach. 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 holes under shrubs. We feel like privileged guests on this remote island.

Around the corner, however, ropes, crates, and other plastic waste litter the shore. It’s a testament to our collective impact on nature. Here, hundreds of miles away from human civilisation, the plastic is an ecological time bomb, as the sunlight and seawater slowly 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.

At the Weather Gods’ Mercy

The next northerly breeze blows us comfortably to Puerto Deseado. There are no yacht facilities here, and instead we tie up to a shipyard’s floating pontoon. Our stay is short; a weather window opens for the most challenging leg on our route.

The next 400 miles are void of shelters and we get closer to where depressions enter the Atlantic from the south. Just two days into the voyage, the updated weather report suddenly showed dark red GRIB files in our path. There was no escaping this depression, so we prepared for heavy weather.

The wind reached 35 knots and the waves grew larger and larger.

Preparing for strong winds near Staten Island, Chile. Photo: Ivar Smits & Floris van Hees

For many hours we sailed close-hauled, bouncing our way through steep, breaking waves. The weather gods have mercy. The south-westerly doesn’t reach storm-force conditions and finally makes room for a moderate north-westerly wind, allowing us to sail a direct course to Isla de los Estados, known in English as Staten Island.

As we cross from the Roaring Forties to the Furious Fifties, the temperature drops to around 5°C and it starts to rain. We have crossed an invisible line that separates the dry from the wet Patagonia, as we are no longer in the lee of the Andes mountain range. Through the drizzle we can hardly see the difference between the clouds and the sea. At first we discern Isla de los Estados only on the radar, but when we are near the entrance of Puerto Hoppner, the rocky coastline finally becomes visible.

Via a narrow opening we enter the most stunning lagoon we have ever seen. Bright green, dense forests team up with mosses to cover the rugged, mountainous landscape. Only the steepest granite rocks remain exposed and a covering of snow swathes the highest mountain peaks.

Countless cormorants and penguins try their hardest to catch food underwater close to our boat. We anchor in a sheltered corner amidst the overwhelming natural beauty and tie long lines
to trees. The silence is peaceful.

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. Photo: Ivar Smits & Floris van Hees

Entering Chile

After a week of stormy winds, it is so calm that we have to motor through the Le Maire Strait and much of the Beagle Channel. At Ushuaia’s Club Náutico, harbourmaster 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, a cloud passes with rain and winds gusting up to 50 knots.

Thrilled to have made it to the southernmost city in the world, we can’t help but be disillusioned by the lack of charm. The town’s main shopping street is lined with outdoor shops, hotels, and restaurants. Most buildings are made of concrete and the forest has been cleared for more urban sprawl.

Yet we also find Nave Tierra, an Earthship self-sufficient house built from natural and recycled materials. How encouraging to find such a concept working in the harsh climate at the end of the world.

Endless tacking in the Chilean channels ensures stunning views. Photo: Ivar Smits & Floris van Hees

The next leg of our journey sailing Patagonia is in Chilean waters. Most of the 1,300-mile trip to Puerto Montt will be through uninhabited wilderness, often poorly charted.

A plethora of islands shields us from the Pacific swell and distances between countless sheltered caletas will be much shorter, which helps as we can only sail during the day. Yet there are plenty of other challenges. We’ll be on the wet side of the Andes mountains, and the wind will be on the nose most of the time. Still, we will try to sail as much as possible rather than rely on our engine. With limited possibilities to re-provision, we have filled every compartment of our boat with food and stacked the forward cabin with firewood.

To check into Chile, we sail across the Beagle Channel to Puerto Williams. The yacht club, the most southern marina in the world, is the former Navy vessel Micalvi. It 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 socialise before they head into the wilderness.

The weather dictates our daily progress. Days of strong winds keep us at anchor. Whenever possible, we explore the land around us. On such occasions, the natural grandeur and the understanding that we are almost alone make us feel insignificant.

The Pio XI Glacier in southern Chile is continuing to retreat; the effects of climate breakdown are all too clear. Photo: Ivar Smits & Floris van Hees

Getting into the Rhythm

On days with less strong headwinds, we rise before dawn to sail upwind through the channels. It is freezing cold in the cabin, so getting out of bed takes some serious willpower. We quickly put on our thermal underwear, have breakfast, and prepare the boat for departure.

With the first daylight, Floris rows the dinghy to shore to untie the long shorelines, which were attached to trees or rocks the night before to keep Lucipara 2 firmly in place. As he rows from one line to the next, I put them away in sail bags, which we keep on deck.

Lifting the anchor

As soon as the dinghy is stowed away, it’s time to lift the anchor. With the anchor winch control in one hand and a breadknife in the other, Floris retrieves the chain metre by metre while removing kelp. With the anchor back in its place, we carefully manoeuvre out of the caleta and set sail. We take turns hand steering, keeping a sharp lookout for uncharted rocks and other obstacles at all times.

Towards the end of the day, we pick a caleta that we can still reach in daylight and which gives protection from the prevailing winds. Upon arrival, we perform the morning ritual in reverse: 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 and light the wood stove to heat the cabin.

A five-star mooring spot in Caleta Cinco Estrellas. Photo: Ivar Smits & Floris van Hees

Our hard work sailing up the Chilean coast doesn’t go without rewards. The breathtaking views of green mountains, blue glaciers feeding icebergs into the channels, and countless wildlife boosts our spirits. We see whales, dolphins, penguins and seals. At every caleta, a pair of flightless steamer ducks welcome us, just before they frantically flap their short wings
to paddle away. We also spot otters, condors, albatrosses, and kingfishers. 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.

Taking a short detour, we sail to the Pio XI Glacier. 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 breakdown, 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 contribute to sea level rise around the globe.

Once we have passed the notorious Golfo de Peñas, we enter an area where the trees are larger and more diverse, indicating a milder climate. The more hospitable landscape leads to more small settlements, boats, and (polluting) salmon farms. Sunny spells last longer and southerly winds are more frequent. Further north still is the island of Chiloé, where we imagine ourselves in southern England.

Rolling, grassy hills with sheep and cows are a stark contrast to the rugged mountains we saw earlier. We tie Lucipara 2 to a mooring at a small settlement and even get a mobile phone signal. The shops in town have fresh food; there are roads and cars. The change is a bit overwhelming, but we soon enjoy the luxuries of civilisation.

The end is in sight

Three-and-a-half months and 40 anchorages after leaving Puerto Williams, we have reached Puerto Montt, and managed to sail almost the entire distance. Patagonia has left us with a deep appreciation of the wilderness and a reinforced belief that we need to conserve it for future generations.

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