Fifty four days of rain

A few hundred metres of waterfall by Christopher James Harris.
A few hundred metres of waterfall

ISLANDER Chris Harris and partner Paula Casanovas-Garcia left Stanley on New Year’s eve for a sailing trip in their boat “Morgane” “to see how far they would get.” They sailed from Stanley around the north of the Islands and then across to Puerto Williams in Chile. This is the story  of their voyage from Puerto Williams to Chiloe Island.

Paula takes up the story..

Chile – Cabo Tres Montes to Estrecho de Magallanes, including the Patagonian channels “The prevailing wind is from the N, and sometimes blows with great fury […]. The principal feature in the weather here is not the strength of the wind, but the almost perpetual rain.” This is what the sailing directions say, wind from the North and almost perpetual rain… We thought about it, and we didn’t imagine it to be very bad… we thought that we were used to bad weather, used to the cold, used to seeing penguins on the ice. The rain was the one thing that we were not very much used to. When we left Puerto Williams, it was not raining. And so we started our trip through the Patagonian channels of Chile, and the everyday game of tying “Morgane” to the trees in the evenings and freeing her in the mornings. We took advantage of the long days of the southern Patagonian summer every day that we could sail. After our first two days of sunshine, the rain didn’t leave us.

Even though the intricate coast of the south of Chile is high and steep, it offers many refuges for a small boat. It doesn’t matter how furious and vicious the wind runs and hauls on the channels, when you enter one of these many small coves, you find a quiet oasis. At least most times. But these oases seem to exist only in small sizes, they can be little, or tiny, or minuscule. So there is some strategy involved in getting the boat safely moored in these anchorages. This is not really very straightforward, but with practice it gets easier and easier… or so we thought.

A narrow channel by Christopher James Harris
A narrow channel

First you need to find your cove (not easy some times, as some entrances are very narrow); second, you need to find out where the wind would most likely come rolling down the hills, choose a place accordingly to tie up; third,

Looking for a tree by Christopher James Harris
Looking for a tree

you get the dinghy in the water and, with a shore line in hand (or better attached to yourself), row as fast as you can to the shore and attach that line to a tree (a Canelo if you find one, they are very strong). While one of you does this, the other maneuvers the boat so that it doesn’t bump against the sides of the coves (Chris does a lot of this while I’m still working on my rowing/choosing tree/attaching line speed); then you go back and get another line for another strong tree. After all these, maybe you need to put more chain down and shorten the shore lines until you are snugly close to those mighty trees, and maybe you put out yet more lines.

Snuggly tied in by Christopher James Harris
Snuggly tied in

We did this once in the dark. We arrived at this sheer cove at dusk, tired and wet. It was raining, as it had been since the two nice days we had, a few weeks earlier while in Caleta Olla. But it was calm. I got in the dinghy with a headtorch and was scared. Chris said ‘be careful’ and pointed the spotlight to a tree. When I got close, I had to climb a little way up the steep wall surrounding the cove to get the line attached. Once the line was attached and I was back on board our small dinghy, I wasn’t scared anymore. I trust our dinghy, she is a fine little boat. But I don’t trust the combination of slippery rocks and big rubber boots, in the dark. We didn’t have a good night sleep that night, as the calm didn’t last and strong williwaws came rolling down the steep side of the cove; like witches coming to an akelarre.

The Beagle Channel anchorages we visited had spectacular views, and in most of them we enjoyed some hiking. Here, the forest is open and you can easily get close to glaciers and waterfalls. The landscape of the forest around the islands of the Beagle Channel has been modified quite a bit by the engineering achievements of very successful immigrants from Canada, beavers. These rodents were introduced to Tierra del Fuego in 1946, with the hope of starting a fur industry in the area. The fur industry failed, but the beavers found in the south Patagonian forest a paradise… with no predators. It is known that they have already crossed the Magellan Strait, having been seen in the Brunswick Peninsula. The damage to the forest is monumental, not only because of the cutting of trees that might be hundreds of years old, but because of the modification of the watersheds. We saw beaver dams before, near Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, but it was quite impressive to see them in the more remote Caleta Olla.

Along with beavers, minks from North America where also introduced in Tierra del Fuego for their fur in 1934. Another unsuccessful economic story, that ended up with minks dispersing through most of the Andean Patagonia. Minks are a real threat to many different native species of birds, since their eggs represent a significant part of this mustelid diet. We had a mink visitor on board way more north in our trip, it jumped on board one night while we where tied up to a tiny marina in Isla Jechica, closer to Chiloe than to Tierra del Fuego.

Once we sailed away from the Beagle Channel, the forest around the anchorages got thicker, and hikes mostly were not a very nice (or even possible) option. The typical sailing day would be a fight against the wind, with cold rain hitting our nice, if not pretty, dodger. Ending our sailing day inside the calm of a cozy cove, with a hot meal inside our warm boat was comforting. Having a heated boat was really important, and the day we saw our chimney drop into the depth of 800 meters deep waters my heart sunk with it. I don’t remember where this happened, maybe along Canal Pitt, and we both saw it happened in slow motion, but were not fast enough to rescue it. Soon after we tied up “Morgane” to that night’s refuge, Chris got to work in a new chimney saying “don’t worry, I have an idea for a better one”. And so he did, we now have a better chimney (made from a cooking pot!) that turns with the wind and doesn’t let the gusts cause back-drafts inside our Refleks stove.

We continue fighting north, waiting for long days, asking the weather oracle for some fortune telling, trying to go on and coming back defeated by the wills of the tides and the winds, fighting with each other. We played with the squalls, more often than we would like.

Puerto Eden by Christopher James Harris
Puerto Eden

The first day of sunlight found us in Puerto Eden, a fisherman’s town with no roads. This was the first outpost of civilization that we had seen in almost two months, and the kindness of a fisherman showed us, again, that you are never truly alone. We had ‘onces’ with him and his wife, heard stories about his years fishing for shellfish in the glaciers around, and they gave us ten kilos of flour in exchange of some piece he needed for his boat, which we happened to have it in our magic box of spares.

And then we sailed to? the Golfo de Penas… did you hear any whales? I ask Chris as he’s getting ready for his three or four hours of sleep. You can’t see the whales during your night watch unless there is a big moon, but you do hear them breathing alongside from time to time, and having them around always makes me feel less lonely and, maybe, safer. After the Golfo de Penas, the golf of sorrows that was kind to us, the weather and the water got warmer, nicer, and our spirits started to heal a bit after so much grey sky.

The sailing of the Patagonian channels was emotionally intense, if not so much for the difficult navigation but because of the continuous fight with the weather and the waiting… and waiting. But the channels have a magic of sorts. We wandered at the setting moon in the red sky of sunset, as we row back from a friends’ boat in a calm night of soft rain. We saw dolphins every day, showing us the way in and out of the coves. We saw whales, humpbacks and Sei. Their enormity matching the enormity of the landscape, knowing their way around this labyrinth of deep water, maybe learned from their ancestors. We saw an otter fishing, nonchalant lord of the cove that we invaded for a couple of days. We saw martin pescador, and hummingbirds, and steamer ducks, and upland geese, and condors. We saw thousands of jellyfish, the water like the universe and the jellyfish like small galaxies swimming in its immensity. We saw orcas leaving the golf of sorrows.

The ghost ship by Christopher James Harris
The ghost ship

We saw a ghost ship in the setting sun, the “Captain Leonidas”, sitting on Bajo Cotopaxi. And we saw a lunar eclipse in the west most beautiful sky, while the sun was raising in the most beautiful snowy mountains of the east, the Cordillera Darwin of the Andes.

If we do this again, I hope we will be running with the wind, from north to south, coming back home to the South Atlantic. We arrived at Chiloe with some of the last summer sun warming up our skin. And that same night, as we were going to bed, we heard the rain, again, dancing on our deck. And that was our fifty four day of rain.