Friday, February 3, 2017

Chilean Fjords from Castro to Golfo de Penas

*We are meandering through the labyrinth of the Chilean coast that leads from Chiloe to Cape Horn. Our plan is to sail only during the day and anchor each night in a fjord, caleta, estero, or other watery Spanish thing. Eventually, we will traverse as much of the Straits of Magellan as is necessary to get to the Beagle Canal which delivers us to the Atlantic. I apologize for the confusing names in this post.

January 13th Castro-Estero Pilad

This morning we set out from Castro. Waking at our anchorage I looked up at the interior of the cabin and could feel the heaviness of the well-stocked boat. We were leaving for our long journey to Cabo de Hornos and future anchorages seemed so mysterious. I couldn't imagine what challenges they would bring but I knew we would be alone, off the grid, and isolated for a long time.

The cabin was cold and Max was brave. He had made coffee and was dressed and cranking on the anchor as I got out of bed. The engine was idling itself warm and a sleepy female voice from the Chilean Armada was on VHF 16 wishing us a safe voyage. I layered for the morning. Leggings, Carhardt overalls, wool sweater and new Grundens foulies. We didn't have much wind in the inlet and ate breakfast in the cockpit as we motored away from Castro. Curious penguins and seals were popping their heads above water to check us out. The miles to our intended anchorage, Estero Pailad, were quiet miles with only a slight breeze. We watched the shore and saw our first colony of penguins atop a sandbar. A woman in a red sweater collected mussels close by. We watched the depthfinder as we slipped through the narrow parts. We took turns reading to each other from copies of the New Yorker that Max's parents left. I knitted while Max read about a young man from Eritrea who dreams of escaping an oppressive regime through soccer. I took a turn and read about Richie
A typical Chilean fishing boat, as brightly painted
as the houses.
Torres, a young Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx projects who becomes head councilman for the NYCHA. These were our last bits of news from the world for a while. My brother sent a message over the satellite phone that my Facebook page had been hacked from a computer in Castro and some one posted that I was a big fan of "deck." All this as we sailed under genoa only into the silent, green space of Estero Pailad, an anchorage reputed for its isolation. Indeed it was only us and a pod of dolphin surrounded by dripping green under a gray flannel cloud cover. The strength of their exhalations as they rose was the only sound. I decided to stop thinking about the profanity on my fb page and the political struggles of the world for a while.

We wound our way into the fjord and dropped 100ft of anchor chain in 25ft of water directly in front of a red church and a dozen grazing sheep. We have changed the ratio of anchor chain to depth to take many things into factor. We find that it is not so straightforward in these fjords. The tides are dramatic and the bottom shoals quickly. Sometimes you have to get very close to shore before the depth is reasonable for anchoring. This means that you can't let out a 7:1 ratio of scope as is often recommended. So we have been dropping a lesser ratio and keeping an eye on the shore. Each fjord requires a unique anchoring plan and we feel like we are understanding more and more about the best setup.

Our anchorage in Estero Pailad.

Ashore we found a strange scene. The village was a schoolhouse, a church, and a cemetery among a few other buildings. All empty. All quiet. The animals looked at us in wonder. A copper-colored colt with a white blaze stood erect with eyes on us from the middle of a windswept pasture. A baby sheep tried desperately to coordinate its new legs to run away with its mother. The grass had grown to flowering meadow around the church. Barbed wire and a locked gate kept us out. We wandered among the buildings and excited two dogs who barked with piercing regularity. They flushed the nearby trees of crowds of Ibis. The cemetery was filled with plastic flowers and full-sized wooden cribs placed over graves like frames. The wind had blown many plastic buds out of he cemetery into the meadow where they blended so well with the wild flowers I couldn't tell the difference. We turned up a dirt road that led out of town.

We walked for an hour and a half vigorously stretching our legs. The woods suggested plentiful rain. Bamboo forests creaked with growth on either side and fell into the road. White and fuchsia Hollyhocks hung off the mossy rocks. Once again we found ourselves down the rabbit hole, amazed by our surroundings. Around the corner came a pair of oxen, bound at the horns, and led by two farmers.They wore dirty layers of working clothes and tall rubber boots. Upon seeing us, they yelped with shock, reminding me that we are a strange sight. Without hesitation, the older of the two moved towards me and, taking me by the hand, leaned in. The sour smell of cheap wine escaped his toothless grin and he planted a wet kiss on my cheek. De donde son? he asked warmly. We told him our story and then he got very excited. He had seen the boat and approved. I told him that his oxen were beautiful animals. Together they were as big as a truck and bound at the horns by a wooden pole and leather strap. Their noses were wet and black, their eyes deep and clear, and even their hides shone bright white and sable. Much cleaner than their masters, but not as friendly. The nearer animal pulled away from me with suspicion. His partner had no choice but to follow. Then he began to relieve himself with the power of a well-pressured hose. Foamy yellow poured across the dirt and over the farmers' boots. The air took on a new scent and we raised our voices over the sound and all pretended not to notice. The old man chatted on, telling us that he was happy we were walking because that is the way of a true Chiloete and that he and his partner were the most Chiloeten of all the Chiloetens we could meet. As far as I was concerned, that was without a doubt. We wished each other well and parted ways. It brought us so much happiness to meet people out here going about an antiquated form of life so proudly.

Sunday, January 15th Puerto Juan Yates

Last night we spent in Estero Huildad, an inlet so camouflaged that I kept checking the charts for some error. It just looked as though we were headed straight into a wide sand beach. When we were close enough to really be concerned, the sand split in two and we saw a narrow entrance where the two points overlapped. The tide was moving out in obvious swirls and eddies. I stood on the bowsprit in the sun and looked into the cobalt sparkling water. I turned to see Max's head above the dodger with the towering Vulcan Corcovado in the background. We entered a stunning bay with steep sides, pebble beaches, and stretching hills and flowered meadows. We set the anchor and immediately went to explore the beckoning fields. We crossed a pasture and found a trail under bent bamboo that led to the top of a cliff where a farmer had his house. We walked back down and explored what we could of the coast absorbing the rare sun and distant views of volcanoes and islands. We spent a quiet night anchored there. I made Paella and listened to NPR's All Songs Considered while Max spent hours on the fore-deck fishing and drinking beer. Some time alone, you could say.

Estero Huildad

Vulcan Corcovado

This morning we crossed the Gulf of Corcovado and made it to Bahia Tic Toc, a wildlife sanctuary in a group of tiny islands near the mainland coast. Our sail took us farther along the Chilean Cordillera revealing the impressive hulk of the Andes. It was a clear enough day to see the distant granite faces and the snow drift atop. Spouts of whales were all around us as we drew closer to Puerto Juan Yates, our anchorage in the Tic Toc Islands. Once there, we found a still bay filled with life. Penguins were swimming alongside or watching in crowds from rocks. The species of dolphin unique to the cove circled us, cormorants blended with the penguins, and small otters stood still to watch us cruise by. The sun was hot enough to swim and we lathered ourselves up with soap and dove off the boat. Later in the afternoon we explored in the dingy and found a shallow inner cove filled with granite boulders and shellfish filled crevices. We hiked as far as we could and found a place to sit and look at the
Andean panorama. While sitting, a penguin slipped up on the rock below and we watched him in his afternoon hunting and sunbathing routine. Across the expanse of water was a rock covered in sea lions. Two steamer ducks fled a nearby inlet and we watched their ridiculous attempt at flight, like a zealous swimmer doing the butterfly for the first time. This is what it really feels like to be alone with nature, I thought. This is what we have worked to see. It's the feeling that drove John Muir to write about the American west, drives Yvon Chouinard to disappear in Jackson's Hole to flyfish, and drove the late Doug Thompson to buy and protect much of the panorama we were looking at. We have traveled so far that we are completely removed from the influence of man. Scour the beach and you will not see a rubber boot, a cigarette butt, or a cheap plastic toy with its 1000 year half life.

Bahia Tic Toc

January 17th Puerto Santo Domingo

It is a wet day and the wind howls. The rain lets up and returns to its tap dance on the cabin top. I am baking bread and Max is sleeping. Yesterday we left the Tic Toc Islands and headed into Canal Refugio which goes behind Isla Refugio and offers shelter from the wider Canal Morleda that runs north south between the islands and the mainland. Inside the canal we found ourselves crowded by giants. To starboard the cliffs of Isla Refugio rose straight from the water up 1000 meters. To port the Andes continued their slow unveiling. The landscape just gets larger and larger as we go south. When we entered the bay where we would anchor I was pretty impressed with the scene, but then, as our perspective changed, the mountains in front of us split to reveal an inner valley that I couldn't believe. Inside were a cluster of mountains framing what I knew to be a lake from the charts. On the left side of the valley one mountain dominated the scene by spilling down a tremendous waterfall from a bowl shaped edged that suggested another lake 1000ft above the lower. I could see the water moving down in slow motion. A rainbow spread across the valley.

Puerto Santo Domingo

January 22 Puyuhuapi

We have decided to increase our progress towards Golfo de Penas after what has felt like a leisurely ten days exploring the fjords. From Puerto Santo Domingo, we followed Canal Refugio until we made it to the town of Puyuhuapi. Avoiding  Canal Morleda was a good idea. The waters in the narrower channels were calmer and the we were able to sail most of the time with the wind on our stern quarter and just the genoa out. We are still working on figuring out the tides and currents of these channels as they don't seem to follow any logical pattern or course.

Caleta Jacqueline

Fjord fishing with a Sibiki rig

For two days in Puyuhuapi we had sun. The sun here is so rare, but when it comes, it is bright, hot and everything seems to stretch up towards it. Before these days of sun we experienced the weather more typical of the fjords- a gray sky with low clouds and a fine rain that works its way through fabric, hair, and drives at your marrow where it sets up camp. On days like this you would not know anything of the landscape. You would not know how many volcanoes tower over you, or about the blue glaciers peeking out from valleys, or sitting high atop a peak. When the sun hit Puyuhuapi, a small settlement nestled in the mountains, we took a day off and went into El Parque Nacional de Quelat to hike to a glacier we had seen coming in. We hiked every possible trail in the park and only wished that we were wearing shorts. The glacier sat up high on the exposed granite of the mountaintop and thundered down a waterfall into a creamy turquoise lake. It had receded dramatically since 1973 and I had the feeling we were seeing the last stage of a precious thing. On either side of the glacier, two more waterfalls poured thousands of feet into the same lake. The distant water moved in slow motion as it fell, throwing out blooms where it hit rocks on the way down. To watch it bewildered my notions of time, space, and distance. We hiked down through a forest cloaked in moss. Every tree wore a shaggy coat that dragged in the mud. Here and there, red flowers bloomed in trumpets and yellow mushrooms, shaped like tiny clay tea cups ready for the kiln, sat atop the moss collecting rain. It smelled so unlike the sea. I packed my lungs like suitcases for the long voyage ahead.

Motoring into Puyuhuapi

This glacier used to reach all the way to the sea. 
In Puyuhuapi we found everything we needed. There are a dozen restaurants and the food is very good. More meat than mariscos at this point, but that is a welcome change. There are three or four supermarkets offering basic fruits and vegetables, and plenty of bars and cafes to slake the sailor's thirst. As the town is a scenic stop on the Carrera Austral, there are throngs of young people from all over the world walking the streets. It seems to be a particular attraction for long-distance peddlers who wheel bikes down the street that have become rectangles of gear. Most are young men with muscled legs packed into black biking shorts, wearing scraggly beards, but here and there is a rogue traveler whose story I would love to know. A 60 year old woman peddled by in a high gear, looking bedraggled but persistent. We saw a young man with a teddy bear zip-tied to his handle bars with a Forest Gump look in his eyes tented by a muddy poncho. Both travelers looked like they were about 3/4 of the way towards whatever they set out to discover. The best part of Puyuhuapi was that the abundance of young travelers allowed to make enough friends that we had a small gathering on the boat before we left. Now we are off on our own again with Puyuhuapi fading into the distance. We are finally headed towards Golfo de Penas.

January 24th Puerto Aguirre

We have advanced 60 miles out of the 200 towards Golfo de Penas and have found an anchorage in a protected cove called Puerto Aguirre. It was a fog bound day of sailing with constant rain. Arriving in the anchorage we quickly took to the interior of the boat where we lit the heater and dried out. It was dark and cold outside with clouds moving quickly over us. We got into bed and watched a movie while eating popcorn I made in the pressure cooker. Though we dreaded the thought of going into town in the rain, we knew it was necessary, that too much time inside the boat would drive us crazy. We have realized about this trip, where much can start to feel repetitive, we are aware and careful of the type of idleness that causes us to feel homesick, depressed, or lonely. We know we have to keep the inertia of progress going which is particularly challenging when it is wet and cold all day. So we suited up in all our gear and rowed to shore. A pod of dolphin who inhabit this cove swam in a wide circle as constant as a carnival carousel, surfacing in a slow series of archs, and then diving down.

On shore we found a wide path of crushed clam shells leading to town. We trudged upwards inside our heavy rain gear and were thankful for our new Grundens foulies which no weather can penetrate. Town was a network of narrow streets lined with the tiny homes typical of southern Chile. Only the dogs were out in the rain. Going about their canine politics, each escorted us through their owner's property to the edge, where the next dog took over. We found a bar that was open and drew curious looks from the three locals watching a telenovela inside. We told them our story and a toothless drunk insisted that Max take a sip of wine from his cup. This always happens to Max and he always obliges so as not to appear rude. The time of day, liquor involved, or filth of person offering does not matter. I once saw him take a shot of Agua Diente at 8 in the morning from a drunk on a dock in Colombia who was pouring out an entire bottle into a plastic shot glass for breakfast. So, Max drank some wine from that guy's cup and we ordered a tall bottle of Escudo beer and took it to a table. On the walls of the bar were the entire collection of Stihl advertisements featuring bikini-clad woman newly emancipated from the bush by a chainsaw attachment, weed whacker, or other Stihl implement. Our spirits were refreshed by this experience and eventually we saw the sun come out and returned to explore the rest of the town. It ended up being a lovely evening, the entire town lit up in the sunshine and we sat on a high ridge looking out at the endless islands ahead of us.

January 26th Caleta Jacqueline to Canaveral through Canal Abandonados

In order to reach Canal Suarez, where it is prudent to wait for a weather window to cross Golfo de Penas, one has to make it through a maze of islands that lead from the inner canals to the sea and then cross Bahia Anna Pink where exposure to the Pacific swell begins. There is a Chilean ferry that makes this passage and chooses to follow Canal Darwin which is wide with many lighthouses. The alternative option is to take Canal Abandonados, which is narrow and incompletely surveyed. However, it is fine for a boat our size and offers unique anchorages that are off the beaten path. We decided to go with Abandonados and it was worth it.

While we did have to keep a bow watch when the space between rocks became narrow, the entire day was surreal. The water was flat and the color of tea. The islands were granite slabs stained by the tides and hosting colonies of mussels at the waterline. The fog was dense enough to feel isolating but not dangerous. Fair weather in Patagonia offers views so vast that they can be overwhelming. When the fog settles one can focus on what is immediately below or in front. Our whole day was a series of images framed by fog, like small pieces of art hung on white walls. We saw crowds of penguins surface, the chic cormorants that appear from nowhere, clouds of small red shrimp swimming backwards in synchronized clouds, and enormous dolphin jumping in groups to look at us or turning like corkscrews under the bowsprit in their usual celebratory manner.

Soon we reached the ocean and our calm water began to undulate and then form into waves and chop. The peace of the inner canals became a treacherous coast of islands and rocks hidden in fog. We only had ten miles to go until we were anchored, but the weather felt dangerous. With wind, rain, and waves, the charm of the fog was lost to a feeling that we needed to be very careful. For those miles I stayed at the bow looking out for signs of shallow water or rocks awash as Max motored us through these hazards to find the inner fjord, Caleta Canaveral. As we entered water poured down from the sky, the nearby vegetation, and from each of the cliffs within view where it gathered into thin waterfalls. We found the fjord somehow and were welcomed by its abundant wildlife. Birds, seals, otters, and penguins swam to the head of the fjord with us where we anchored amidst waterfalls and fresh rivers running in.
Unbelievable amounts of fog.
Golfo de Penas

Navigating the Chilean coast from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn means transiting the notorious Golfo de Penas. This wide bay offers no option but to leave the relative safety of the channels and go offshore. During the roughly 100nm miles it takes to go from the northern anchorage of Canal Suarez to the southern anchorage of Caleta Ideal, a yacht is exposed to the tempestuous weather of the south Pacific before once again being safely tucked away in the southern channels.

The gulf is 50 miles across, stretching from latitude 46S to 47S, and extending 60 miles inland. To the north, the Peninsula Tres Montes curls into the gulf offering several fjords where one can wait for an appropriate weather window for a crossing. The southern most fjord is Canal Suarez where protection from bad weather can be found. The weather characteristics of the golf are defined by the prevailing westerlies that bring low pressure systems with regularity.  This paired with the quickly
A map of our course across Golfo de Penas
shoaling bottom at the entrance to the golf, and the large swell of the southern Pacific, can raise a formidable and irregular onshore set. The course recommended by Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is to head from Canal Suarez offshore and give the lighthouse, Cabo Rapier on Penninsula Tres Montes, a 15 mile berth. Then slowly curve around to head to the southern goal of Bahia Tarn where the anchorage, Caleta Ideal, can be reached.

I had been anxious about this crossing for a while and read everything I could about it. There is much literature available to cause any sailor anxiety about these 100 miles. Especially this sailor. I had sufficiently scared myself, and as we got closer to the anchorage where we intended to wait for a weather window, I poured over the GRIB files looking for a perfect 24hr forecast where we could cross and was not able to find it. When we left Caleta Canaveral, we had planned on two more anchorages before the crossing, Cabo Gato and Canal Suarez. Hopping slowly down the coast seemed the safest idea, but as we left Canaveral in a dense fog and surrounded by rocks, islands, and promontories that threw up considerable spray when hit by the swell, we started to re-think our plan. When we finally battled our way offshore, we found an old friend in the open ocean. No more fog, no more islands, and a steady NW breeze. The idea of approaching the coast after just 20 miles made us uncomfortable. In fact, through conversation we revealed our mutual desire to stay offshore. It was Max who first mentioned the idea of just skipping the next two anchorages and going for the crossing. Sure that I was too prudent for this bold move, he began by saying, "I am not saying we should, but imagine if we just went for it now? The wind is favorable and in 24hrs we would be there." To his surprise, the thought had already entered my mind and I agreed. There was something about the foggy approaches to the fjords and the good feeling of the open sea that suggested strongly that we should go for it. We looked at the GRIB files and saw that the wind would come from the NW and range from 15-30 knots during the next 24hrs. We could see that there was a nasty system farther south just clearing Cape Horn with winds upwards of 50 knots. We agreed to go for it and our spirits were immediately buoyed by the prospect. Instead of the whole day we had scheduled for boat prep in Canal Suarez, we did everything necessary in an hour, while underway. We secured the dingy to the fore-deck, made ready the storm trysail in its track, and hoisted the staysail in order to engage our offshore sheet to tiller self-steering system. We ran the jacklines and put the tethers on our PFDS. Earlier that morning Max had noticed the fuel filter was full of dirty water from condensation inside the tanks and we had drained that off. We were ready and I took the first watch.

Throughout the night we dealt with large seas and fickle wind. A 15-20 NW wind changed to a 5-10 knot SW breeze brought by a rain squall. This made it hard to stay offshore and we had to start the engine for a couple hours until the wind returned. We went through many sail changes, suffered much cold rain, and remained extremely alert taking short turns at the tiller or attempts at sleep below deck. I laid down at 5 am and when I returned to the cockpit I found Max hand-steering on a broad reach and looking pretty delerious. However, the conditions were fine and the sun was welcomed. I took over and maintained a dead down wind course under a west wind with sails set wing on wing.

The day brought more sun and the wind remained steady at 10-15 knots. The swell pushed us towards shore and we were appreciative. The islands of the southern golf became visible we were more and more happy that we had chosen to cross the day before. We entered the golf and found our anchorage safely by 3pm, having left Caleta Canaveral the day before at 9am.

The most difficult thing about Golfo de Penas are the confused seas. Without sufficient wind, it is hard to make progress against the sickening level of rolling. One fear we had was that the rolling would upset sediment in the fuel tanks and cause engine failure. For this reason we chose a forecast with adequate wind. Even with a forecast of 15-30, the wind died enough at certain points that we had to motor. Of the 30 hours it took us to reach the southern anchorage, we motored between 8-10. Most of that was in finding our final anchorage.

I wouldn't say that the crossing of Golfo de Penas was easy. By the time we were finished I was so exhausted I could feel my mind failing me and my eyes were swollen and hot, but the conditions we encountered were nothing compared to what I had conjured up. Yes, there were large waves that tossed us around a bit, and the rain was a cold annoyance, but we had seen worse in every category. The following seas and wind speeds off the Guajira Penninsula of Colombia were much more intimidating. Our entrance to Canal Chacao made my heart race at certain points, but at no point during Golf de Penas did we feel in trouble or overwhelmed by the conditions.

Arrival in Canal Messier on the south side of Golfo de Penas.
My advice to sailors planning this crossing is to put more stock in facts than in the yarns spun in literature available. If it weren't for my avid reading of such stories I may have slept during my off watches and had a more dependable mind to handle the navigating once inside the gulf. It is a definite challenge to negotiate this passage but there are procedures and practices to kept one safe. Our best advice is as follows. Go when there is enough wind that the engine does not have to work too hard and is therefor reliable when needed. Stay far offshore and do not underestimate the difficulty of doing so in the east pushing swell and the 0.5 knot east going current. As the adage goes, put money in the bank when you can. Another tip is to not buy costly Gore-Tex foulies that promise dry warmth. We have never been warmer and dryer than in comparatively cheap Grundens foulies which repel water with thick rubber and are always dry for your next watch. Have a wide variety of sails to handle all levels of wind, maintain your engine with the utmost attention, and have more faith in your careful planning and weather data than in dramatized stories.

Additional, random pics from this stretch...