Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Isla Tamar to Canal Beagle

The path through the Chilean fjords is punctuated by moments of exposure to the South Pacific. The labyrinth of the coast is such that one can't sneak through without going outside now and then. After Gulfo de Penas, Isla Tamar is the next such situation. It is an island in the entrance of the Magellan Straits, which cuts through the continent from east to west creating the northern passage to the Atlantic. It sounds like a nice option to take the Magellan Straits all the way across until you consider its width and the many parts where it narrows, creating formidable tides and currents. It is not ideal to cross the continent this way. Too many gauntlets. Is is better, and more commonly done, to traverse
Our track around Isla Tamar and into the Magellan Straits
the Beagle Channel, a narrower, more scenic trip to the Atlantic with an option to go to Cape Horn, or even Antarctica. However, to get to the Beagle Channel, it is necessary to enter the Magellan Straits by passing Isla Tamar and follow it for 50-150 miles, depending on what you do next. The next step includes choosing from three channels that go south through Tierra del Fuego and connect with the Beagle Channel. Each of these channels has its advantages and setbacks. Once arrived in the Beagle Channel, a sailor can enjoy a view that defies imagination and then scoot into Puerto Williams, or Ushuaia, for some down time.

Isla Tamar was all I was thinking about as I looked at the next section of Chilean coast we would have to navigate. I saw the wide gap that is the Magellan Straits and imagined all the nasty weather that could tear through that opening from the west, bringing harsh winds and daunting wave height. For weather we had GRIB files from Puerto Eden but they had passed the point of reasonable accuracy. You can download GRIBS for up to sixteen days but can't count on their accuracy for more than five. We also had weather reports from home and a barometer, but the weather of Chilean Patagonia seems to be impervious to forecasting accuracy. During this time we were always feeling a little in the dark. To our great benefit, there is a consistently-manned Armada station on Isla Tamar that can be contacted about weather from within 15 miles, so we headed south to get within range and had an emergency anchorage ready if the weather was not favorable.

The fantastical lichen-covered granite hills of the Magellan Straits.

Max at the tiller in the channels, looking dapper in a cowl I knit for him.
The day was fantastic as we sailed towards Tamar. We passed through the Paso Shoal narrows in Canal Wide and experienced some gusts of 30 knots when we weren't sheltered by larger mountains. The gusts were on flat water and didn't bother us too much. We were busy watching a new species of seal play around us. They were more silver than the ones we had been seeing and had pointy noses. It turns out they are the Southern Fur Seals which would have been hunted to extinction for their fur if they had not been more willing than humans to turn into the wilder parts of the south.

In Paso Shoal we also saw the rusty carcass of an infamous 1914 shipwreck, the Santa Leonor, lying on a shoal to the east. Just as we were about 15 miles away from Tamar, we passed a cruise ship called Bidoucci and they called us on the radio. I was a little surprised to hear the captain calling sailing vessel Tortuga south bound in Canal Wide. I love talking to other boats on 16. We moved to channel 68 and he spoke in English giving us a stout order to not proceed around Tamar. He said he had just been there and the winds were 40 knots and the wave height was 5 meters. He repeated DO NOT GO THERE. So, we didn't go there. We pulled into a bay with many anchorages to offer and squeezed into one called Caleta Teokita, the opening of which would not suggest that passage was possible. However, inside we found a cozy, private cove surrounded by low hills and tied up to thick trees on shore. We radioed the Armada and they confirmed the captain's forecast and told us that the next day promised even worse conditions. We would have to sit tight for two days. Life inside the cove was utterly peaceful. We rowed around and found a thriving population of purple starfish, kelp, and mustard-colored coral reminiscent of Dominica. Each day we climbed to the top of the nearby hill and watched the weather in the canal and the Straits which we could see clearly. Wind is such a visible thing down here. It is memorizing to watch it travel across water. When it is light, the gusts look like a giant hand is caressing the water. When it is strong, the wind whips the water into fantastical forms of white spray and streaks of foam. From the top of the island we could see Isla Tamar as well as the entrance to the Straits. Our own Windy TV.

The narrow entrance to our storm-proof anchorage north of Isla Tamar.

The kinds of things we do when stuck in the boat for a few days waiting out weather.

On the third day we passed around Tamar in such tranquility that we felt as though we were on a peaceful afternoon sail on the Hudson. We worked hard that day in the sense that we pressed ourselves to sail 60 miles and be done with the opening to the Straits. Twelve hours at the helm and a lot of audio book time. By the time we dropped anchor in another stunning bay, we were
exhausted. The next day we woke early and got to business aiming for another 60 mile day. At this point we had to decide which of the three canals we would take to get to Canal Beagle. From west to east they are Canal Barbara, Canal Acwalsinan, and Canal Magdelena. Canal Barbara is the shortest but offers a challenge in the narrow passes that must be timed carefully. Canal Acwalisnan is slightly longer, but offers only one narrow squeeze and can be transited in one day. Magdalena is the only one approved by the Armada, but also the most dangerous for small craft. We choose Acwalisnan, and by the end of the day, we were anchored at the entrance and had completed the 120 miles of the Magellan Straits in complete safety. Our anchorage, Caleta Felix, is a small cove that looks out on the larger canal and is frequented by fishermen. The evening was edenic. A group of Finn whales circled fairly close, the spiky orange Centolla crabs carpeted the bottom of the bay, and a river came out from the green mountains sparkling in the twilight. We watched a pair of steamer ducks work around the shore, dolphin play at the edge of the canal, and listened for the spumes of the whales.

A typical Patagonian anchorage.

Our view from our anchorage in Caleta Felix.

Making dinner in Caleta Felix.
In the morning we set out into the canal with partly cloudy skies amid the endless imagery of the Patagonian landscape. The water was dark and flat and cormorants, penguins, Terns, and seals went about their morning, stopping to consider us. The seals followed in our wake, or strained to stick their heads out of the water and study us. Penguins surfaced in lines of five or six to stare with their red eyes and white collars. We felt like interlopers in a natural paradise few have been able to see, devoid of any human mark, any bright plastic bit of carelessness, or rainbow sheen of fuel. We were guests
in a territory belonging to the animals and ruled by their dynamic. This rock is where the cormorants gather, and this one is for the penguins. Here is where the Albatross float on the surface with their coquettish eyes, opening their enormous wings to run across the water into flight. The steamer ducks travel in monogamous pairs, males and females matching in slate-colored feathers and bright orange beaks. When they flee, they paddle their wings to move across the water, but never take flight. They are prudent and prefer the shelter of rocks at the shore. We spent the morning studying the animals and moving through the narrow granite pass.
Canal Acwalisnan

Paso O'Ryan is the only challenge in Canal Acwalisnan, but it should not be underestimated. It is an exceptionally narrow pass with a large rock in the center. The tides can reach eight knots there and a passage has to be carefully timed. We left our anchorage so as to arrive at the pass at slack tide, signaling the end of the flood. We were a bit early but decided to go for it anyway. As we got closer I could feel the current through the tiller which began to squirm in my hand. The seemingly flat water was rife with eddies and currents that moved the boat as they pleased.  We began to see whirlpools in the water all around us and our progress slowed to a complete stop with the engine at full throttle. We had to give up and as soon as we turned, the boat moved away very quickly. We decided to eat lunch and wait. A half hour later a small fishing boat passed us and entered the narrows. I could see him slow down and his transom squirm against the power of the current. At the narrowest part he seemed
The boat that passed us as we struggled to move through Paso O'Ryan
to be stuck for a long time before he made it through. Max decided that if he could do it, so could we. We did much better on the approach but our speed steadily decreased until it was at one knot during the narrowest section. Max throttled up and Tortuga pushed through the eddies, barely. When I say barely, I mean that the shore did not move for 15 minutes. In the middle of this, as we were trying to squeeze between the rock and the shore, an enormous boat pulled past us completely by surprise. Over the sound of the engine's effort and the strange noises of the water, we did not hear it until it was abeam. It passed close and fast with the power of a much larger engine and threw off a tremendous wake. Those waves actually helped move us through the toughest part of the narrows. We saw a strange phenomenon where the large waves of the boat's wake seemed frozen in the current, like a standing wave would look. The advantage of that was that the effect of the wake lingered and one after another they hit, and though our movement was somewhat harried, we made it through. We did a little dance and continued on our way.

Our next trials were Canal Cockburn and Canal Brecknock which would take us to the entrance of the Beagle Channel. We were in legendary territory. Slocum territory. Magellan, Darwin, Fitzroy territory. We were following in the footsteps of adventurers and sailors who had long entertained our imaginations. Like those guys, we had to continue facing the areas of South Atlantic exposure. Our plan for the day after Paso O'Ryan was to pass through Canal Cockburn which would bring us farther south to where we would have to go into the ocean again, before finding shelter in the Beagle Channel. Truthfully, it was very easy to do so, dare I say almost dull, as we motored most of the day. When we met the swell in Canal Cockburn, it was large and gentle. The water hosted gatherings of Albatross that flew away at our approach leaving feathers all over the surface. We played games trying to sail towards them and scoop them up with a net. This is actually really hard. By the end of
Caleta Brecknock
 the day we made it to the famous Caleta Brecknock where we anchored amidst white granite faces and peaks. The water was deep and clear with a visible forest of kelp gorwing towards the surface. I surprised a seal running stern lines to trees and watched him dive deep down and hide in the kelp. We hiked all over the rocks to reach lakes at higher elevations, see incredible distances, and look down on Tortuga where she was anchored expertly in an extraordinary scene. Though we start to feel sort of numb to the landscape at times, because we see it all day everyday, this anchorage was one of the ones that shook us back to reality with its otherworldly aspect.

Some kelp anchored to a vertebrae came up with the anchor in Brecknock.

The next day we began making our way across Bahia Desolada, through Canal Ballena, and into the Beagle Channel. I started to feel like something big was coming to and end. As if we were graduating, checking off a big list item, arriving at the end of a long day's toil, and like it was soon time to fully exhale. At least for a while. The day passed just as uneventfully as the one before and the scenery found a way to increase in its pure, clean, and untouched aspect. I loved my hours at the tiller watching new mountains come into view as the old ones passed out. We turned corners around islands to surprise seals who were sunbathing, fast asleep, with their flippers high up in the air. The other members of their group came racing towards us in groups, as curious as a creature can be, and dove to inspect the hull. In the distance, I saw the white peaks of the Beagle Channel and knew that we would soon be protected, relaxed, and amidst the glaciers that embellish the Beagle Channel like monuments on the Champs-Élysées.

Our view of the entrance to the Beagle Channel from Caleta Connor.

The night before we entered, we anchored in Caleta Connor, where there are trees dedicated to home made signs from passing yachts and a sailor scarecrow in his foulies. I really felt like we had accomplished something great. I felt proud. On the way in a dolphin zipped around us, riding the bow wake on his back, turning to look me right in the eye. I struggled to hang myself off the bowsprit in a way to capture the moment with my camera. Max said later that I looked like a crazed dolphin photographer trying to yell indecipherable things to him, frizzy blond hair everywhere. At this comment I realized that, not only was I becoming my mother, but as that dolphin jumped 10 ft out of the water and looked down at the deck of Tortuga, I was also living her wildest dreams. The anchorage was peaceful and in the distance the light hit sharp white peaks that hinted at what was to come in Canal Beagle.

The Beagle Channel is the most stunning stretch of water one can imagine. The glaciers come into view one after another in an act of revealing that doesn't seem to end but only intensify. Just as you get over the size, color, and proximity of one, another peaks out at you and reveals itself as even more amazing. Larger, closer, bluer, taller, more exotic waterfall, larger crash of calving ice, more
Glacier in the Beagle Channel
impressive ice flow. It was easy to see that every mountain had at one time been covered in ice. The ones that no longer were had summits of colored stone and crushed gravel. They were swirled with pinks and oranges from their mineral insides, and were also stunning. Some had thin streaks of glaciers, some only had skinny waterfalls running from snow atop. The water changes color dramatically as you pass the large glaciers, from dark blue to dusty turquoise. Chunks of white or clear glacial ice flow by. Thunderous crashes sound from the ice face and then everything is a white cloud of snowy ice exploding upwards and down into the water. The channel is narrow, so all of this happens very close. We passed north of Isla Gordon, which can be circumnavigated to see all the glaciers, and anchored in Caleta Olla, where glaciers are above and beside you, but the water is calm and protected. We hiked along a shore and collected the spiky skeletons of Centolla crabs, and found scattered bones and evidence of campfires, and human presence.

After Caleta Olla, we headed for Puerto Williams, but found unfavorable winds just as we were passing Ushuaia, where we could not land since we were still under the Chilean flag, so to speak. The Armada suggested that we tuck into Puerto Navarino, on the opposite shore of Ushuaia. We dropped anchor in front of the Armada house which always feels safe. I awoke very early to the sound of Max yelling, "We are dragging anchor towards the rocks!" I'll save that story for next time. For now, more pictures of the Beagle Channel...

The Beagle Channel