Exploring the Chilean Channels
Tom and his wife Nancy spent four years onboard the 94′ Trinity Halter Whale Song, a 2001 explorer yacht with a range of 3,000 miles. They took this 1,000+-mile trip between Ushuaia, Argentina and Puerto Montt, Chile in 2007.
Story and Photos By Tom Zydler
This neighborhood, at the south end of the continent, can get pretty rough. Only Cape Horn and uninhabited islands lie between us and the Southern Ocean. But we have a good ship. The 94′ Trinity Halter Whale Song, designed as an exploration yacht, is all steel and strength. For the first two years that Grant Wilson owned it, the vessel voyaged from New England southward through the Caribbean, the Guianas, the Amazon, Argentina to the Falklands, Staten Island and Antarctica.
We start with a provisioning spree in the Argentine city of Ushuaia, a thriving yacht base. Next, in order to get a cruising permit, we take a short trip back eastward to sleepy Puerto Williams, a Chilean naval base. And then, finally, the bow points west again. This is my third westward trip here so I know that these latitudes’ westerly howlers come and go and clock around –it should not be all nose-diving into short choppy seas. The real question concerns the exact route to take. Beagle Channel, the very last slash through South America’s continental appendix, splits into crossroads within the first day of sailing. We vote for the northeastern arm, flanked by a parade of glaciers. Named after European countries, “Ventisqueros” Holanda, Italia and Alemania glisten, their colors changing with each passing cloud. Romanche, the largest, serves as a preview to Seno Pia, a two-armed ice gorilla with its ice snout unloading into channels big enough for cruise ships. We spend quality time in Seno Garibaldi, a fiord with sheer walls spurting waterfalls from the melting Picos Azules ice field. The rain, after whispering all day, begins to hit the water in bullet-size droplets. The sea lion colony that we pester with our inflatable is all noise; frisky young pups, bleating goat-like, raise tiny voices under the adults’ mighty bellows. A male, the size of a real lion, lunges at our inflatable with a full set of teeth. We take the hint and race off to our anchorage off Pirincho Islet. Solid rain now cascades over our stern tied with two warps to a towering forested cliff, its top disappearing in thick vapor.
The rain lets up in Canal Brecknock next day. It’s still, calm, almost sunny. Over pink granite ramparts an Andean condor wheels about, his great claws hanging down. By Seno Occasion the weather fouls up again. The rain returns in our anchorage in Caleta Brecknock. In the twilight of the southern summer our stony surroundings glow eerily, bluish under brooding skies; the few flowering plants in wind-proof crags flash soft colors in the gloomy air.
To continue north we must leave the relative shelter of Canal Beagle. Soon the Southern Ocean, beyond a few rocky islets, announces its presence with the boom of breakers. In Canal Cockburn, which leads to the Strait of Magellan, swelling seas begin to crest under a fresh southwesterly. Albatrosses swoop and glide effortlessly, their joie de vivre exhilarating in this gray weather. In good visibility this passage opens up a full view of some tremendous peaks; that day, though, we only see ghostly outlines and tantalizing white patches somewhere on high. Commerson’s dolphins take a few moments to surf down waves, bright flashes in the dark sea.
The wide waters from the eastern reaches of Magellan Strait narrow considerably by Cabo Forward, a blunt heavy headland. Although miles away, a giant stainless-steel cross sparkles – a reminder of a 1977 papal visit that prevented a war between Chile and Argentina. A hulking tanker powers by throwing sheets of spray as we hug the south shore. The wind is abeam but williwaws whip the sea into white dervishes. From among dozens of anchorages we choose Caleta Cascada. Its waterfall is Mississippi-gone-mad and its thunder resounds out in the Strait. Low by the shore, the fall turns into streams straining through a thick growth of gnarled trees. Low tide uncovers rich mussel beds. Masses of bell-shaped coicopihue flowers dangle over as we fill our buckets. The place is alive with kelp geese, flightless steamer ducks that power by in clouds of foam and tiny diving petrels. To the side, out of the katabatic wind tunnel, stands our first virgin forest – a welcome change after bare wet rocks.
It still will be a while before we get away from the wind-lashed wilderness of the southernmost channels. The moderate southwesterly persists to the very end of the Magellan Straits, at Isla Tamar, and continues as we head north again into a maze of channels, bays, coves, and fiords of various sizes. The weather improves by Seno Ringdove and Caleta Richmond where two Commerson’s dolphins act as pilots before turning their attention to the stern warps our tender is pulling ashore. The sunset bathes the low forests and high mountains in soft orange glow. Smoke rises from a camp where two Chilote fishermen cure heaps of giant mussels, their yellow boat wedged between rocks like a weekend cabin.
Golfo de Penas stretches to greener pastures and civilization farther north. It gapes wide open to the west at nearly 50 degrees south and we’ll go about 120 miles over potentially nasty waters before entering the channels again. A brisk northerly does not bode well but the sky turns acrylic blue with endless visibility. The GRIB wind forecast remains good. Out in the open sea, the wind vanishes, but seas are lumpy, confused and the wind returns, light one hour, gusty another. Rumpled seas continue till we turn west into Bahia Anna Pink and later anchor in Puerto Millabu. The entrance between hulking headlands opens onto terraced hillsides, fish streams, forests and waterfalls. A magic place despite the carcass of a sea lion on the beach.
Two friends are joining the yacht in Puerto Chacabuco, connected to the highways of mainland Patagonia. Gradually, as we get closer to the port near Seno Aysen, signs of civilization become more pronounced. Fish and mussel-farm rafts crowd around the gap into Caleta Gato, a landlocked and densely wooded cove. Inside, an old man in a wooden double-ender listens to a soccer game by a glowing stove. His five sons arrive at dusk, and their five boats hang off his stern for the night. Bound northward in Golfo Corcovado and Ancud we cross shoals of thousands of sooty terns and come close to blue whales and humpbacks.
Yet, at this point there can be no doubt that our precious flirt with wilderness has ended even before getting to Chiloé. The high volcanic peaks of Hornopiren and the snow-capped 6,000-foot Calbuco volcano rise over a hilly skyline, a patchwork of farmlands and shores bordered by fish farm rafts. Small ships chug everywhere and soon we slip into Puerto Montt, throbbing with traffic and resounding with shipyard activity. Yachts moor at marinas with running water, electricity and travel lifts. Boats in storage ashore sit in powerful cradles engineered to survive earthquakes. If you thought williwaws were bad, bear in mind that in 1960 a nearly 30-foot tsunami swept Chiloé and destroyed wharves in Puerto Montt. Fortunately the February 2010 earthquakes caused only minor damage here. For southbound yachts Puerto Montt is still the last and best place to get ready – Ushuaia, the next industrial town south of here, lies more than 1,000 mostly uninhabited miles away.
Once in the channels yachts should have all the essentials on board, including food, spares and medical support. The Chilean Navy will assist in dire need and yachts must report by VHF or SSB radio to the navy posts scattered along the channels. All yachts fuel up and stock up on food and spares, as well as catch up on repairs, in Ushuaia, on the Argentine side of Canal Beagle and just a few hours westward of Puerto Williams. The Navy office in Puerto Williams issues clearances for the passage through the channels. Permits are required. Yachts over 50 gross tons should retain the services of a local Chilean agent.