Sailing in Tierra del Fuego

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December 1st 2013
Published: December 1st 2013
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What an adventure!

I just came back from Southern Chile, as far south as I live north, where I had my first real sailing experience. And what an experience! The trip started in Punta Arenas, a mythical place for me as I had heard about it from explorers who were going to Antarctica. So I was pretty excited to land there and spend a couple of days in that city. JF and I arrived together, Pierre and Angus arrived the next day, after a hike in Torres del Paine. We explored the city together a little, and I kissed the foot of the famous statue of a Native in one of the parks. They say that if you kiss his foot, you will return to Punta Arenas. I didn't want to take any chance.

I was surprised by how expensive everything is in Chile, and how big the city of Punta Arenas is. Some subdivisions are very colorful, some very rich and some very poor. But they all have one thing in common: the wind blows constantly everywhere!

Of course, this can be a good thing when you go on a sailing trip. But as we say in
The kissThe kissThe kiss

So we would return
French: Too much is like not enough! They close the port when the winds are stronger than 25 knots. Luckily, by the time we were ready to go, the winds were strong but the port was open. So on November 4, once all the formalities were completed, we were able to leave. The trip was led by a crew of 3 wonderful and experiences sailors from France, and we were 8 clients onboard.

As soon as we left the dock, we hit some pretty good waves. The Straight of Magellan is BIG, impressive in fact, and although there is no swells, there is still lots of waves. Our stomachs had to adjust, and some had to learn quickly the vomiting protocol onboard. But it was a nice day, one of the few sunny days we had and most of us spent the whole day outside, excited to finally be sailing in this part of the world.

The next few days, we explored a long fjord, where we saw wonderful sceneries: mountains, glaciers, and some interesting wildlife: albatros, penguins, sea leopards and even dolphins that swam next to the boat for a long time. That was really exciting. We
Reflecting on the upcoming adventureReflecting on the upcoming adventureReflecting on the upcoming adventure

The morning of the departure
watched big chunks of ice falling from the glaciers into the ocean. We spent every night in sheltered coves and we even had a barbecue on shore once. The food and drinks were plentiful and delicious. We also went for short walks on an island and on shore where there used to be a sawmill. It was nice to walk a bit after a few days on the sailboat.

Once we were at the eastern end of the fjord, we had supper in a calm place and then navigated all night towards the west. And what a night! It is quite impressive to hear the noise and feel the boat moving all night long. We actually had a lot of headwinds so the boat was moving a lot, up and down, climbing waves and crashing down again with a lot of noise. I am sure there are proper terms for this, but I don't know them. All I know is that we were supposed to take turns to help our crew, but when I got up at 1 am to go to the bathroom, I ran into seasick people and it didn't look like many people would be able to do anything! Nobody really slept well, we were constantly rolling back and forth in our bunks, trying to find a way to be stable. Yet, I was glad to experience something like that, especially since we had one more big night of navigation coming.

We spent a few mores days sailing, stopped and hiked on top of a nice mountain, met our sister sailboat (exact same boat, built for the BT Global Challenge), and even traded rum for crabs with local fishermen. The weather was quite cold during the whole trip so it was challenging to be outside for long periods of time. I was impressed by our crew who never seemed to loose their calm or never seem to be cold. JF was also very tough and participated a lot in the manoeuvres.

Eventually, one morning we could sense something big was brewing. Our crew started to prepare the boat: everything that was on deck was stored, including the zodiac, the kitchen was reorganized, some food prepared ahead of time, and even little details were quite telling: the nice little rocks that were decorating the bathroom counters were stored. We were on our way to Cape Horn.

We could hear the wind howling, even though we were in a sheltered bay at first. But once we left the cove, I was surprised by how quiet the ocean was. We had a few hours of navigation to do to reach the open ocean. There wasn't that much wind at that moment, but slowly the swells got bigger and bigger. It was really impressive. I had a sense that everything was falsely calm, and that something big was coming.

Indeed, not long after that, we were no longer sheltered by any islands, we were on the open ocean, a little off the coast. I went inside for a while and once it got very rough, I went outside again and was in awe. Such huge waves, and huge swells combined, it was so scary but so amazing that I sat outside with big eyes! I thought: waw, this is so scary but I may never see anything like this again, so I wanted to really be there and experience it. I felt so privileged to see how powerful the sea can be, and this was actually nothing compared to what it was a few hours later.
Going back downGoing back downGoing back down

Wear rubber or waterproof boots!
At some point though, I got really scared because the boat was tilting so much to the side that we were partially submerged at times so I decided to go inside. And soon after, I retreated to my bed... Sometimes it is better not to know and just trust...

That night was the highlight of the whole trip. The forecast was for 25 to 35 knot winds, but we ended up having 50 knots with gusts of 60 knots. We had the least amount of sail out, but we broke the speed record of the boat. As I was trying to sleep (or to stay calm), I heard John scream: 14.2 knots! We had so much speed, that the prop of the motor was reving and making an incredible noise. I could hear some waves crashing on top of the boat. Apparently one went totally above Corrine who was "piloting" and she saw it coming from behind her. I tried to sleep but had no hope. I still can't believe that our crew could handle this so calmly. They are used to the Drake, so I guess this was another day in the office for them...

We were supposed to arrive at the Cape mid-afternoon. But at the speed we were going, we would have arrived in the dark, around 3 am. But a few miles before the Cape, our skipper decided to change our course and seek a more sheltered place, and so we rounded what is called the False Cape. I was relieved, and soon after it got a little smoother and I went back outside to see the sunrise and marvel at the ocean once again. Thanks to our wonderful crew and captain, we didn't end up adding our name on the shipwrecks of Cape Horn poster.

The rest of the trip was uneventful after such a night. We did some hiking on Lennox Island, had a group nap on shore to recover form the night, saw a Royal Penguin (to my delight), and slowly entered the Beagle Channel. We arrived in Puerto Williams where we all had a nice hot shower. It was so much fun to meet other sailors and hear stories. Very inspiring. The last evening we went to a very local restaurant, another memorable moment.

Finally, it was time to fly back to Punta Arenas, then Puerto Montt, Santiago, New York, Montreal and finally Kuujjuaq. Life is good in Northern Quebec. We have lots of snow and I enjoy skiing in the quiet toundra, thinking about this wonderful adventure and dreaming about the next ones...

Additional photos below
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Sea leopardsSea leopards
Sea leopards

Don't mess with them!

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