Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Sailing in Patagonia is Just Like Sailing in British Columbia, Except….

My very first impression upon sailing into Valdivia, Chile last March after our passage from Easter Island, was ‘wow, this looks so much like BC’. 
Typical view looking east from Isla Chiloe
That initial thought has repeated itself in my head over and over again as we sailed south from Valdivia and into northern Patagonian waters.  

The general topography is similar to BC.  There is a huge 190 km long island called Isla Chiloe (similar to Vancouver Island) that protects a big open straight (similar to Georgia Strait) that contains many small, protected islands (like the Gulf Islands).  There is then an open body of water (crossing from Port Hardy around Cape Caution) to a massive archipelago of islands where you could literally get lost for years.
As we sailed down the protected east coast of Isla Chiloe and looked to the east, we saw the towering mountains of the mainland, just like we do when sailing along the coast of Vancouver Island.  The mountains are ragged, tall and snow-capped, just like in BC.  The winds whip up the straight and kick up a good chop just like they do at home.   The water and air temperature are a balmy 12oC (in mid-summer), boat-eating seaweed flourishes, and there are plenty of nooks to explore.

Who is winning?  Seaweed 1, Gary 0.

But, as we looked a bit closer, we began to see the differences. 

For example, the islands off Isla Chiloe, which look strikingly similar to the Gulf Islands at first glance, are not full of tourists.  They are inhabited by people who have lived and farmed there for generations.  While the odd foreigner makes the trek to the islands, the vast majority of visitors seem to be family of people that live there.  Unlike the Gulf Islands, there are very few cottages for wealthy “city people”, and the islands have a quaint, quiet vibe of people just getting on with their lives.  We visited the tiny island of Quehui (pronounce Q-E) and anchored in from of the town of 800 people.  Upon arriving on the beach in our dinghy, we were instantly welcomed (accosted?) by Ignacio and his brother Patricio who run a small café (from the living room of their house) that doubles as the tourist office.  While Ignacio didn’t speak a word of English, Patricio was learning and so we managed a stilted conversation about life on the quiet island.  Unfortunately his English was about as good as our Spanish, but we appreciated their hospitality and interest.  They encouraged us to return the next day for a lunch of “loco”, which turned out to be giant snail foot, served with lime and mayonnaise on top of a tomato.  Sounds weird, but it is apparently a delicacy that can only be found in southern Peru and Chile and is quite special.  It was actually pretty good and an experience unique to southern Chile.

Dr Suess tree

Another major difference is the flora and fauna.  While the landscape looks similar (rustic tree-filled mountains), the kinds of trees are completely different.  Instead of impenetrable groves of douglas fir, hemlock and lichens, here there are impenetrable jungles of Cypress, Laurel, Beech, Gunnera (looks like giant rhubarb), tree ferns, tussock grass and lichens. 

Peale's Dolphins leaping for joy

The animals are different as well.  While the South American Sea Lions are curious like in BC, they are HUGE and have enormous manes.  Nothing gets the heart pumping faster than looking behind your sea kayak and seeing six of them tailing you… 

Pods of the beautiful Peale’s Dolphin have visited us to play in our bow wave several times, and we were extremely lucky to see a rare Marine Otter (only 1000 left), which is smaller than its’ northern cousin but eats dinner on its’ tummy just the same. 
The rare Marine Otter

Imperial Cormorants
We are constantly seeing new kinds of birds, which keep us running for our identification book.  So far we have sea kayaked with Magellanic Penguins, watched Flightless Steamer Ducks running across the top of the water, been delighted by the antics of the black and white Imperial Cormorants, and been amazed by the Kelp Geese, where the male is all white and the female is predominantly black and brown.  The hummingbirds still go for lovely pink flowers like they do at home, but here they are the size of sparrows.  And then there are the Albatross.  Almost every day we have been entertained by watching these majestic beings soaring above the waves.  Watching them has saved my sanity more than once. 

It is still early days for us in our exploration of this lovely country.  The familiar surroundings make us feel comfortable and at home, while the differences are a delight to discover. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Astonishing Discoveries on Isla Mechuque

Village on Isla Mechuque
We had a lovely downwind sail on Saturday to our present location in a little bay in an island group off Isla Chiloe.  There is a small village across the water and the bay ends in a labyrinth of small canals that lead for miles in any direction.  The area is very pastoral and so we’ve been serenaded to sleep by the bleating of sheet and the crazy mooing of cows.  Oh, and the roosters seem to crow in the evening, not the morning here.  Maybe it is part of being upside down on the other side of the world.  It is a very quiet and pleasant place. 

What type of birds are these??
We discovered a couple of truly astonishing things on the way into the anchorage.  The first (and most important, in my opinion,) is that there are penguins close by.  As we were motoring into the bay I noticed a strange cluster of birds on the water.  We moved a bit closer, and yup, they were penguins!  Gary didn’t believe me (even though he was wearing his glasses), but I know a penguin when I see one.  After a quick circle of the group, we continued on our way.  Then, just when we were entering the bay and Gary needed me to keep an eye on the depth, there was another one, all by himself.  I quickly abandoned Gary to monitoring the depth alone and grabbed the camera to catch a few shots.  Only one worked.  But, afterwards even Gary had to admit that it ‘might’ be a penguin. 

View of pastoral landscape from the anchorage
The second astonishing thing was the realization that we aren’t the only boat out here.  It turns out that there are many Chilean Cruisers, and we might have found them all!   After several days of feeling like we were the only sailboat on the planet, we pulled into the anchorage and found several other sailboats already there.  The funniest thing was we actually knew three of them  from Club de Yates in Valdivia where we kept Sea Rover over the summer (their winter).  Small world.   As the anchorage we are currently in is both picturesque and very protected, it is popular.  We’ve had as many as 7 boats in the bay at one time.

Second small village up one of the canals
We’ve had a quiet few days here catching up on boat jobs, doing a bit of paid work (me), and exploring the area by dinghy and sea kayak.  It has been a restful time.  We’ve enjoyed watching all the birds, the most entertaining being the Flightless Steamer Ducks that run across the top of the water instead of flying.  Several of the pairs have babies, so it has been fun to watch them learn how to feed etc.  We’ve also enjoyed the antics of a new type of cormorant – the Imperial Cormorant.  They are beautiful to watch try to take off and dive for fish. 

Alas, it is time for us to move south if we are going to make it down to our ultimate destination of Laguna San Rafael.  Tomorrow we will head further down the island in search of better cell signals and internet.    

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Dashing Through Canal Chacao

Today we made the passage from the outer coast to the inner waters between Isla Chiloe and mainland Chile.  The channel (Canal Chacao) that separates the top of Chiloe from the mainland is about 15 nm long and only 2 miles wide.  As such, an enormous amount of water travels between the ocean and the inner sea 4 times a day.  Currents can travel up to 9 knots and so passage of the channel has to be carefully timed.

Not our max speed, but still a respectable 9.1 knots
As always, we did our homework and knew when we had to go through.  For once the timing was even in our favour – we were to leave the anchorage at 9am to arrive at the mouth of the channel at slack tide by 9:30-10:00.  We could then expect a tidal push through the channel for the next few hours.  All went according to plan, except we hadn’t quite accounted for the wind.  Well, that’s not strictly true, we knew a SE wind would suck once we got through the channel, but we expected the wind to pick up in the afternoon (as it usually does) when we would already be through.  Alas, it was not to be.  The wind piped up at 8:50am and was a consistent 15-20 knots from the SE the entire way through.

Needless to say the first 15 nm literally flew by.  With a reefed main and triple reefed genoa we reached a top speed of 11.6 knots while going through the narrowest part of the channel.  Definitely a wild ride!  Then we reached the inner side of the channel, where the 15 knot SE wind met the 8 knot W current.  Not a pretty sight, with big standing waves.  We got tossed around like a rag doll in the huge confused seas.  Not for the first time were we glad we have such a well found boat.  She managed the nasty 1.5 m swell at 1s intervals in style, burying her nose when required, but slogging through it all with ease (I’m glad I didn’t wash the dodger windows before we left the anchorage this morning). 
The only carnage happened down below, where in our haste to leave Valdivia on that good weather window a few days ago we hadn’t got around to screwing down the floor surrounding our salon table.  After hearing a crash below in one of the particularly large, nasty standing waves, we looked down to see our table, still attached to the floor, on its side.  

They all survived!!! Yippee!!

Luckily (or unluckily, as the case may be) it wedged itself between the two couches when it fell so it wasn’t going anywhere for the rest of the trip.  Amazingly, it’s cargo of 13 bottle of wine (glasss!), 2 liquor bottles (more glass!), 6 boxes of wine and 12 cans of ginger ale all survived completely unscathed (due to the excellent packing job I did in Valdivia before we left).  Phew.

After 30 minutes of really rough seas, we made it out of the standing wave section and just into the normal, crappy seas you get when you try to sail upwind against a 20 knot wind in an area that has a huge fetch.  Luckily we only had about 10nm to go to our next anchorage, where we took refuge behind some shellfish farms at the bottom of the bay.  It isn’t as picturesque a spot as some of the others we could have chosen, but it is reasonably protected from the wind, and has no swell.  Yippee!
Our shellfish farm shelter

So, another few lessons learned on this trip.  A good reminder that sailing upwind in 20 knots really, really sucks (especially in steep, short seas), and nailing everything down that can be nailed down has moved up a few spots on the priority list.

We will likely spend another day in this anchorage tomorrow while we continue to finish off our boat job list.  The wind is actually expected to blow from the north on Saturday (unheard of!) and so we hope to take advantage of it to move us further south and into some of the interesting islands down the coast.  We (even Gary) are “off” sailing upwind for a while…

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Exploring Chile by Land and (Now) Sea

The dinner "experience" at Peumayan Restaurant

In between getting the boat ready for our trip into Patagonian waters, we decided to take a couple of trips to see the country.  The first was to Santiago to meet up with our friend Dina, who was in town for work.  It was 33oC when we were there, so much warmer than we were used to!  We wandered lazily around town for an afternoon, ate ice cream, had sundowners  in a rooftop bar with a lovely view, and then ate a truly spectacular meal at a restaurant called Peumayan.  They specialize in authentic Chilean cuisine and served a 3 course meal that consisted of 22 “bites”. 
Amazing presentation 
Despite Gary’s initial concerns that there wouldn’t be enough food (we actually ordered an extra entre in anticipation that he’d be hungry afterwards), we had more than enough to eat (didn’t want the entre).  It was delicious!  We were lucky to get in as the restaurant only does one seating a night (it was a 3 hour meal) and they are normally booked well in advance.  Luckily, when one of their guests cancelled, we were in the right place at the right time.  If you are ever in Santiago, this restaurant is definitely worth checking out.  It was a true eating “experience”.

Moving too slow equals a kiss from the Ocean
On Dina’s day off we took the bus to Valparaiso for the day.  I’d read about the city in various novels and so it was on my bucket list.  Unfortunately I was disappointed.  It is a huge city built up the hillside and has a lot of really beautiful old buildings, but unfortunately they built the port right in front of all the wonderful waterfront buildings. 

The port in downtown Valparaiso

Now the view is of container ships and a big, dirty busy street and set of train tracks.  The waterfront boardwalk between Vina del Mar, just up the coast and Valparaiso ends at the beginning of town.  It is such a shame.  We read somewhere that people gave up on Valparaiso about 50 years ago and let most of the old buildings fall into horrible disrepair.  

House where we had snacks

For the last 20 years or so, there has been a movement to fix up some of the buildings and people do seem to be taking some pride in their surroundings.  There are areas where they’ve painted all the old buildings in vibrant colours, and there are several narrow “passages” that meander between the houses built into the hillside.  

It was interesting, but still not quite what I expected.  It is also the only place we’ve ever travelled where a local told us that the area we were in (the tourist area) was very dangerous for tourists.  At 4pm in the afternoon… 

Despite that slight downer, we had another great meal with a view of the whole bay, and thanks to the heroic driving of a collectivo driver, we managed to catch our bus back to Santiago.  
And no, we didn’t get mugged.

Bariloche region, Argentina
Our next trip was to San Carlos de Bariloche, which is a small town in Argentina just on the other side of the Andes mountains.  As Chile only allows visitors to stay for 90 days at a time, we had to cross the border to start our 90 day clock again.  As renting a car gets challenging when you want to cross a border (and expensive), we opted for the bus.  It took us 9.5 hours to drive there, but we had nice, lie back seats and enjoyed a nice, quiet ride.  The scenery through the “Region to los Rios” (River Region) in Chile into the mountains was spectacular.  The drive through the mountains was also pretty stunning.  Unfortunately the bus only stopped at each border (an interesting experience) and so we didn’t get to take any pictures. 

Stunning scenery
Bariloche itself is on a big lake that connects with at least 7 other lakes.  The town isn’t anything to write home about, but the area is beautiful.  It is a major ski area in the winter, but has recently become a summer destination as well, as evidenced by the billion tourists in town.  We stayed in a lovely hotel right in the heart of the city where we had a fantastic view of the ocean.  Their website claimed they had the best breakfast in Bariloche and they didn’t disappoint. 

As we only had one day in town, we decided to do the two activities that involved getting to the top of a hill so we could get a good view of the area.  We took the local bus out to the first hill, Cerro Campinario, about 20km out of town and then took a chairlift to the top of the hill.  We could have walked, but I’d burned my feet the day before the trip on either our boat deck or on a hot water bottle, I’m not sure which (yes, in one day the deck was hot enough to cook an egg during the day and it was cold enough at night to warrant a hot water bottle – gotta love Valdivia).  My sore feet were not happy to be in shoes, let alone hiking anywhere!  The views from the top were spectacular.  We finally understood why everyone kept telling us that Bariloche looks like Switzerland.

After returning to town, we caught another bus to the base of yet another viewpoint.  This time we took a gondola to the top of Cerro Otto.  The view from the top wasn’t quite as spectacular, but we spent a long time watching the paragliders taking off and circling around the top of the mountain. Very cool.
Our other town activities included eating in two great restaurants recommended by friends of Dina’s, and sampling the local ice cream - twice.  Bariloche has a big Swiss influence so there are chocolate shops and ice cream parlours on every corner.  Definitely my kind of town!

Fixing the Sailtrack on the mast
Alas, a weather window for heading south was shaping up for Feb 4th and so we arrived back in Valdivia late Saturday night, after a 2.5 hour delay waiting for the bus in Bariloche.  Despite the late night, we were up early on Sunday in an attempt to get the boat ready for the coastal passage.  As the wind blows from the south 99.9% of the time in the summer, finding a 30 hour period where the wind was going to blow from the north was like finding a pot of gold.  We had to take it.  So, we did a million last minute jobs, cleared out with the Port Captain and provisioned.  It was exhausting, but we threw off the dock lines at 11:45am on Feb 4th and started on our way!  It was sad to leave so many good friends in Valdivia, but we are all Cruisers so I’m sure we’ll meet again one day.

We headed down the river (against the current, of course) and sailed out of beautiful sunshine and 30oC, into fog and 10oC at the mouth of the river!  Brrrr.  The 135nm trip down the coast was uneventful, but very cold.  With the fog and the fact there was no moon that night, it was probably the darkest passage we have ever done.   It was very difficult to discern between the sea and sky. The only light was from the phosphorescence in the water, which was the brightest I’ve ever seen.  As promised by the weather gods, we had strong north winds the entire time and so we cruised along at 5 knots (should have been faster, but major current against us) and arrived in an anchorage at the top end of Isla Chiloe yesterday afternoon.  We are close to the town of Ancud and so we have marginal internet.  We took today off as a rest day (although Gary is in the back fixing the heater), but will continue through the pass and into the inner waters between Chiloe and the mainland tomorrow.  The pass runs at 8-9 knots and so you have to time it correctly.  

We had a nice, quiet night and morning at anchor, but it is now blowing >20 knots from the south in the bay.  We are definitely glad we made it here before the south winds started up again… 
Our Patagonian travels begin!