Monday, December 13, 2021

Fin del Mundo - Puerto Williams

Can you spot the Bonhomie de Nieve?
We actually started this blog post about Puerto Williams in March 2020 when we were preparing Sea Rover II for a winter at the bottom of the world.  When it became clear that 'a winter' might mean 'forever', we both felt less inclined to write about our this unique little town and our experience here.  But we should have.  

Our route through Chile.
 Puerto Williams 
is at the end of the red line

To set the stage, Puerto Williams is at 54o55'S, only 60 nautical miles from Cape Horn.  It is the town that is furthest south in the whole world (despite the fact that Ushuaia in Argentina makes this same claim, it is technically 5 nm further north!) It is located on the south side of the Beagle Channel, on an island called Navarino, 25 miles east of Ushuaia.  

Sea Rover spent the last 21 months at the Club de Yates, Micalvi, which is essentially a beached navy vessel (the Micalvi) that was turned into a club house for yachties about 20 years ago. Different from a typical yacht club that most of us are familiar with in North America, there are no docks here.  Instead, boats tie up 3 abreast to the side of the ship, and other boats tie up along side.  You end up with 3 'rows' of  boats, 7-8 boats deep.  As we draw 7 feet fully loaded, we needed to be in the deepest part of the inlet, which turned out to be right next to the Micalvi.  Before we left, we tied our 6 thick shore lines to the Micalvi, with enough slack to accommodate both high and low tides (as the Micalvi does not move with the tide).  Sometimes Sea Rover is 4 feet below the deck of the ship, and sometimes we can step off our deck onto the Micalvi's roof, depending on the tide.  Regardless, we are the anchor point for the 6 other boats rafted to the outside of us.  

No sailor here ever trusts someone else's lines!
As Puerto Williams is difficult to get to (by all means of transportation!) the sailors that make it here tend to be the cream of the crop (present company excluded). The benefit of being around such seasoned sailors here at the sunken Navy vessel is that even with 3 rows of 7 boats rafted outside of us, all lines are tied and boats are put to bed in a very seamanship manner. There is no need to suggest to any of the boats that they should add additional lines to shore... It's already done. When the wind picks up to 40+ knots there is no drama with boats swinging around wildly or sails coming unfurled. 

Micalvi in all her glory
We've been back on the boat for almost 2 weeks now.  Miraculously the engine seems to run and all other systems are operating normally.  The climate here is quite dry, and so the mold on the boat was kept to a minimum and for once there was not water in the bilges.  Our original plan was to take the boat 1200 nm north up to Puerto Montt this season so that we could pull her out on the hard.  We had two main concerns with this plan: 1) we only have 6-7 weeks to make it all the way north, which isn't quite enough time to do it comfortably; 2) our boat visa, which expires in February.  One of the reasons for coming to Puerto Williams in 2020 was that our original boat visa for Chile, which was issued in Easter Island, was expiring.  Foreign boats are allowed to say in the country for 1 year + a 1 year extension (usually).  At that time, you can re-start the clock on the visa by clearing out of the country, and checking into another country.  Once you've done that, you can return to Chile and clear into the country again for another 2 years.  The easiest place to do this is down here, where Ushuaia, Argentina and Puerto Williams, Chile are only 25 nm apart.  So when we arrived in Puerto Williams in 2020, we immediately cleared out and went to Argentina for a week.  We then returned to Puerto Williams and re-started the visa clock.  This is very straight forward when the ports are open.  This is not so straight forward when the ports are closed.  While Ushuaia is open, Puerto Williams is closed to foreign vessels entering the country. So we could go to Argentina but we would not be allowed back into Chile.  In our opinion, Ushuaia is not an ideal place to leave the boat for the winter as the docks and anchorage are extremely exposed.  Puerto Williams is much more protected and therefore a much better option.  As such, we have made the decision to keep the boat here for another winter instead of trying to take it to Puerto Montt where it would likely be more difficult to get a visa renewal.  If the port opens to foreign boats, we'll go to Ushuaia to reset the clock, and if it doesn't, we'll apply for an extension and see how it goes.   

We got lucky with our spot for the pandemic!
So we have some time on our hands.  We've been slowly putting the boat back together and recuperating from a very busy few weeks in Canada before we left.  We have been catching up with Cruising friends who lived here during the pandemic and meeting some new people.  And I've been working (I start vacation later today!!).

The end of the world.... literally.
Across the way from where we are berthed is a small sailing school where kids of all ages from Puerto Williams head out into the bay in Opti's, Lasers and J24's. The water temperature is 9 °C. The air temp is typically 14 °C at the height of summer.  The kids go out year round despite the snow and ice here in the winter. Obviously we were coddled too much as children...  Yesterday the club held a fundraiser for a regatta in Monaco in early 2022.  Our friends on s/v Zephyros, who lived here during the pandemic, invited us to lunch at the club to support the kids.  While chowing down on Pizza Centolla (crab pizza) and Choripan (chorizo sausage in a bun) we watched our Swiss friend Rene treat dozens of people who'd never set foot in a boat to an exhilarating 30 minutes of open ocean sailing in a 24-foot J-boat in 40 knots of wind.  I think it was entertaining for all! The day summed up our observations of the town perfectly.  Despite the fact that conditions here are often tough, everyone comes together and supports each other.

Our new "plan" for the season is to get the bottom cleaned to make sure we still have a prop, and then extricate the boat from the spider web of lines that is the Micalvi.  Assuming that we are successful, we'll then take the boat out into the Beagle Channel for a few weeks over Christmas/New Years to give her a bit of a shake down and to see how the engine holds up.  Then we'll bring her back here and work our way back into the Micalvi 'nest' and prepare her for winter - properly this time!  Assuming the pandemic cooperates this year, Gary will come down later in the season to fix a few things and hopefully restart the clock on the visa.  We'll then come down in the fall and start the trek north through the channels to Puerto Montt.  

But you know what they way about sailing 'plans' - they are written in the sand at low tide.  We'll see what the year brings.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Return to Sea Rover II – Part One


Four days, four flights, two PCR tests, eight serious document checks, many hours of lining up, thousands and thousands of encounters with people.  But we are in Puerto Williams, Chile, on our sailboat!!

It has been a long time since we’ve updated this blog – 21 months, in fact.  As with many people around the world, in March 2020 we found ourselves away from home and away from our boat.  We’d taken a Cruise to the Falklands/South Georgia/Antarctica at the beginning of the month, sailing in and out of Ushuaia, Argentina.  Due to the imminent locking down of all the countries in the world, the Cruise was cut short as they raced to get us back to Ushuaia before the world shut down.  We arrived back in Ushuaia on March 16th – unfortunately the Chilean border shut on March 15th.  So despite being only 25 miles away from our boat, we had no way to get back to her.  Once we realized that COVID wasn’t going to go away any time soon, we pivoted from trying to get back to the boat and concentrated on getting home to Canada.  After a few tense days with borders closing and flights being cancelled, we caught the 2nd last Air Canada flight out of South America on March 20th.  And then the wait began...

Like a number of countries in the world, Chile closed their borders to all foreigners.  The border opened for about a month in early 2021, only to quickly close when cases began to rise in the country.  Fast forward to November 1st, 2021 when Chile finally announced opening of the borders to fully vaccinated foreigners.  With conditions.  We booked air tickets and started the process of getting permission to enter the country.  We had to first apply for what the government calls a “Mobility Pass”, where we had to send proof of our vaccinations and proof of medical insurance.  After two weeks of scrutinizing the documents, we received our Passes from the government, conditional on having a negative PCR test upon arrival in the country.  The trip south was a “go”. 

After closing up our house, we boarded the red-eye to Mexico City on November 26th.  We had no trouble clearing into Mexico as they have no COVID restrictions.  The 2.5 hour wait to clear into the country at Immigration was just like any other year. People are clearly travelling again!  After a 12 hour layover (and a very stressful negotiation with the airline staff regarding our documentation – they didn’t think that the fact that my health insurance says that we are covered for “all diseases” included COVID…) we boarded the 8 hour overnight flight to Santiago.  After arriving in Santiago, we blearily stumbled off the plane Sunday morning and got in the first of many lines we would stand in that day.  Chile has very strict entry requirements and as such, have had to set up the infrastructure to support it at the airport.  The first line was to have our documentation checked (ie, PCR tests, affidavit stating where we would quarantine, Mobility Pass, proof of health insurance).  There were 100 kiosks set up (85 of which were staffed).  We made our way down the line and were eventually sent to one of the kiosks to undergo interrogation #1.  We got lucky and the person we dealt with was friendly and helpful.  It turns out we had filled our affidavit out incorrectly, but she just updated it with our hotel address with no fuss.  She then explained the quarantine system to us and sent us on our way.  One down.  Next we got in line for our PCR tests.  We eventually made our way to a set of electronic kiosks where we entered our info and were issued a sheet with the information required for our PCR test.  Back into another line.  We finally made it to the end of the line where our document for the PCR test was examined before sending us off to one of 60 individual testing rooms set up in the entry hall.  After the PCR test, we moved on to the Immigration line.  Since foreign travel is difficult, that line was relatively short.  After getting our 90-day tourist visas, we were finally allowed to collect our luggage and go through customs.  Happily the two Labradors patrolling the customs line did not target our stack of granola bars and we did not have to go through secondary inspection (another spot of luck).  So, 2.5 hours after we landed we were out of the airport!  We caught the free shuttle to our hotel to complete our quarantine.  We had showers and then slept for the next 7 hours. By the time we woke up, our PCR results had come back negative, meaning the end of quarantine and the activation of our Mobility Passes – just in time for dinner!

Flying over Tierra del Fuego on the way to Puerto Williams
We stayed at the hotel on Monday as we couldn’t get a flight down to Puerto Williams that day.  At 4am Tuesday morning, we arrived at the airport and were astounded to find 3000 other people all trying to check into their flights.  It was nothing short of a gong show.  After an initial panic thinking we had to stand in a lineup that was literally 500 people long, we found the correct (and much shorter) line and waited to check in.  We made it to the front of the line in an hour and successfully checked in with our Mobility Pass and Sunday’s PCR test.  As it was the first test of the validity of the Mobility Pass, we were relieved that the check in was smooth.  We had a bumpy flight to Punta Arenas, then had to show our PCR results to get off the plane.  We checked in for our flight to Puerto Williams. We had to show the Mobility Pass and PCR results while standing in line to check in, at the check in desk, and to get on the plane – no one says the Chilean’s aren’t thorough!  The flight into Puerto Williams was awesome.  The plane is a 19-seater Twin Otter.  We sat right up at the front and enjoyed the views of Tierra del Fuego.  
The Otter Awaits!

The Beagle Channel - Looking West
We had a great view of the Micalvi, where Sea Rover has spent the last 21 months, while landing.  We were hoping to catch a taxi at the airport, but I don’t think Puerto Williams is big enough to have one.  While we were standing outside trying to figure out whether someone could pick us up by boat (the airport is directly across the inlet where the marina is located), a couple of the airline employees came out and offered us a ride.  So, we met a couple of the locals. 

On Approach Into Puerto Williams

The Micalvi, Sea Rover's Home For the Last 2 Years, on the Left

We made it!  With some trepidation we got on board the boat…and were pleasantly surprised.  She actually looks pretty much how we left her.  More dirt, the dinghy was deflated, our gear tarp was pretty threadbare, but the canvas cockpit enclosure looked good and everything was right where we left it.  There was a bit of mold and things definitely smell musty, but so far so good.  We plugged in, got some water in the tanks, hooked up the propane and started to unpack.  So far we’ve sorted out the internet, bought a bit of food and sorted some of our clothes.  We haven’t looked at the batteries yet or tried to start the engine, so there are still a LOT of unknowns, and we really don't know what we are in for.  The next few days will determine what our future looks like...  Stay tuned for Part Two.