Thursday, January 13, 2022

A Reminder of Why Most People Don't Sail Here - Part Two

January 1, 2022

We are hoping that how our year started is not an indication of how the rest of the year will go…

For our short trip this year we had hoped to loop around Isla Gordon and visit the glaciers in the North and South arms that lead into the Beagle Channel.  By January 1st it was clear that the weather was not going to cooperate with this plan as a series of strong lows were forecast to come through for the remainder of the week.  The first system was predicted to be a 961 millibar low. For those of you who are non-sailors, that is VERY big low and usually means you can expect very strong winds.  Our barometer was kind enough to tell us that a Cyclone was coming… The storm was expected to hit Tierra del Fuego on January 2nd.  The winds on January 1st were supposed to be light from the NE.  As Caleta Olla is not all that protected from the E, we decided we’d move 25 miles west to a small hurricane-hole anchorage called Caleta Cinco Estrellas. 

We woke up on January 1st to the bump of us running aground in Caleta Olla when the wind switched  to the NE.  Oops.  Luckily it was a soft bump and pulling in 10 feet of anchor chain solved the issue.  But, feeling that this was a harbinger of things to come, we decided we’d pull anchor and head to Cinco Estrellas.  As I pulled the lines from shore, Gary pulled in some more of the anchor chain.  While we were sorting out the lines on deck, a big NE gust came and blew the boat sideways.  The anchor dragged and we found ourselves beam-to on the shore.  Crap.  Luckily the mud was soft and we were able to back off without difficulty.  But still.  It wasn't yet 7am in the new year and we’d already run aground.  Twice.

We finally got sorted and motored out of the cove. The channel just outside the cove was a sea of white.  Hmmm, this was kind of unexpected based on the wind forecast (NE 10 knots).  But on we went.  Once out in the channel, the wind started off from the NE, but we were immediately bucking into 3-4 foot seas on the nose.  Wind against current?  We continued on. Another 0.5 nm further along and suddenly the wind was 20 knots from the W, so directly on the nose.  OK, at least this explained the seas.  Regardless of the wind and waves, we were actually making decent speed (4-5 knots) so we decided to continue on.  

Then the conversation in the cockpit went something like this:

Gary: Do you see that weird water thing over by the shore? What do you think it is?

Karina: It looks like a water spout.  


Karina: No, I think it’s a waterfall spraying up in the wind. 

Long pause.

Karina: No, it’s definitely a water spout.

And so it was.  For the next 2 hours we were hit by no less than 20 violent ‘rachas’ (ie, VERY strong 50+ knot wind gusts) in the form of visible water spouts.  If we’d stopped to really think about it beforehand we would have realized that NE winds would funnel down the glaciers on the north side of the channel and hit the water as violent wind gusts, aka rachas.  Rachas are a common phenomenon in Chile given the topography and typical wind strengths. We have spent our entire time in Chile so far avoiding anchorages reported in the guidebook to experience rachas.  And up until January 1st, we’d been mostly successful.  After January 1st though, I think we have experienced more rachas than most people in the world.  

GPS track through the Racha area - each arrow was a 'hit'
We had to pass three major glaciers over a 10 mile section of the channel, Francia, Italia and Allemande.  At the Italia glacier we went through a 15-20 minute stretch of being hit by 3-4 50 knot rachas, then got a bit of a break while we motored towards the next glacier.  At the Francia glacier, we experienced another 15-20 minute section of 4-5 50 knot rachas, then had another stretch of relative calm.  Not awesome, but manageable. Things cranked up a notch when we came the Allemande glacier, which is the biggest of them all.   The seas built to 7-9 feet and were coming off the north shore (versus from the expected direction of west) and hitting us directly on the beam.  The rachas were no longer showing up as water spouts on the water, but as huge curtains of flying foam.  Gary did his best to drive into them as much as he could, but we still got laid over on our side over and over and over again.  I counted 13 ‘squiggles’ on our GPS track while we passed this glacier, each representing a separate racha hit.  And most of them were in the 60+ range (our wind gauge doesn’t go any higher) and lasted a good 30-40 seconds.  It felt like it would never end.  Miraculously we didn’t lose anything off the deck, although our huge fenders were blown up from the water side of the rail and deposited on deck, and the BBQ was upside down.  And no, we don’t have any photos of the event.  We were too busy steering the boat, hanging on, and trying to calmly think through the series of things we’d have to do if (a) the steering failed at any point, (b) the engine failed, (c) the hard dodger and cockpit enclosure got ripped off.  All of these felt like very real possibilities while it was happening. 
Allemande glacier - it looks nasty, doesn't it?

And then, just like that, we were through it and the seas were calm with a gentle breeze against us. It felt like we’d just run a gauntlet of dragons… but, we survived.  While the crew were shaken, Sea Rover was no worse for wear.

Caleta Cinco Estrellas

We made it into Caleta Cinco Estrella, our chosen hurricane hole and prepared for the storm expected the next day.  We anchored and tied 5 lines to shore (after the morning we’d had, we weren’t taking any chances).  I went for a small hike and explored, then we hunkered down for the ‘storm’.  As advertised, the cove really was bomb-proof.  We had the occasional gust during the storm, but nothing menacing.  It snowed, hailed and freezing rained most of the storm day so we hibernated on board.

Entry to Caleta Cinco Estrellas after the storm deposited fresh snow

The next day we decided it was time to head back towards Puerto Williams.  The wind was from the traditional direction (ie, W) so we were pretty sure that the dragons would keep to themselves through the now-dreaded glacier stretch, but we were wary of any thing moving on the water, ie, sun beams, mist etc.  Thankfully our passage was smooth.  We had a very fast sail in 30 knot winds (from behind) so we had at least 1 day to remember that we were a sailboat.  We ended the day in an anchorage on the Chilean coast across from Ushuaia that we were hoping would give us some protection from the strong winds.  Although the cove was protected from the big seas, it didn’t offer any protection from the wind and so we spent the next 48 hours being blasted by 40 knot winds to the point where neither of us could hear ourselves think.  Luckily we were able to get poor internet from Ushuaia so we could entertain ourselves by working or finding the end of the internet.  And thank god for noise cancelling headphones.  They were a last minute purchase on this trip but were sanity savers.

I made Gary get up early (4am) on day 3 in the anchorage as the wind had calmed down and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to go.  The entrance to the anchorage is very narrow, with pointy rocks on and kelp on both sides so it is easiest to navigate in calm weather.  It took us an hour to remove all the kelp from the anchor, but we were on our way back to Puerto Williams by 5am.  And wouldn’t you know it, we had wind on the nose the whole way here.  East winds are very rare in this part of the Beagle Channel, but this is the second E wind we’ve had in this stretch of water… Regardless, we made it back into Port in time to see our friends on Zephyros off on their Antarctic adventure. 

Overall it was a good trip, but it has reminded us both how difficult it is to sail here, especially if you are trying to go west, which is of course the direction we have to go to get back north to Puerto Montt.  On the plus side, we’ve also been reminded how solid our boat is and know that she can handle whatever we are given.  We think we made the right choice not go north this year with such a short time window.  Our ‘plan’ is to sail north in the late winter/early spring next Sept-December, when the W winds typically
aren’t quite as strong. 

Happy New Year to all.






Sunday, January 9, 2022

A Reminder of Why Most People Don't Sail Here - Part One


Parasitic Darwin's fungus on a beech tree
After making the decision not to sail to Puerto Montt this year, we slowly started preparing Sea Rover for a short trip in the waterways of Tierra del Fuego.  We were pleasantly surprised that most of the boat systems seemed to be operating as expected.  We ran into an issue with our solar controller, but switching to new controllers solved the issue.  Even the watermaker seems to have come back to life.  We filled up with diesel, water, propane and food, and departed for a two week trip on December 23rd

It took 10 people and two dinghies to extricate Sea Rover from her spot deep in the boat raft at the Micalvi.  Unfortunately we don’t have any photos or video of the event as we were busy driving or fending our way out, but it was surprisingly undramatic.  It was a calm morning and so we expected to have a nice motor up the Beagle Channel.  Alas, as soon as we got out of the harbour the wind cranked up to 20 knots on the nose.  And so began our slow journey west…

Our first stop was 35 nm to the west of Puerto Williams at a pretty anchorage called Caleta Liwaia, more commonly known in the sailing community as ‘Eugenio’, named for the sole resident of the large island called Isla Hosta where the anchorage is located.  Eugenio’s Estancia (ranch) is located a few miles to the west of the anchorage and we saw his cows and sheep grazing the lands around the anchorage daily.  We even had a sighting of Eugenio himself on horseback surveying his territory one afternoon.  The cove is beautiful.  It has a nice, protected spot to anchor and secure the boat (2 lines to shore), and has easy hiking.  We enjoyed poking around the ancient forests and looking for beaver dams, which were not difficult to find.  The beaver was introduced to this area in the 1946 as a source for the fur trade and they have wreaked havoc ever since. 

We saw evidence of them everywhere, although the only two we actually saw were being separated from their pelts on the deck of a neighbouring sailboat.  It is legal (and encouraged) to hunt beaver in southern Chile and one of the locals is an expert.  He offered us some meat, but we said no.  I’m not sure we, as Canadians, are allowed to eat our national animal… What surprised us the most was the size of the trees the beavers were working on.  Some of the holes they were had made were the size of Gary’s head!

After spending Christmas enjoying the solitude of the anchorage, we started looking for a weather window to move to the next anchorage 25 miles west.  On what we thought was a suitable day, we got up at 4am, untied the lines, pulled up the anchor and hacked off the kelp in calm winds and seas, and motored out of the cove.  Within five minutes we were beating into 15 knots on the nose.  Then it was 20 knots.  Then it was 25 knots.  Then the seas started to build and our speed dropped to 2 knots while motor sailing.  After making it 5 miles in 2 hours we decided to turn around and go back to the anchorage.  It was still calm in the caleta when we arrived, but no sooner had we dropped the hook than the wind started to gust to 30 knots – and continued to do so for the next 30 hours without stop.  We did a few more boat jobs, including rigging the staysail as we realized that we were going to need a different sail plan this year compared to previously. 

Caleta Olla

The wind finally died down at about 4pm the next day so we decided to make a run for the next anchorage.  What a difference a day can make!  The channel was smooth and we had a nice evening motor, arriving in Caleta Olla just before dusk. Not surprisingly, we were greeted by a beaver while dropping the hook (2 lines to shore). We spent the next 5 days in Olla waiting for the next break in the weather systems which would allow us to continue west.  Despite being fairly open, the cove is surprisingly protected in strong (30+ knot) west winds.  There is a thin band of trees just off the beach that give an amazing amount of protection to the boats anchored just off the shore.  You can hear the wind in the rigging and you can see it hit the water in front of the boat, but no wind seems to hit the deck.  It was lovely.  

Guanaco on the beach at Caleta Olla

While we were there we took the dinghy over to the far shore of the bay and hiked up the hills for a view of the Hollanda glacier and lake.  It’s mostly open marshy field and pretty muddy going, but we saw a guanaco (llama-like thing), had a close encounter with a Caracara (hawk-like thing), and watched three Condors soar in the thermals.  It was a lovely day.

Hiking to the Hollanda Glacier

As it was calm on deck, we decided to set up our sea kayaks in the hopes that we’d have a few opportunities to use them at some of the glaciers.  Our last day in Olla started off sunny and warm (in our cockpit enclosure) so we decided to take the boats for a spin.  It took us half an hour to find all our gear (gortex paddling jackets, wetsuit pieces, kayaking boots, paddles etc) and get organized.  In our preoccupation with getting on the water, we didn’t really notice the weather.  No sooner had we paddled 100 metres from the boat when a squall hit with 40 knot winds that literally drove us into the river mouth across the bay.  It was like a big hand just lifted us up and pushed us along.  I’ve never experienced anything like it.  One minute all was calm, the next (literally) I’m back-paddling for all its worth trying to keep my kayak pointed downwind in 2 foot chop with spray coming off the top.  Crazy.  Thankfully it was pushing us into shore (albeit shore with a steep sided mountain that separated us from the boat) instead of out to sea.  We surfed into the river and paddled up as far as we could go before the current was against us, then slid the kayaks into some reeds to wait it out.  There was nothing else we could do.  I was wearing wetsuit bottoms and a long underwear top under my paddling jacket and had at least brought a wool hat, but Gary was only wearing fleece pants and a t-shirt under his paddling top.  It wasn’t long before we were both wet and cold. After a half hour or so it seemed that the wind was down a bit so we paddled to the river mouth to check the conditions.  Nope.  Back to the bed of reeds.  At that point we decided we needed to get off the water and start looking for shelter as it didn’t look like the weather was going to improve.  We found a small divet in the field behind a small tree and started to take stock of what we had with us (a camera – sorry, no pics!).  It was at this point that Gary mentioned that we had forgotten our lifejackets… Agggghhhh!  Things were not going well.  After getting reasonably settled, we realized that the wind had dropped a bit.  Should we make a run for Sea Rover?  We felt we had to try.  We dragged the boats back into the river, Gary took me under tow (he paddles faster and didn’t want to wait for me), and we paddled for our lives.  It was still windy, but the waves were down and it was probably only blowing 20 knots vs 40.  We slowly inched our way up the steep sided mountain shore and finally reached the lee of the trees and the safety of the sailboat.  We dragged the kayaks on board, changed into warm clothes and drank a lot of hot liquid.  By the time we’d warmed up the sun was out (of course).  But, 30 minutes later, the same type of squall came out of nowhere and hit the boat again.  Happily this time we experienced it from the safety and comfort of our cockpit!

And so ended the tumultuous year of 2021.

Caleta Olla and beyond.  River mouth on the right.