To Cape Horn with Johnny Depp & General Pinochet

Trip Start Sep 22, 2007
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Trip End Nov 10, 2007


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Friday, November 9, 2007

Rachel's bold request to get more time off from her employer in order to go last-minute to Antarctica is turned down. So we decide to do something else memorable to round off our trip to Argentina. What could be more fun than sailing round Cape Horn in a yacht?

Cape Horn is a graveyard for ships. There is a map on Los Lupinos hostel wall that indicates with little red symbols each of the shipwrecks in the area. There are too many to fit neatly on to the map and the whole area around Cape horn appears asa bright crimson splodge.

Never having been on a sail boat before (except tooling around on surf cats in Western Australia), 5 days on some of the roughest seas on the world seems quite daunting.

But we find a few companies offering the trip and I reason to myself that it therefore cannot be that difficult. Most of these companies are small outfits; yachting enthusiasts who make some money from taking paying crew onboard for a few days. Clearly quite easy then...

Before leaving for our epic snow camp in the mountains behind Ushuaia, we contact one yacht operator, a German called Wolf Klosse, who runs these trips in his 13 metre yacht Santa Maria. http://www.simltd.com When we get back to Ushuaia we hear the good news that he can fit in a trip round Cape Horn in our last 5 days.
 
We walk the 15 minutes down to the tourist pier where Santa Maria is docked. The weather suddenly changes and we spend 10 minutes trudging through horizontal snow. We are used to this punishment in southern Patagonia.

At the boat we meet Wolf, the enthusiastic and friendly owner. For most of the trip we will be in the hands of Jochen, a 24 year-old dreadlocked German, who is 2nd mate. Jochen's dark eyes and the maritime setting make me think of Johnny Depp. The captain is George, a 58-year-old Chilean who's classic mustachiod looks remind me of General Pinochet. Wolf explains that a recent change in the law means that you have to have a Chilean captain on board when sailing in Chilean waters. Wolf managed to prise George from his precious king crab fishing boat in order to undertake these tours. Wolf is also annoyed at this change in the law since he's been sailing here for 15 years and knows the place like the back of his hand. He is dealing with the problem by applying for Chilean citizenship.

After a lot of waiting around, Argentinian immigration officials board to stamp our passports. Most of the sailing will be done in Chilean waters. It is strange to go through this procedure in the cozy atmosphere of the boat cabin. Everyone shakes hands and the officials disembark after Wolf pays the fees.

We set off into Ushuaia harbour. Theres not much to see due to clouds, but as we get out into the Beagle Channel the wind and waves increase and the views start to open up. Ahead of us is Isla Navarino where we will carry out the Chilean entry.

After an hour or two Rachel and I are glad that we took loads of motion-sickness pills: the Beagle Channel is really choppy. We soon arrive in Puerto Navarino which is a bit of a one-horse-town. Apparently three Chilean officials have to drive 2 hours from Puerto Williams to greet us here: one immigration official; one customs official; and the coastguard. By the time we anchor in the bay, its clear from the one car in town that the officials have arrived, so we lower the tiny dingy and chug over to the pier. We duly hand over our passports and there's lots of stamping activity as all red tape is completed. Another round of handshakes (and kisses for Rachel) and we're back on the boat. Wolf returns with the officials to Puerto Williams leaving us in the capable hands of Johnny Depp and General Pinochet.

In the afternoon we sail around the Eastern side of Isla Navarino in the Murray Channel that seperates Navarino from Isla Hoste. Hoste is an enigma. Stark white topped mountains rise up from the ocean and strands of dark green antarctic beach cling to the steep rocks closer to shore. No one ever goes there. Hoste is as big as Wales, and according to George has a population of less than 20. One of those inhabitants is his nephew, who is a sheep farmer. George explains that the mountainous terrain, wild weather, and lack of fertile land make survival there very difficult.
 
Due to the proximity of the land as we go through the channel, we do not put up sail, and instead chug along at 5 knots powered by the twin 55hp inboard Mercedes Benz diesel engines. This steel hulled yacht was built in Germany during the early 1980's and is a fascinating place to learn about boats. Rachel makes some notes about the peculiarities of this yacht by comparing it to the cosy interior of a caravan, her only point of reference. She likes the vacuum operated toilet, the diesel powered stove that runs 24 hours a day and keeps the cabin warm, the swivelling cooker that stays level when the boat rolls. It's easy to see how the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda loved the artistic quirkiness of boats. It is both stylish and functional.
 
In the afternoon I spend a couple of hours at the rudder. Its absolutely freezing on deck and I put on every layer of clothing I have including hat and gloves. Despite the cold I am fascinated by the stunning landscapes that we gaze at on Hoste and Navarino. At Puerto Corriente, where there is a lonely Chilean coastguard, the boat yaws uncontrollably at the tide surges through the narrow channel. Jochen laughs at the expression on my face as I try in vain to control the direction.
 
In the evening we anchor at Canal Canacus on Isla Hoste, where there is a sudden flurry of stressed activity to secure Santa Maria. We set the anchor and chain from the bow and carry two lines from the stern to shore using the dingy. It seems like a pretty secure set-up to me but 10 minutes later when we are enjoying a nice cup of tea theres a loud crash as we scrape some rocks on the shore. Jochen moves like lightening to start the engines and move us out from harms way. Jochen explains that there really wasn't enough anchor chain down given the depth of the water. George thought it would be sufficient. It seems, like the grinding of the hull on the rocks, there's occasionally a little bit of friction between Pinochet and Depp.
 
Rachel and I take the dinghy and (since its little outboard is knackered) row to shore and walk around a bit. The ebb tide has revealed rocks thick with giant mussels which look like the perfect dinner. It's a calm evening and the peaks of Hoste are reflected in the still waters. It feels like we are a million miles from anywhere on this primeval shore. A thickly furred fox spies on us from its vantage point in the forest. Its so peaceful here.

Back on the boat, we help Jochen prepare the dinner of beef stroganoff and rice. Its really tasty and we enjoy the banter of the evening with a few drinks. I ask Jochen about the mussels and he says they are poisonous because they concentrate certain toxins in the seawater. I'm not sure if this is true or if he says it because he doesn't like eating them. But anyway, since Jochen's cooking is so good and we have plenty of food on board, I decide not to interrogate further.
 
In the morning the weather is still fine but the wind has picked up. There's another bout of frantic activity as we all work together to untie and raise the anchor. Soon we are off through some narrow channels that George's intimate knowledge of the area allows him to pick out. Even Jochen is impressed.
 
After a morning of sailing we leave Hoste's white peaks behind and move into a larger open area of water called Paso Mantellero. A pod of Southern White Sided dolphins come alongside and Rachel watches then playing underneath and in front of the boat. The wind is good for sailing and Jochen carries out all the manoeuvres which add 3 knots to our speed. The boat keels over at about 30 degrees and occasionally moves to 45 degrees. On the increasing swell this starts to make me feel alarmed. But it is exhilarating. Albratrosses whirl and spin a few centimetres from the surface of the waves. They epitomise freedom.
 
In the evening we set anchor at Puerto Maxwell, in a small uninhabited cove on Isla Hermite. The nearer we get to Cape Horn the more stark and treeless the landscape becomes. High winds that blow for much of the year means that the trees stick to valleys and become increasingly stunted at the edges of the valleys. Much of the ground is covered in thick springy moss and heather-like shrubs. It is very like the islands on the west coast of Scotland.
 
Rachel and I take the dingy again and tie her up on a tree on Hermit Island. I try to use the knot that Jochen has just explained but it doesn't seem quite right. I resort to a good old-fashioned granny knot, repeated several times. Inelegant but effective.
 
We climb the nearest hill which I guess is about 300m high. The views over the surrounding islands under the darkening sky are wonderful. We hurry back down the slope, bouncing like zebedees on the moss. We spend another very pleasant evening eating and drinking on the yacht. That night the gentle rocking of the boat makes us sleep like babies in our bunks.
 
In the morning the wind has gone up a notch again and George says we have to wait before leaving to sail around Cape Horn. At about 10am we lift the anchor and prepare to set off. Two minutes later the hailstorm from hell strikes and we return to the shelter of the bay. Ten minutes after that George gives Jochen the all-clear to set off on the toughest part of the trip - Cape Horn.
 
We put up sail and the boat is pitching and rolling heavily. We are now subject to the prevailing winds and waves of the Southern Ocean. No more hiding in channels or in the lee of protective islands. Jochen explains that due to the heavy keel on this boat, the mast has to be 30 degrees under the water before the boat will completely capsize. This reassures me greatly concerning the stability of the craft and I start to enjoy our fairground-ride-in-slow-motion treatment, at the hands of the wind and waves.
 
We approach the rocky outcrop of Cape Horn from the West. It's a full time job just holding on to the boat, but George suggests we break out a bottle of champagne to celebrate reaching our landmark of Capehorn. The bottle is passed between Rachel and me to George as no-one can get the cork out with our cold hands. Eventually George  pops it open and we share a celebratory drink together. I limit it to two tumblers full, afraid that I could be violently sick in these stormy conditions.
 
Jochen radios the coastguard stationed at Cape Horn and we receive an invitation to come on shore and say hello. There isn't a very good harbour, so George stays in the boat just offshore while Jochen, Rachel, and I don the most waterproof clothes we can lay our hands on and set off in the little dinghy to the rocky beach. Fortunately Jochen has got the outboard working for the short trip. We scramble ashore and climb some wooden steps up to the lighthouse.
 
In this remote area of the world, there is a small chapel called Stella Maris where Michael Palin said a prayer before commencing his pole-to-pole trip. The wooden construction is really no larger than a garden shed and pretty bare inside. The pages of the bible on the alter have warped in the damp southern air. But this, the southernmost chapel in the world, does somehow feel like a holy place.
 
We cross into the coastguards house which is connected to the lighthouse and we are almost bowed over by the heat inside. Three days outside in windy conditions near zero degrees make it feel like a sauna. We meet the coastguard and his family staying here in isolation. They are surprisingly young and the coastgaurd's voluptuous wife is particularly beautiful. They stay here for a 15 month assignment and every 2 months they get a shipment from a Naval supply boat. Apparently they receive no perishable goods such as fruit and veg. The fresh oranges and pineapple that Jochen brings along are very warmly received. They stamp our passports with a touristic Cape Horn stamp and we buy some post cards which cost 10 times the normal price. The young lady smiles a big Chilean grin at me as I misinterpret the price, but her good looks and confidence prevent me from saying loudly: 'you want how much for these?'. Perhaps this couple were selected by the Chilean Navy because they knew they would have no problem keeping entertained on dark winter nights.
 
Outside the house the wind is howling and it has started to sleet. Rachel and I walk over to a monument on the headland. Jochen warns us not to walk too far because much of the island is covered in land-mines. These are a nice souvenir from the Chile/Argentina territorial conflicts in the 1970's. It was the Chilean's who planted them to blow up any potential Argie invaders, so they've only got themselves to blame.
 
Santa Maria sets off with a tail wind to find another safe anchorage for the night. It only takes us a couple of hours to reach Martial Beach. As we are anchoring a couple of friendly great skua's fly past and eat bread from our hands. This bay has a large sandy beach, so we anchor far from shore and Jochen drops us off so we can explore for a bit. He agrees to look out for us every hour to see if we are ready to return. After about 5 minutes of sunshine it starts to sleet heavily so Rachel and I abandon our walk and return to the beach. We inscribe the word 'listo' (ready) in 10 metre tall characters in the sand so that if Jochen looks up he will come and rescue us from the deluge. He does look up but sees 'usto', thinks we're having fun playing in the sand, and doesn't come to get us for 1hr. We are pretty wet when we get back on the boat.
 
Next day we continue back towards Navarino island, and, due to the wind direction, we sail around its eastern side. As we pass some of the small snow-covered islands of the archipelago George points out the odd abandoned cottage. These belonged to watchers, who kept their eyes open for Argentine invaders in the territorial conflicts that I mentioned earlier. George knows this place like his own back yard. He has been fishing for King Crab here since the 1970's when the industry was first started from Puerto Williams. Infact he was the first man to get a boat and fish here commercially.
 
Good progress that day means that we get all the way to Puerto Williams yacht club. Its really a surprise for Rachel and me to be back in Puerto Williams. We last came here 18 months ago to trek the Dientes de Navarino, and we didn't expect to be back. We tie up alongside Micalvi , a sunken naval supply ship last used in the 1950's, which now hosts the yacht club facilities and most-importantly Club de Yates Micalvi, where hardcore sailing types, returning from Antarctica and the like, hang out and drink. We didn't make it in here the last time we visited (due to falling asleep after 5 days trekking) and so we resolve to have at least one drink in this famous southern bar.
 
Wolf greets us once we arrive. His house is in Puerto Williams and he invites us up for dinner (albeit that Jochen has to cook it on the boat - but hey, he is Wolf's employee).  We meet Janet, Wolf's super-friendly Venezuelan wife who chats to us non-stop all evening. They seem like a nomadic family; their two kids rapidly switch between Spanish, German, and English. Wolf is concerned that the Chilean education system is failing his kids and he now uses home-schooling. He wonders where they should live in the world.
 
Wolf drives us back down to Club de Yates where I buy a round of its famous pisco sours. There's a few hardcore sailors in here tonight, and having been round Cape Horn, Rachel and feel qualified to join them.
 
Next morning we take a wander around Puerto Williams again. Its strange to be back in this, the most southerly town of the world. I find a shop selling nautical charts and buy one of the area for USD24. It has a stamp on it to say its approved by the Chilean Navy. We go to the museum again and find Rachel's comments from February 2006 in the visitors book, where she complained about a lack of English subtitles to the exhibits. Everything now has English subtitles much to her delight.
 
I enjoy looking at the display about the indigenous Yagan people who lived here for centuries before being wiped out 100 years ago, largely from Western Diseases. Despite the cold, these people wore no clothes, instead smearing their bodies in seal fat to keep off the rain. They always carried fire with then, even in their canoes, so that they could rapidly warm up. It was Magellan's sighting of these fires that led to this land being called Tierra del Fuego.
 
We have to wait around in the boat for the triple Chilean official delegation to stamp us out of the country. The last section of the boat trip in the afternoon is back to Ushuaia, and we arrive in the harbour about 9pm just as the sun is coming down and lighting up the peaks behind Ushuaia, on distant Hoste, and Navarino. The view from Ushuaia is simply stunning. A miserable looking immigration officer arrives at the boat and carries out the entry formalities. We say our farewells to the crew of Santa Maria and hike back into town. The trip has been a new and exciting experience for us.
 
Back in town we enjoy long warm showers at Los Lupinos and find a restaurant with King Crab on the menu for dinner. We order a whole King Crab to share. As the waiter takes it out of the tank, the customers from 3 or 4 more tables come over to take a photo. It tastes as good as it looks.
 
The next day after a quick scoot around Ushuaia's old penal colony we leave by plane bound for Buenos Aires and home. The flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires is horrendously delayed and we arrive in Buenos Aires at 2am in the morning. We are too late to go into town and so we sleep on a window ledge in the airport. It is more comfortable and quieter than some hostels I've stayed in. Next day we have an Alitalia flight to London via Milan. The service is probably some of the worst I've ever experienced on a plane. But we get back home OK.
 
England in November feels positively balmy compared to Patagonia. Even though we've been off the boat for days I still have an occasional feeling in the pit of my stomach that we are rolling on the seas. The sensation brings back happy memories.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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