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Expeditions around Cape Horn

Ever since I wrote about the Cape Verdes we’ve had people contacting us to ask about charters amongst those islands… So, before I embark on this expose of chartering around Cape Horn and to the nearby glaciers I should like to make one thing clear:
We do not do charters to Cape Horn.
We do not do charters to the glaciers.
In fact, we do not do charters. Not to anywhere. Never have; never will.
But there are people who do organise what are known locally as Expeditions around the Horn and to the glaciers. Or at least, there were until a few weeks ago… This article explains who these people were and where they went; and it also seeks to explain why any would-be ‘Cape Horners’ might have a hard job, this coming summer, in finding someone to help them fulfil their dream.

Basically, it’s a problem of legality. Or, as the Expedition yacht owners would say, it’s a problem of Chilean bureaucracy.
Here are the facts, in as much as I have been able to unravel them from the tangled vine of myths and rumour:

1. Whereas the journey around Cape Horn is but a two or three day trip from the town of Puerto Williams, and whereas the glaciers towards the western end of the island of Tierra del Fuego are reckoned to be amongst the most scenic in the world, Europeans and Americans and others of a similar ethnic origin have long been interested in visiting these places; and to that end, certain individuals have provided a service whereby they welcome guests aboard their yachts and take them for a ten or fourteen day trip around the said Horn and to the said glaciers. And this has been going on for more than 20 years.

Pelagic was one of the first yachts to offer excursions in this region.

Significantly, most of the people operating these Expedition Cruises have been part of the scene throughout this whole time – one of our acquaintances has now been round the Horn 85 times – and although their boats may not always seem to be the best suited to high-latitude sailing these people jolly well know what they’re up to. Moreover, with the exception of a couple of ‘business-is-business’ types, they’re a friendly crowd of one-time liveaboard cruisers who recognise passing yotties as their kin and who open their arms to us.
In other words, this is not a tooth-and-claw situation, of businessmen moving in to make a fast buck from tourists. Rather, this is a case of a handful of ordinary folks who have fallen in love with a place and who have found a way to make their passion pay for itself.

2. Now we come to the serious stuff.
The problem is that Chilean law forbids foreign vessels to take paying passengers – and this, regardless of whether the yachts are registered as ‘commercial’ in their country of origin.

3. Meanwhile, Chilean law also makes it almost impossible for a Chilean to own or run a charter yacht. The hoops are too high and too small.

4. Supposing that a Chilean national or resident manages to fulfil all the requirements and succeeds in registering his boat as Commercial, having done so he then faces stiff penalties if he should want to cross the channel from Puerto Williams to Ushuaia. Commercial craft entering Argentinian waters are required to pay for a pilot, and the costs for this are said to be astronomical.
According to the grapevine, this unreasonable charge is levied because the Argentinian authorities want to make life as difficult as possible for the Chilean authorities. Whilst one can see no reason why two neighbours who have historically contested ownership of the Chilean islands should not now bury the hatchet and get along famously, one is obliged to admit that the evidence does tend to support this negative view.

El Mago del Sur and her skipper are famous amongst Argentinian yachtsmen and have made many trips to the Falklands and Antarctica, but during the 2015/16 season their activities were curtailed by red tape - www.magodelsur.com/travesias.htm
El Mago del Sur and her skipper are famous amongst Argentinian yachtsmen and have made many trips to the Falklands and Antarctica, but during the 2015/16 season their activities were curtailed by red tape.

5. Every now and then over the course of the past 25 years the Chilean authorities have threatened to clamp down on illegal charter yacht activity; and every year, having blustered thus, they have turned a blind eye and cooperated with the yotties.
Every year, that is, until this one.

Ever since the beginnings of this game, the foreign charter yacht owners have attempted to persuade the authorities to regulate this situation and to make it possible for them to operate legally – but to no avail.
So, it’s not that the foreigners don’t want to pay whatever dues the Chilean authorities might deem suitable; it’s that the authorities won’t even discuss the matter.

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Icebird makes a couple of expeditions to Antarctica each summer and has been known to run expeditions to the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego.

The Chilean navy’s policy has always been one of saying no whilst winking. Before embarking on a trip through the channels or around Cape Horn, each member of the crew of every yacht is required to sign a document in which they declare that they are not paying. This was the accepted norm, and everyone was confused but content – until April 2016.

6. This summer, for the first time, the Chilean navy refused to issue zarpes (clearance documents) to any vessel suspected of operating for commercial gain. Thus, numerous tourists who had forked out thousands of pounds or dollars for the adventure of a life time, in the form of a passage round Cape Horn, found themselves fobbed off with a holiday amongst the glaciers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the glaciers. In fact, after you’ve been round the Horn you realise that the glaciers are actually the bigger deal. But only afterwards.

Towards the end of the season, the biggest and best known Expedition yacht was even being refused zarpes to visit the glaciers, and so she had to make do with trotting to and from Punta Arenas. The other operators had already given up and gone elsewhere; and elsewhere is where they’ll stay if things don’t change.

Explore is an ex-Challenge yacht, built for thrashing round the world in the Southern Ocean. She and her skipper have spent several seasons in Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego but will not be working in the south in 2016/17 - www.xplore-expeditions.com/
Xplore is an ex-Challenge yacht, built for thrashing round the world in the Southern Ocean. She and her skipper have spent several seasons in Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego but will not be working in the south in 2016/17.

7. The town of Puerto Williams has its origin in a naval base, but the threat from the neighbours having diminished, the base has accordingly been reduced in size, and more than half of the town’s population is now civilian. Those civilians who are not involved exclusively in the self-perpetuating business of attending to each others’ needs earn their bread and butter from the tourist industry – and the charter yacht scene is the main element of this industry.
To take just one example – the biggest and best known of the Expedition yachts is reckoned to spend 100,000 US dollars each summer in the town’s grocery stores. And that’s to say nothing of how much is spent on fuel, or how much the punters shell out in the hostels and restaurants.

Just as the government of Argentina actively encouraged the expansion of Ushuaia, so too the Chilean government is hoping and planning to see Puerto Williams grow. But it’s difficult to see how they will do this without developing the scope for eco-tourism – after all, there’s nothing else here but trees and mountains and the sea and Cape Horn – and it would surely be very much against their interests to kill the golden goose of the foreign charter yacht industry without having first reared their own bird.

'Vaihere' is well known in this region. Rumour has it that she will still be taking guests to Antarctica in 2016/17 - http://www.vaihere.com
Vaihere is well known in this region. Rumour has it that she will still be taking guests to Antarctica in 2016/17.

According to the rumour, everything went awry when a certain person made an official but anonymous complaint against the navy’s practice of issuing zarpes to foreign commercial vessels. Seemingly, he wasn’t actually targeting the charter yachts. The local gossip has it that he was hoping to establish a ferry service which would operate between Ushuaia and Puerto Williams and that he wanted to make trouble for certain Argentinians who had been ferrying people across the channel by yacht. This makes sense. Relations between the two nations being somewhat fraught, there is, at present, no regular ferry service from one side of the channel to the other. Rather, tourists wanting to travel from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams, or vice versa, must journey via Porvenir and Punta Arenas. To those unfamiliar with the lay of the land this will be somewhat meaningless, so by way of comparison I should explain that this is the equivalent of standing on the shore at Portsmouth and being told that if you want to hop across to the Isle of Wight you’ll need to first drive to Bristol and then take the ferry round from there. Small wonder then that on the jetties on both shores of the Beagle – in Ushuaia and in Puerto Williams – there are always backpackers pacing about urgently, seeking a ride across the water. And small wonder that a couple of enterprising Argentinian yotties decided to fill the vacancy and bridge the gap.

'Mollymawk', alongside the Micalvi, is dwarfed by the 'Expedition Yachts'
Mollymawk, alongside the Micalvi, is dwarfed by the ‘Expedition Yachts’

Foreign yotties too have been known to make a quick buck taking newly-made friends for an outing from one side of the Beagle to the other. Each new friend signs on the dotted line to say that he isn’t paying a penny for the ride – as per the requirements of both the Chileans and the Argentinians – and he then makes a donation of 100 US dollars towards the upkeep of the ship.
This is all very well, but a couple of the yachts taking part in this game were very small, and one found oneself wondering whether they really carried enough safety equipment for ten crew. To us, it looked like a disaster in the making. One could envisage the headlines…

During the 2015/16 season, when there was no ferry, this little Argentinian yacht filled the gap and carried people to and fro between Puerto Williams and Ushuaia
During the 2015/16 season, when there was no ferry, this little Argentinian yacht filled the gap and carried people to and fro between Puerto Williams and Ushuaia

But the Chilean authorities appeared to have no inkling of this problem. Provided everybody signed their bits of paper they were content – until Mr Would B. Ferryman poked his spanner into the works. Then, with the threat of legal action looming, the navy simply shut down the whole circus.

As we see it, there is a very great need for a reliable and safe ferry service between Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, and we wish that Argentina would cease from its apparent objective of obstructing tourism on the Chilean side of the water. But we also see why, as rivals in the game of attracting foreign money, it is not in their best interests to let their opponent thrive; so we don’t expect an early resolution to the problem.

That, however, is largely by the way.

Further rumour has it that the person who started all this trouble has been somewhat negatively affected by its outcome – besides owning a ferry he also has a restaurant, or so we hear – and thus he was apparently very happy to add his name to a petition asking the authorities to revert to their ‘blind eye’ approach.
There’s even a rumour which says that the authorities have agreed to this request.
The problem is that the men who run the Expedition Cruises are no longer willing to gamble their business on nods and winks. Having been bitten they’re feeling shy, and they want written assurances – or so the latest rumour has it. And, of course, those assurances will not be forthcoming.

'Santa Maria Australis' is one of the best equipped and most seaworthy yachts operating in this region. Besides making several trips to Antarctica and South Georgia she has also circumnavigated the Americas via the North-West Passage - www.simexpeditions.com/index.php/en/our-expeditions
Santa Maria Australis is one of the best equipped and most seaworthy yachts operating in this region. Besides making several trips to Antarctica and South Georgia she has also circumnavigated the Americas via the North-West Passage.

As of July 2016, the rumour is that the next season’s Expeditions will all be to Antarctica. Furthermore, we hear that certain well-known operators have decided to relocate their business in Ushuaia.

Is the goose dead…?

Maybe. But it is only a rumour…
Even so, if you’re keen to earn the gold earring, or if you were hoping for a holiday amongst the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego, we recommend biding your time and hanging onto your deposit until the dust has settled.

One Comment

  1. A particularly illuminating article to read as I was struggling with travel plans for this area! Thank you Jill for the insights you offer.
    With best wishes –

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