A few weeks ago we published an article about Puerto Williams, and on the following day we heard from Clare Allcard, wife of the centenarian Edward Allcard. Allcard was the first person to sail single-handed both to and fro across the Atlantic – or at least, he would have been if a young Azorean girl hadn’t stowed away in his forepeak on the last leg of that return voyage…
The year was 1950, and at that time a young Portuguese lady didn’t spend the night alone in the company of a man – indeed, Allcard tells us that it was against social convention for her even to accompany a man, unchaperoned, to the cinema – and so, as he says, this young stowaway’s whole life lay in his hands.
On the other hand, he definitely didn’t want this girl messing up his plans; and he definitely didn’t want to have to take her back to Horta, which would have involved a beat. By way of a compromise, he offered to drop her off at the island of Sao Miguel.
A flood of tears followed this suggestion, and he felt that he had been “an awful cad”.
This remark, and Allcard’s subsequent decision regarding this extraordinary event, define him more than anything else ever could:
“A gentleman should not take advantage of a girl, nor should he refuse any request from a lady. Therefore, strictly speaking, I could not refuse to take her to Europe.”
And so he did what he must do.
Or at least, he did what he felt he must do. There were others who felt that he either did too much or not enough, and it is said that he was black-balled from the Royal Yacht Squadron for neglecting to marry the young Azorean girl.
Funnily enough, she now lives just down the road from Edward Allcard.
And even more interestingly, the perfect gentleman’s subsequent attempt to sail single-handed around the world was also very nearly upended by a woman.
But we shall hear more of that another day.
It was in 1948, just three years after World War II ended, that Allcard sailed from Gibralatar to New York; and, it was in July of 1951 that he arrived back in England. In the course of his travels he had not only given safe transport to a stowaway; he had also survived one hurricane, several gales, a capsize, broken ribs, a near collision with a ship, a good deal of hunger resulting from longer than expected crossing times, and – on the final leg – a fever and illness which he identifies as hepatitis. Notwithstanding all this, and notwithstanding the fact that he wrote books describing his adventures, Edward Allcard is far less well known than other sailors who followed in his wake – and that despite the fact that he is the only one of the pioneer cruisers who is still alive!
It was Edward Allcard who took Peter Tangvald under his wing before Tangvald’s first Atlantic crossing, in the early fifties.
And Allcard had already completed his ’round trip’ one whole year before Edward and Susan Hiscock embarked on their first Atlantic crossing.
Even so, regardless of the fact that he was obviously someone to look up to, Edward Allcard never became the least bit cocky about his expertise.
Whilst still in New York and preparing for the return trip across the Atlantic in Temptress, Allcard had fallen in love – with another old wooden yacht. He considered her to be just perfect for his next project: the solo circumnavigation of the world via Cape Horn. The boat was called Wanderer – but Wanderer also happened to be the name of the little 21ft day-sailer with which the Hiscocks had recently voyaged to Ireland and Scotland. They were now having another boat built – the boat with which they were soon to cross the Atlantic and circumnavigate – and, naturally enough, they were keen to keep the same name. For two famous sailors to be cruising in boats of the same name would have been confusing… So, of course, when Hiscock wrote to him requesting that Allcard change the name of his 40 year old, well-travelled boat – a boat with which he had by now crossed the Atlantic for a second time – the perfect gentleman acceded with perfect amiability.
Mind you, changing the name of a boat which has already been launched is reckoned to be bad luck, and so the best that he could offer was a compromise: Henceforth, Allcard’s Wanderer became Sea Wanderer.
After giving Sea Wanderer a major refit, Edward Allcard first took her down to Tunisia and then, after spending some time there doing day charters, he sailed to the Caribbean. Then as now, a cruising yotty had to find a way to make ends meet as he travelled. Judging from his high code of ethics, and taking into account the merry wit which he displays in his writings, I would be surprised if his guests did not have a thoroughly enjoyable time.
Having spent a few years in the Caribbean and filled the coffers, Allcard was ready to embark on the adventure for which he had bought his new old boat. From the West Indies he sailed south to the River Plate, making the voyage in one long haul and taking exactly 100 days over it.
100 days is a long time to be all alone in a small wooden boat – particularly when the boat doesn’t even have a self-steering system – but Allcard does not appear to have felt the need for society, and he was perfectly content to spend 18 hours or more sitting at the tiller. (At night, if the weather was suitable, he generally hove to and slept.)
After subsequently spending a year on the River Plate, Edward Allcard and Sea Wanderer sailed south, took a turn around the Horn, and then headed up to Valparaiso – but within that brief sentence is hidden an action-packed adventure.
Cruising in an old wooden boat is a very different affair from cruising in a purpose-built steel one; and cruising the high latitudes was a very much more challenging and dangerous business in the days before sailors had access to weather forecasts and to electronic navigation equipment.
Truth to tell, Edward came perilously close to losing his boat and his life down here.
At the age of 95 – and having just sold his last boat and moved to a rocky roost in the Pyrenees – Allcard settled down to write the story of his South American cruise. And the book which he penned, based on memory and his logbooks, is soon to be published.
And what does all this have to do with Puerto Williams?
It has to do with the fact that, in sailing around the Horn, Edward Allcard didn’t simply do as other adventurous circumnavigators had done. He didn’t just fight his way around the Cape and hurry on his way. Rather, he came here, to Tierra del Fuego, to see the place.
In his youth, Edward had come across Lucas Bridges’ account of growing up amongst the Yaghan indians, and it was this, rather than the glory of being one of the first men to sail single-handed around the Horn, which lured him to this region. I think I’m right in saying that Allcard was the fourth man and the first Briton to sail single-handed around that great Cape – but that’s neither here nor there. More important is the fact that he was the first yotty to cruise this area. He was the first to hang out down here in the Beagle Channel for the better part of a year.
And it was exactly half a century ago that he opened up this territory to other liveaboard adventurers.
When Edward’s wife, Clare, got in touch, it was to send us some photos.
Some of the photos show Sea Wanderer anchored in Caleta Horno. Mollymawk was here exactly 50 years later, and, like Allcard, we had the place entirely to ourselves for a month.
Caleta Horno is completely unchanged except in one small respect. There is still no settlement anywhere near the cove, and there is still no trace of man – except in the form of some hideously unattractive graffiti! What sort of person would think to desecrate these beautiful cliffs?
We think that the culprits were probably Argentinian matelots; but just in case any of our fellow yotties should feel inclined to want to leave their mark here, before we left, we put a Visitors Book in a plastic box inside one of the caves.
We dedicated the book to Edward Allcard, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his visit.
From Caleta Horno, Allcard made his way south, eventually – after many perilous adventures – ending up in the Beagle Channel and in Ushuaia.
As one might expect, Ushuaia is very much bigger than it was 50 years ago when Edward Allcard knew the place. Then, it had only 3,500 residents; now it has over 57,000.
Allcard’s photo shows a few buildings on the waterfront and another row of buildings on the hill behind them.
The church is still there but it is now surrounded by buildings, and nothing else but the mountains seems to be the same.
I’m pretty sure that in Edward Allcard’s time the high street will have been just a muddy track. In those days, Ushuaia was just a sleepy backwater.
Now, it’s a busy ski resort, and the high street is lined with shops whose plate glass windows are stuffed with designer label gear.
However, there is one other thing which would be familiar to Edward.
I’m sure he would be surprised to hear that the tugboat which ran aground on the foreshore ten years before his visit is still here!
In fact, the old St Christopher, as she is called, is even nearer to the land now – and that, despite the fact that she’s never floated since the day she washed up.
The land has been enlarged, since the time of Edward’s visit, by the reclamation of a broad strip of seashore.
Somewhat surprisingly, Puerto Williams is not so changed as one might have expected after the passage of 50 years – or at any rate, the Chilean naval base at the west end of town hasn’t changed much in extent. It seems that the civilian end of town didn’t exist at all in Edward’s time.
Sea Wanderer is moored at the end of a jetty…
… and the same jetty is to be seen in this contemporary photo.
We were surprised to see that the church is also 50 years old. A few of the other buildings are also the same, but most seem to have been newly built on the same sites.
The red house is still there. It’s home to the commander of the base.
However, he no longer lives in splendid isolation. Many of the trees on the adjacent slopes have been cleared away, making room for half a dozen new bungalows for other officers.
Edward Allcard had a pretty rough time entering the Beagle canal. In fact, he nearly sank. He badly needed to slip Sea Wanderer, but the navy’s slip had been damaged and was out of service.
So he helped them to build a new one.
Finding the site of Edward’s slip was easy. The first clue is the commander’s house, which is just visible behind the boat.
But the best piece of evidence was the corrugated tin shed in the background of this photo.
It’s still standing. And in front of it one can see the hollow where Allcard built his slipway.
This next photo provides an overview of the area.
The slipway was immediately this side of the jetty.
The bungalows beyond the commander’s house and the green-roofed one in the distance are the only buildings which would not have been familiar to Allcard.
That green-roofed building is the world’s most southerly sailing school. It was built not much more than a year ago. It stands on the opposite side of the creek from the Micalvi marina – and that, of course, is another thing which would not have been here in Edward Allcard’s time. Edward had Puerto Williams and the Beagle all to himself, whether he wanted it that way or not.
According to the local history books, the Micalvi was placed in the creek in 1962 – but this photo shows that she was not. She may have been dedicated to that purpose in ’62, but the creek was still empty in 1966.
The world has changed a lot in the past 50 years, and no doubt it will change even faster in the next half a century. If we return in just 20 years time then, I suspect, we will find that the town of Puerto Williams has become a city rivalling Ushuaia in size. Already the government is building a big, surfaced road between Puerto Williams and the hamlet of Puerto Navarino, twenty miles to the west; and already they are selling off plots of land alongside this road. When the road across Isla Tierra del Fuego has been finished then there will be no stopping the developers.
More houses and more people will mean more cars on the roads; more businesses, more imports of food and other necessities; more fuel burned, more trees chopped down… In this region, wood is the main source of fuel for heating. Because of the climate, people keep their stoves burning pretty much year round – and yet the houses are not properly insulated and they don’t have double glazing.
200 years ago, Robert Fitz-Roy, in describing this region, asked himself – and asked the Admiralty – “Why on earth would anybody want to settle here?”
And when one examines the marks that man makes upon the world, one might almost say that the answer is, “To destroy it”.
The population explosion has yet to hit Puerto Williams, but one thing has changed here since Edward’s time: In his day the few remaining Yaghan indians were still living in wigwams.
Yaghan homes were traditionally built within the encircling wall of a pit – which this one is not. And they were traditionally covered with branches and leaves, whereas this modern one is built using a tarpaulin. The people had also given up wearing nothing but their birthday suits or a rag of seal hide.
I imagine this Yaghan couple must be long since dead and gone…
… but not so these three youngsters whom Edward photographed further along in his voyage through the Chilean Channels.
These barefooted children with their hand-woven ponchos must now be in their mid- fifties. One wonders whether they still live by the sea. And do their grand-children still wear these traditional garments?
I rather think not… but I shall be looking out for them – for these three, and for their ponchos – as we, too, head north through the canals.
Edward Allcard is now 101 years old. Details about his forthcoming book, Solo Around Cape Horn, can be found on the publisher’s website.
EDIT: Edward died just under a year after this article was published, in July 2017