Escape! (From Puerto Natales to Estrecho Collingwood)

Part One of the Tale of Mollymawk's Expedition from Natales to Eden

Having renewed our visas by nipping into Argentina for a couple of hours, we were more than ready to leave the so-called port of Natales. Alas, the weather – and the authorities – had other ideas. Whenever the wind is above force six the Armada shut this place; you can come in, but you can’t go out. It might be argued that there is good reason for this nannying, because some of the local fishing boats are really not fit to cross the adjacent lake when the wind is blasting over it and making it a bit lumpy, but for an ocean going yacht to be forced to remain at anchor in such conditions is… annoying. And it’s all the more annoying when the port is so perilous in a gale that to be at anchor is actually far more dangerous than to be underway!

Waiting with us in Natales were our French friends, Jackie and Juliet, from the yacht Cachoeira. They had allowed themselves just six weeks to get from here to Puerto Montt, and they were not pleased to be kept under lock and key. Six weeks for a journey of 800 miles seemed to us to be rather a rush job, bearing in mind that every inch of the way is scenic, and – more importantly perhaps – having regard for the fact that the wind was almost certain to be contrary. We were allowing ourselves the same amount of time just to get little more than a quarter of the distance, to Puerto Eden. Even so, we were itching to be underway.

Eventually – perhaps because they got tired of us pestering them every half hour to know when the port would be open – the Armada gave Mollymawk permission to slip away one evening when the wind was talking a break. It was back again the next day, but by then we’d nipped across to Caleta Delano; and although Delano is still within sight of the town it’s outside the jurisdiction of the port. Thus we had escaped and were on our way.

Bye-bye Natales

The next day we began our journey in earnest. Our aim was to cross the Golfo Almirante Montt (originally known as the Worsely Gulf, by the way) and then take the Santa Maria channel. Having passed through the White Narrows and on down the channel into the stretch known as the Paso Morla Vicuna we would spend the night in place called Caleta Whaleboat. That was the plan.

Unfortunately the weather once again had other ideas. Having left the shelter of Delano we found a healthy force seven blowing across the gulf and kicking up the sea; and it was right on the nose. Travelling with us was a young Chilean girl – one-fifth of a wonderful family of like-minded drop-outs who had entertained us royally in Natales. This passage was to be young Tania’s first taste of sailing, and we quickly decided that a thrash to windward, even over a sheltered sea, was a poor introduction. So, we aborted the plan and put into the adjacent bay – into a place known on the chart as Puerto Riquelme.
As ever, the puerto part of the name is misleading – this is just a farmstead. And the farmhouse isn’t called Riquelme; it’s inscribed with the words, Hacienda San Miguel. Port or not, and regardless of its name, the place provides very good shelter in the prevailing winds and we passed a tranquil night here. The only sign of life ashore was four-legged.

Tania, making her first voyage under sail

On the following day the wind was still contrary and blowing quite hard, and the forecast was for a gale – and it was raining. Nevertheless, we needed to be moving on. While we were crossing the gulf some Chilean dolphins came to pay us a visit, and we were surprised to notice a Comerson’s dolphin riding with them. We haven’t seen a ‘Commie’ since we were sailing down the coast of Argentina! Presumably this one had lost his own flock and, in his loneliness, had latched onto the company of these near relatives. I suspect that the two species can interbreed – I know that captive dolphins have bred with other species – and I wonder if there will soon be little piebald Chilean mestizos in the golfo.

Looking across the gulf towards the Andes

Having passed without event through the various narrows in the Santa Maria channel, we checked out Caleta Chandler; and then, having decided that it would not be a great place to be in the forecast south-easterly gale, we pressed on to Mousse. Caleta Mousse is one of our favourite anchorages.
As we entered the outer bay Tania spotted a group of dolphins foraging on the edge of the kelp. Considering that she’d never seen a dolphin in the flesh before this morning we reckoned that was pretty good work! The dolphins came rushing to see what we were about, and we quickly deployed Pina’s hydrophone. This time our visitors were Peales, a species very similar in its markings to the Dusky dolphin. They were probably the same ones that we had seen in this vicinity three months earlier – but since it was raining we didn’t get any very good photos and weren’t able to compare their scars.  (Dolphins inhabiting areas where there are lots of fishing boats almost always have damage to their fins, and this damage makes it possible to identify individuals.)

Having made ourselves snug in the inner cove, with the anchor and four shorelines, we took a quick walk on the beach. We were pleased to find that the hearth we built back in September was still there, but this time the weather wasn’t good enough for a bonfire.

Caesar evidently has warm memories of our bonfire in Caleta Mousse

The following day was spent snugged down in the cabin listening to the wind and rain. The forecast was bad on the next, too, but it seemed to the boys that the wind was down; and so we brought in the shore lines and hoisted the dinghy aboard. We started the engine and I was winding in the chain when, suddenly, Nick abandoned his post at the helm and shot below. It transpired that, just at the moment when he put the motor into forward gear, the gear-cable had broken.

Out went the anchor chain again… and Nick meanwhile disengaged the gears manually in order to stop our forward progress.  He was in favour of pressing on, under sail, regardless of the breakage, but it seemed to the rest of us that ‘twould be better to fix the darn thing here, in this snug harbour, rather than set out on a bad forecast and then have to enter some other place without recourse to those 120 horses. Most of these Chilean caletas are very tight, and getting in and out of them without an engine is not always easy.
So we stayed – we strung out the shorelines again. And before we had even finished that game the wind had doubled in strength and was sending baby williwaws across the stretch of water ahead of the boat.
So, you see, set-backs are sometimes life’s way of protecting us from something worse!

Caleta Mousse, with an immature williwaw setting off from the beach. These gusts of wind didn’t reach Mollymawk, at the back of the bay

By the following day the gale had passed, and we were able to press on with the journey. Waterfalls, like threads of white wool, were strung from the mountains on either side of the channel; and whenever the sun managed to poke a finger through the eight octas of cloud a rainbow popped up. Seeing the place in this dismal state, with clouds sitting on the mountaintops and hiding the snow, made us appreciate all the more the splendid fortnight of sunshine which we enjoyed here on our previous visit.

A rainbow stamps itself across the mountains in the Santa Maria channel

We bowled on, into the channel known as Paso Vicuna Morla, and passed Caleta Whaleboat.

(Note to fellow travellers – Caleta Whaleboat is not in Giorgio’s cruising guide. It is included in the RCC guide but is not named. It was discovered by William Skyring in about 1828. The Chilean charts show a ‘Caleta Whale Boat’ in the Paso Excobar Doxrud – which is the stretch of channel south of Estero de las Montanas – but Skyring’s account makes it perfectly clear that the little bay which he used and so-named is in the channel now known as the Paso Morla Vicuna. This is a good, secure anchorage.)

By the time we reached the T-junction at the end of the Vicuna Morla the wind had dwindled to a zephyr. There now occurred a Committee Meeting at which our fate for the next few days was to be decided. I was desperate to go back up the Channel of the Mountains. This place so enchanted me on our previous brief visit that I was very eager to have another look at its glaciers and explore some potential anchorages. However, the rest of the crew were for turning left and heading immediately for pastures new; so I lost the vote.

Mollymawk ambled south towards Sarmiento’s Ancun sin Salida. (Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Sarmiento and his ancun, cos I’ll be telling you all about him in a future article…) When we got to the bottom we found that, although there was almost no wind on our side of the mountains, on the far side, where the channel heads north again, it was blowing hard. Another quick poll was conducted. Two of us were for pressing on and beginning the journey up the Canal Union, two abstained from the voting, and one was for detouring and spending the night at Isla Jaime. And that one had the wheel in his hands, and that’s where he took us. So, you see, the Good Ship Mollymawk is not always a democratic republic.

We went to Isla Jaime – the island which lies at the bottom of that U-shaped channel which we had followed, four months earlier, in order to reach Puerto Natales – and here we found a fishing boat moored in ‘our’ berth. Her name was Santa Barbara. Chatting to her captain, after we’d dropped the hook and made ourselves secure with shorelines, we learnt that he and his crew were both divers. They’d left Natales earlier that day intent upon heading up the Canal Union to dive for seaweed. (I’ve mentioned this industry before, in another article.) Seemingly, they too had found conditions in the western half of the route intimidating; and hence they had stopped off at Jaime.

When we set out the following morning at seven the fishermen were still in bed – and we felt rather smug about that, since they’d said they were going to leave at six. There was still no sign of life aboard the little boat half an hour later when we returned, duly chastened. Beyond the shelter of the island a full gale was blowing.

The weather shore of Isla Jaime – and the weather which made us turn back

We spent the day walking in the rain and wind, and then Nick and Tania popped over to visit our neighbours – with a bottle of plonk. The fishermen’s accent was difficult to follow – even Tania found it difficult – but having lubricated them with wine our envoys were able to learn a little bit about their lifestyle.
Eager to encourage settlement in the Deep South, the Chilean government offers tax incentives and other financial rewards for anyone living and working in Tierra del Fuego or Patagonia – and the promotion of the seaweed harvesting industry is but one example of this scheme. Our two friends were taking full advantage of it. For the past ten years, the captain told us, he and his mate had been flying down from their homes in Puerto Montt, ‘fishing’ for twelve days, and then landing the seaweed in Natales – exchanging luga for lucre – and flying back home to their families. They told us that, indeed, very few of the ‘local’ fishermen are actually local; and, according to them, even those who have settled their families here while they work do not plan to remain forever. Apparently, it’s a case of “Get rich quick and then go north again”.

Luga grows at about ten metres, the men told us; and contrary to what I had imagined, they consider diving for it to be rather fun. They told us that they are often joined by sealions, which are very playful, and sometimes by dolphins. During their twelve days of work they aim to harvest eight tons of seaweed. What effect this level of ‘pruning’ might have on the fauna which depends on this type of weed, I cannot say – and I don’t suppose anyone else can either.
We asked the men what happened to the luga after they’d sold it, but their interest evidently stopped at the point where the product left their hands. They said that it was probably exported.

These two men were living in a space hardly bigger than a rabbit hutch – there wasn’t even enough room for them to lie down and stretch out – but they seemed content. During the four days of our enforced stay in Isla Jaime, while the wind continued to blow, they seldom appeared on deck except to grab another log for their wood-burning stove. They just sat in their cabin and… sat. They probably missed the telly – for in Chile, as in Brazil and Argentina, the telly is left yacking away to itself all day  – but, of course, there was no signal here, and so instead of the TV they had a radio. Its blather wallpapered their cramped cabin and crept out around the windows.

Looking out of the bay on the leeward side of Jaime. It’s plain that the gale is still blowing, although hardly a breath reaches our snug little cove.

Finally, on the fifth day, we could take no more of this inactivity. Not that we mind being stuck in one place as a general rule  – and the caleta at Isla Jaime is beautiful – but… the whole of Patagonia lay waiting for us!

When we cast of our lines the fishermen were still asleep – and that didn’t bode too well. However, outside we found that the gale had moderated. We now faced a slog into a mere force seven…
Since there was no possibility of making up under sail alone we opted to motorsail, keeping Mollymawk hard on the wind and following a zig-zag course but with the engine in gear and giving us an extra shove.

We had just cleared the island and were approaching the end of our second tack across the Union channel when Nick thought he saw a williwaw – a huge gust of spray-filled wind. When the williwaw vanished in a puff and another appeared nearby Caesar realised that we had come upon a couple of whales. We all tumbled up on deck and out into the rain and spray.
“Where? Where?”
“Fine on the port bow.”
“There! On the starboard beam.”
“Astern! There they are!”
It soon became apparent there were whales all over the place. As we watched the puffs of steamy air appear one after another or in twos and threes, we realised that the group swimming between us and the island contained perhaps as many as nine animals. We thumbed through our books, confident that we were seeing either Seis or Fin whales but unsure which. Alas, it wasn’t the weather for taking photos. In fact, it wasn’t the place for hanging about at all, because the island was not so far away and was now a nasty, knobbly lee shore.
“We need to press on,” said Nick, “or we’ll be spending another night at Jaime.”

Thar she blows!

By midday we were abeam of Caleta Fontaine – a bay on the eastern side of the channel – and not only were the whales astern of us still visible by their blows, there was also another pod in our vicinity. We tried to come up with them, turning the boat straight into the waves and punching forward as fast as we could; but in that sea we were still only able to do three knots, and Sei whales can swim faster than anything else. We couldn’t get closer than a cable (200yds/m) and at that distance, in that weather, the fins were the only thing visible.

The water all around us was now littered with Mollymawk‘s namesake – the black-browed albatross. There must have been five hundred of them sitting there, like daisies on a lawn; and there were also scores of giant petrels. Presumably both the birds and the whales were feeding on some kind of plankton bloom. We’ve read that the water in the channels is sometimes tinted red by masses of tiny ‘squat lobster’, but on this occasion it was just its usual grey-green. We thought about hauling up a bucket to see what was in it, but, as I say, it really wasn’t the weather for any fun and games. We did deploy the hydrophone for a spell – having reached Caleta Fontaine we felt that, if all else failed, we could duck in there for the night – but the motion of the boat was such that there was too much pull on the line and all we got was a recording of the thing vibrating in the water.

Caesar in his recording studio

Whilst we were engaged in this activity the view to windward vanished and a vicious squall bore down upon us. Happily, this assault proved to be the final tantrum from the wind. It was a short-lived affair and in its aftermath the sky ahead looked anything but threatening.  We put aside ideas of anchoring in Fontaine (lovely though it looked), turned off the engine, shook a reef out of the main, and continued to beat up the channel.
Two other yachts passed us, motoring downwind.

At the close of the day, and with the wind fizzling out altogether, we reached Caleta Dixon – a cove on the southern end of Isla Newton. And who should rock up, two hours later as night was descending, but our old friend Santa Barbara? It transpired that this was their ‘patch’. Their foraging grounds lay within the cove and amongst the islands which shelter it from the southerly winds, and tomorrow they would begin diving for their eight tons of algae.

For us this was new territory – Isla Newton just lies north of the channel which we followed when we detoured to Natales – and thus we felt that we had finally escaped from that neighbourhood and were on our way north.

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