Sitting in my apartment in Stockholm looking at the snowfall outside the window trying to collect my thoughts around that I just came home (after catching the last plane for the night from Frankfurt before the airline chaos continued as the snow fall picked up again) from a two and a half month in Patagonia. It is an experience of a life time for sure, and one that you really have to love sailing, nature and roughing it to be able to enjoy it fully. Did I? Well, in hindsight in a snowy Stockholm definitely – when in Patagonia, sometimes I did and sometimes I did not.
I will continue to update my blog with a more chronological way with more details, but while waiting for my luggage (that got lost on the way back from Ushuaia but was found again and is supposed to be delivered to me today if the traffic chaos in the snow storm permits) I write more in general terms of the adventure.
The two unique features for sailing in Patagonia are the nature and the weather. The Andes reach all the way to coastland and are creating exciting fjords which cuts through the mountain range. You sail in canals that can be only 5 nautical miles wide but has a depth of over 300 meters and snow caped mountains in sight that reach over 3 000 meter up in the sky. The vegetation is lush (due to the exuberant annual rainfall) and trees and bushed grows all the way down to the water. The vegetation together with the steep hills makes it extremely difficult to explore the interior and most of the area has not has human influence ever as far as I know. The whole high land in the south have a huge ice cap which means that every here and there glaciers are reaching down to canals. It is a bit dangerous to get to close since they frequently break up part of the ice in a noise reminding you of an explosion. If a big chunk is dropped the wake can be big if you are to close, but they are magnificent to look at from a distance as well. The glaciers together with the high mountains give the scenery a majestic look. And the wild life is plentiful, especially if you like birds. We often had company by albatrosses and labs that could follow us for days. We often saw penguins in the water. And there are some unique birds for the area, we saw a couple of steamer ducks that for example that get their name from how they transport themselves with their wings as paddle wheels. But of course my favorites are the dolphins that at time came by to visit several times a day, but could also be absent for several days. And the seals where also fun to see even if they were not as frequent guests, as the sea otter.
The weather, apart from the plentiful precipitation (annual precipitation of over 3 000 mm, about 5 times of that of Stockholm (about 500 mm), the weather changes makes it a challenge to sail in Patagonia. We are talking about southern latitudes of between 40 and 55 degrees south, and they are not called the roaring 40:s and the screaming 50:s (and furious 60:s for those who sail the Drakes passage to Antarctica). The only thing you know for sure is that at a steady stream low pressure systems with cold fronts will pass the area, usually every third of fourth day. This means prefrontal rain (or hail or snow) in a north to northwest blow will be released by less rain and a wind usually picking up further and turn southwest to west (after front passage) and finally the wind will subside and hopefully the sky clear up a bit for a day before the next front pass. Sometimes a high pressure moves in and temporary block the low pressure tracks, a welcome break in the precipitation. In principle the same pattern like in Sweden with the difference that the intensity of the low pressures are bigger and more frequent, the wind stronger and the rain more intensive. And especially in the channels where the weather and wind is affected by the mountain range (both in a good way – giving lee, and in a bad way – giving strong mountain winds the so called rachas (williwaws)).
These weather conditions mean that when you are sailing you always have to be prepared for fast changes. A lot of the canals (fjords) can be very broad and 200 nautical miles long, so in half an hour in a heavy blow a nasty sea can build up. At the same time it will calm down with the same speed. You also have to anchor prepared for a storm. The good part is that the strong winds (in spring/summer) always come from the same direction – from north/northwest by west/south west. We get weather reports from Navtex and through a network that are in contact via short wave radio, but they are not reliable since changes happen fast. So the most reliable tool is the barometer where you can read the pressure changes and thereby see if a low pressure is approaching and how much it is expected to blow (how fast the pressure changes). And the usual store is often either to little wind for sailing or too much for comfort.
Since the canals stretches in a north to south direction (apart from Magellan sound and the Beagle channel in the very south which is more west to east stretch) you always get the wind with you when you sail from north and then to the east as we did. So we only used the roller furling genua (fore sail) by rolling it in and out depending on the wind strength. When coming in for anchoring in the chosen bay (caleta as it's called) the procedure was to scout the anchorage and decide how to proceed. Apart from the anchor we never had fewer than two lines ashore, often four, to be on the safe side for heavier blow. And this even if it was dead calm when we arrive. Since I had back problems (I did a magnet scan of the spine in Puerto Montt hospital after the back locked and it showed nerves being pinched so I have had painkillers the whole trip) and Milo is very apt to climbing (being a retired ballet dancer and Green Peace activist with over 30 missions under her belt where climbing often is a part of the mission) she took care of rowing the lines ashore and climbing the shore line on slippery stones exposed by the tidal range to find a good tree to tie up to.
Once settled I "built" a wind cover from the cock pit awning to prevent the heater chimney from being reached by too much wind. To have the diesel heater going was vital in the latter part of the trip since it was raining and blowing a lot then and to avoid everything being soaking wet down below. At the same time Milo was starting the heater. Often we had to put it out during the night of safety reasons since the insecurity of it going out involuntarily or not. Then it was time for making dinner and since we were quite soon out of fresh produce and nowhere to restore there was a mixture of cans as gravy/sauces to pasta, rice, couscous or mashed potatoes. None of us liked to cock and considering that I think we succeeded in eating OK the whole trip. We only had breakfast and dinner, and some snack in the day. In the beginning when we had a lot of nice weather with no wind and sunshine we could make a sandwich. But further south wind heavy wind and constant rain we tried to avoid going down below to not wet everything down so some fluid, nuts and chocolate bar was prepared for the trip. The day trips varied from more than 10 hours to half of that depending if the caleta (bay) was 20 or 50 nautical miles away. We averaged around 5 knots.
Apart from a frustrating wait in Valdivia for non-south near gale force winds the start of the trip was fantastic. The first couple of weeks we had mainly no rain and light winds. The first week or so after Puerto Montt it was clear blue skies and warm weather. It was not until the end of the trip and we got closer to the Magellan strait that a persistent blow and rain kept us for 7 days in one anchorage and 5 days in another (and a couple of days in several others) waiting for a weather gap. Even if the prognoses looked good when we left after the blow sometimes it developed to continue to be nasty. But I will go in details about the trip step by step later.
When I left Ushuaia we had covered more than a 1000 nautical miles (approximate around the whole of Sweden's coast line. They scenery had been breath taking and although worries about not coming home in the time span planned and the back problem constantly present, the trip was fantastic. The sceneries breathtaking, the nature life spectacular and sailing with Milo was a pleasure. I have learned a lot of new things, especially how you can live onboard a boat with a minimum impact on the environment, but also ideas of how to do things. Everybody who have sailed knows there are as many solutions on a boat as there are boat owners, and I might not always agree with everything, but I have got a lot of new aspects. Coming from charter boats that are bigger in size and has a different budget this type of cruising was a good experience. And most important, Milo and I never really disagreed on anything that dealt with safety. We reasoned in the same way and a mantra we had was that although we were pressured for time we would not let that affect our decisions. And the waiting gave us a chance to great conversations and me to read over ten books – a mixture of novels, fictions and facts. And we had very few incidents. Dragging the anchor in a storm, a ripped fore sail, almost losing the propeller shaft, flipping the dinghy over in a gale in the Magellan Strait and getting the anchor line tangled in the propeller shaft (in 8 degrees water temperature) are the only close calls. But I come to them as the whole story unveils.