Southern Patagonia

Estero Fouque

I´m lying in the hammock on a perfect blue sky day in Estero Fouque, a long hockey-stick shaped fjord on the north side of Isla Hoste in southern Patagonia.  The air is still and cold, and wrapped in fleece there is just enough warmth from the bright winter sun to remain outside and appreciate the surroundings – on one side cascading glaciers, on the other a view along the fjord to a pyramidal mountain and the snowfield I skied down yesterday.

 Seno Pia, Western Arm
My mind drifts back to trade wind sailing in the tropics last year.  The wind blew from the North East at 15-25kts, 28C during the day and 22C at night, and passages were planned and plans followed with rare exceptions. On reaching our destination we´d drop the anchor, put up the hammocks, and enjoy a celebratory drink on deck.

Sailing in southern Patagonia is different.
Horizontal snow, 46kt wind, safe anchorage

From Puerto Williams, where Otra Vida has been based for the last five months, most destinations of interest are to the west.  The prevailing winds are NW-W-SW, 15-45kts in strength, southern ocean low pressure systems carrying snow, sleet or rain.  Heading west means making a dash between safe anchorages on those occasional days without much wind. Days with winds from the east, while not unknown, are rare. Sailing back to Puerto Williams is somewhat easier, but one quickly learns that easier is relative in southern Patagonia.

No, the weather is not the reason to be down here.  Everything else is. 

Perfect reflection in Estero Coloane
The scenery … well, I´ll be frugal with words and mostly let the pictures carry their own descriptive load.  We don’t have a thesaurus on board Otra Vida.  If we did, it would have been well thumbed by now, searching for new superlatives each day to describe the experiences of southern Patagonia.  After a few days on board it seems everyone ends up saying “Wow!”, “Oh my!”, “Holy shit!” or some other fairly meaningless exclamation.  Words simply aren´t up to the task of processing what our eyes are seeing.
Lovely still anchorage in Seno Pia, ice from the glacier floating past outside

When the sun shines and the sky is blue these places are magical on a level that is qualitatively different to the tropics.  The feeling of space and peace is huge, elemental, humbling.  Southern Patagonia remains almost untouched*, nature in a near pristine state, and you encounter situations that are difficult to fit into any normal definition of sailing or travel.  The experience can be transformative, sometimes other-worldly.

The same anchorage, rather more challenging conditions
Then there are the sailors you meet.  I first heard of the Micalvi Yacht Club, legendary bolthole for every sailboat down here, from an experienced Antarctic sailor almost a decade ago, and I was hooked.  He summed it up: “No one arrives there by chance, and everyone is interesting”.  It´s certainly high on the list of contenders for Best Yachtie Hangout in the World.

Evening beach fire, Caleta Olla
Seno Pia
However, there´s complexity in my feelings about Patagonia.  It is a place of genuine danger – not glamourised danger, like extreme sports, but tangible real danger of loss of boat and loss of life.  Cold, hard, wet, uncomfortable danger.  This is not hyperbole.  These situations are not theoretical.  In 2017 already there has been one occasion where loss of life for a person ashore was a probable outcome (that the person is alive today is a testament to the professionalism and air rescue equipment of the Chilean Armada), and three occasions where boat loss was a real possibility, one of which resulted in damage to the hull below water line.   To put this in context, in 40,000 miles of sailing over the last eight years, including five major ocean passages and well over a thousand nights at anchor, I cannot recall any situation where I felt even a slight risk of losing my boat.

The view skiing down, Otra Vida just visible to the left in the distance
And this sharp awareness of the contingent nature of life here is mixed with sublime appreciation for the inescapable beauty of Patagonia explored with a sailboat.  The glaciers, the hikes, the tranquil anchorages. Evening beach fires with driftwood.  Whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, guanacos.  Condors wheeling high above in an azure sky.  Hiking to a rock for chilly sunset beers overlooking glacial lakes, crenelated mountains, perfect fjords, sandy shorelines, windswept trees, spindly waterfalls.  Occasional solo hikes and dinghy trips, too.  These form a treasure trove of moments that I will carry with me forever, emotions so intense that tears easily rise up in my eyes.  These are times you don´t forget, ever.

There are many amazing places on this beautiful planet of ours.  I´ve been fortunate to experience some of them, and for sure there are many more still to experience.  But in quiet moments of late I´ve found myself asking a question over and over again, a question without an answer, a question that seems increasingly rhetorical: Where does one go after here?

Estero Fouque

* There´s a more nuanced discussion to be had on this subject, and I am not engaging in erasure or whitewashing.  For the record: yet again colonial westerners destroyed thriving indigenous peoples and cultures; the pursuit of profit by early fur traders resulted in non native animals being introduced, particularly beavers, damaging the ecosystem; the consequences of global warming including glacier shrinkage and changes in seasonal weather patterns are stark and unmistakeable.  Still, compared to the abuse we´ve inflicted on much of the planet, southern Patagonia remains relatively untouched.

Many thanks to Bodo Will for some of these photos.

4 Replies to “Southern Patagonia”

  1. A truly incredible journey, to experience such untouched lands. I too have dreams of spending a long period of time in Southern Patagonia, though more likely by land and not sea. Keep on posting, I love the pictures and especially your commentary!

  2. What a truly spectacular thing you're doing. You've inspired me more than I can say. I dream about learning to sail, and something like this is nearly beyond imagining. I spent time in Patagonia a few years back, and I would love to return. I sincerely hope that I end up in your part of the world someday. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  3. You have some real talent as s writer, some unusual and interesting life experiences, combined with a passion about Patagonia and its people. Put them all together and you have an interesting set of possibilities.
    Just a thought.

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