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40-Foot Trawler Braves Cape Horn

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Helen and I looked at each other with that "do they know something we don't?" look, quickly followed by the "maybe we shouldn't be doing this..." look. But it was too late. We already had arrived in Ushuaia, the southernmost port in Argentina, on Beagle Channel, only 75 miles from legendary Cape Horn.

Helen White, my partner the past 12 years, and I had just reached the most southerly point on our so-far seven-year trip around South America. Our little ship and home the past dozen years is a 1976 DeFever Passagemaker 40, hull number 10-our Pelagic.

At that time of year in the Southern Hemisphere, summer was just getting started. The mountains that rise on both hands still were covered with snow down to about 200 feet above sea level and the air was a brisk 50/60 degrees most of the time. When the sun was out, which wasn't often, it had an intensity seldom experienced in other parts of the world. It was easy to believe there was a hole in the ozone when the sun hit you. I could spend weeks trying to describe the weather in any 24-hour period. That particular summer was a nasty one. As Hal Roth shared in Two Against the Horn, the water was flying through the air much of the time.

Battling The Strait Of Le Maire

The Strait of Le Maire lies between Isla de Los Estados (Staten Island) and the main body of islands that make up the Cape Horn group. Gales are almost constant, blowing from west to east, and strong tides also run from west to east.

Depending on the time of the month and the weather, there can be up to 8 knots against you in the strait. When the tide is with you, rips develop with 10/15-foot standing waves, very close together, overfalling. We had a tip from a sailboat crew who had done the trip the year before, that if we stayed close to the Tierra del Fuego side of the channel we could avoid the worst of the wind and waves. That is what we did.

We spent the night of January 2 in Bahia Thetis, just north of the entrance to the strait. At first light, we rounded Cabo San Diego and entered the Strait of Le Maire, hugging the shore just feet from the kelp that shows where the rocks are. Two hundred yards out in the strait, waves were breaking and we had southwest wind in the 40/45-knot range with snow showers mixed with rain. The tide was with us and in by shore it was fairly calm, so we were able to make a good 7 knots.

We got through the strait and around Cape Buen Suceso without any problem. However, once around the corner the coast runs west-east and a gale was blowing full force out of the west. We ran into Bahia Valentin for shelter and anchored in the large roadstead bay protected from the west but open to the south. I managed a trip ashore and to my delight found dozens of round, rubber fenders and floats littering the rocky beach, cast off by the Antarctic fishing fleet. I brought eight of the best back to Pelagic just in time for a wind shift from the south.

We quickly lifted the anchor and beat our way into a terribly confused sea. Because of all the kelp in the water, our stabilizers were useless. As night fell, we headed southwest into the storm able to make only about 2 or 3 knots. About 0300, the wind came around to the west again and we were forced to seek shelter in Bahia Aguirre, dropping anchor in the bight of Puerto Español at first light January 4, with good shelter from the west. We were 65 nautical miles from Cape Horn.

At 1400, after a much-needed rest, we got under way in bright sunshine and light wind to steam the remaining 20 nautical miles to the entrance of Beagle Channel. Ten miles after coming into the shelter of the large islands that protect the channel's entrance from the south, we anchored at Fondo Moat at 2000, January 5, in calm weather with complete protection. We had made it!

I don't think Helen or I ever have had as good a sleep as that first night in the Beagle Channel. All the stress of the two months' passage south fell away that night.

The Best Yacht Club Around

We finished the last 60 nautical miles to Ushuaia January 6. "Strange" best describes the system for coming and going at the major ports in the Beagle, thanks to continuing military tensions between Chile and Argentina. The two countries almost went to war a few years ago over some of the islands in the channel. When coming from Argentina and the Atlantic, boats must go to Ushuaia to clear for Chile, instead of going directly to Puerto Williams. This costs the cruiser 40 miles extra. Boats coming from the Pacific and Chile must go to Puerto Williams to check out before going to Ushuaia, again costing 40 nautical miles.

About every 10 miles or so along this stretch of the Beagle we passed outposts of the Argentinean and Chilean navies. Each called us with, "Please identify yourself," so we were kept busy practicing our Spanish with those crews. I think they are so lonely that when a ship shows up they just want to talk. Both the Chilean and Argentinean navies are courteous and helpful to foreign boats and despite the annoying restrictions, boaters are welcome to go wherever they can find shelter when the weather turns bad, no matter what their destination might be.

Ushuaia is a bustling tourist town with one of the most spectacular settings one could imagine. It is ringed by snow-capped peaks and forested valleys. A jump-off point for cruise ships bound for Antarctica, it has good facilities for large ships but almost nothing in the way of repair facilities or materials for small vessels. The prevailing wind is from the west and Ushuaia's harbor offers good protection in that direction. However, the bay lies fully exposed to the eastsoutheast and does not have good holding. Once or twice a month, easterly winds in the 60/70-knot range force anchored vessels to head 10 nautical miles west into Beagle Channel to find shelter. That's not fun.

Like most visiting yachts, we stopped only long enough to refuel, replenish supplies at some of the excellent supermarkets and then check out of Argentina for Puerto Williams, Chile. We topped off our fuel at the dock and discovered the price was subsidized to attract visitors. We paid $1.50 per gallon for diesel and the quality was excellent.

No ferry service exists between Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, so when travelers want to make the trip, the port captain advises them to ask yacht captains for a lift. The "ferry fee" is $50 per person and we took a couple of cyclists aboard, picking up a quick hundred bucks.

Puerto Williams is primarily a Chilean naval base with a civilian population of mostly support personnel for the base. The Yacht Club there is aboard the sunken supply ship Micalvi. This club is one of the best we have ever visited. The old saloon and wheelhouse now serve as a bar, lounge, library/book-exchange and meeting rooms, decorated with photos and flags of yachts from over the ages. Add to this a fireplace and overstuffed chairs-well, you get the picture.

Winds That Can Knock You Flat

Pelagic was quite an attraction among the sailboaters at the club-a cruising powerboat among so many masts. They were seasoned veterans, most of them on world-rounding voyages. However, all agreed that the Chilean channels were the perfect place for a trawler like ours. Sailing is almost impossible due to sudden strong gusts, called katabatic winds or rachas, that can hit at any time. Because of the high, steep, surrounding mountains, these winds can and do at times come straight down to knock you flat. We saw 30-ton sailboats disappear in an explosion of spume, knocked 90- degrees flat with the mast in the water. Motoring is the safest way to get around. Pelagic is good at doing that with some measure of comfort.

Most recreational trawlers like ours weren't insulated at the factory, and with large windows we had a tough time heating while at anchor. We had lots of condensation also, due to the constant rain and snow showers. We have since added foam insulation and a wood-burning stove to keep the boat dry, as well as doubleglazed windows.

Risking Death And Destruction Off The Horn

While snugly tied to Micalvi, getting some much needed rest, our daredevil friends of the sailing community kept working on us to join them for a "quick run down and around Cape Horn."

"Just come as far as Bahia Nassau and see us off," they said, referring to the 20-mile stretch of open water between the Horn islands and the next set of islands to the north.

So, off we went, three charter sailboats and our little trawler, back east and out of Beagle Channel into Paso Picton, then south into Paso Goree. We spent the night at the southernmost port in South America, Puerto Toro, a king-crab fishing port at latitude 55° 05' S. With two 5- gallon buckets of crab supplied by local fishermen, the sailors joined us aboard Pelagic for a crab meltdown. The next morning, with a good forecast for the next six hours, we stuck our bow out into Bahia Nassau. There was light wind from the west at 5/10 knots and a 2/3-foot southwest swell, light rain and snow showers. How could we not go?

Helen and I sat together at the wheel and held our breath for the next four hours, our excitement building as we got near to Isla Wollaston, then Isla Herschel and finally Caleta Maxwell on Isla Hermite at latitude 55° 50' S, only 12 nautical miles from Cape Horn. We rafted with the charter boats as close to the rocks as was safe, each boat with two anchors over the bow and three shorelines astern. Then we waited for dawn.

February 7. Gray sky, low cloud cover, rain and snow with sleet, wind 15/20 knots, gusting to 30. At 1000, with the other boats, we took in the shorelines, picked up our ground tackle and left the protection of Isla Hermite. The swell was out of the southwest at 15/18 feet with 3/5 feet of wind waves on top. With the Cape Horn current assisting us at about 2 knots, we were able to make 8 knots across the bottom.

At 1245, as is the custom, we called the Cape Horn lighthouse keeper with our position. "Latitude 56° S, longitude 67° 16' W, directly off Cape Horn. We wish you a good watch. Good day from Pelagic."

We ducked between Isla Herschel and Isla Deceit and kept on going across Bahia Nassau with the wind now 35/40 knots from the south. We reached the safety of Beagle Channel again at daylight, and by noon were tied up beside Micalvi, safe again in Puerto Williams. We were lucky.

That night, we had a rounding party in the bar aboard Micalvi, taking turns boasting about how we cheated death and destruction at the hands of Mother Nature off Cape Horn. Not long after, the same charter boats were pinned down for two weeks in Caleta Maxwell by 80/100-knot winds and forced to return without getting outside for a look at the Cape. Yes, we were very lucky.

The Finest Cruising In The World

But through our years of cruising we have learned from hard lessons and trials and tribulations while at sea and I believe we were well prepared for the Cape Horn rounding. Helen and I have developed trust in our ability to handle problems that come along.

We know there will be problems and almost always from an unsuspected source. Trusting your ability to get out of situations is very important to this lifestyle. Most vital systems give plenty of advanced notice something is wrong. We have learned NEVER to ignore these notices.

What is amazing about what we are doing is the boat. She is such a wonderful machine that can take a tremendous amount of punishment and keep on functioning well. Even when we make mistakes, she is quick to forgive. We have learned to trust her to take care of us in the worst seas. All she asks is that we not push her hard. For every sea she has a preferred speed. When we find that speed, we are almost always comfortable, although Helen is subject to mild seasickness so she crawls onto the bed when waves get too large.

Stabilizers are a wonderful invention.

As summer drew to an end in March, Helen and I were preparing for the 1,500-mile trip north through the Chilean channels to Puerto Montt where we planned to spend the winter.

We no longer gave each other that look when we heard, "You came down here in that?" In fact, Cape Horn aside, it had become a mystery to us why we hadn't seen any other powerboats in what is, without a doubt, some of the finest cruising in the entire world.

I am excited to bring this story to you because it highlights once again the underlying strength and ability of a "normal" traditional trawler, and shows just how much we can accomplish without million-dollar exotica.

Remote exploration from the comfortable platform of a modern trawler yacht. There is sufficient room for long-range fuel stores and full-time provisions and supplies. And comfort afloat does make a difference.

These are regular folks out there having the time of their lives...a marvelous adventure! What could be better?-BillP.