Capt. Jason Halvorsen was down below, eating lunch. He and his crew had just spent the better part of a day drifting in view of Chile’s Jorge Montt Glacier, which has a tendency to calve off icebergs. “The first time that it cracked, we all thought it was thunder,” he says. “The whole boat shook. And then sections would fall off of it.”
Halvorsen’s crew was still in the tender watching Mother Nature’s show, except for the first mate, who was at the mothership’s helm.
“All of the sudden, I heard profanities coming over our crew radios,” Halvorsen says. “He put the boat in hard reverse. I ran up just in time to see this glacier that’s half a mile wide with the entire face of it collapsing. It hits the water, and you think, Oh my God, there’s going to be a tidal wave.”
Halvorsen raced aft just in time to see the water around the boat—already choked with chunks of ice—deaden the splash. The crew swung by to pick him up in the tender, where he was ready with shoes that had bottom spikes.
“I ran over to what was now an iceberg—a chunk of a glacier that had broken off six minutes prior—and I was drinking water from it,” Halvorsen says. “Who gets to do that? It’s the purest water on earth. It’s been captured in ice for the last million years. It’s incredible.”
That moment was among countless memories Halvorsen carries with him from the 10-month, 16,000-mile cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Patagonia and back aboard the 141-foot steel-hull expedition yacht Marcato. The journey taught him lessons not only about nature’s raw beauty, but also about what it takes to go boating in a place that few recreational vessels ever cruise.
And in one key way, he says, he learned that there are times in Patagonia when it’s better to be aboard a much smaller boat.
The cruise was a journey of a lifetime for Marcato’s owner, who bought her in 2016, a decade after a Canadian scientist commissioned her from Hike Metal in Ontario. Halvorsen and his team refitted the boat to add creature comforts, took her with the boss to the Caribbean and then cruised to Bermuda for the America’s Cup in 2017.
But as they continued from Bermuda up to New England, the owner’s mind was heading in the other direction. He’d always wanted to cruise on his own boat through the Panama Canal and beyond to the Galapagos Islands.
“I said, ‘Yeah, we can do that, but if we’re going to do that, where do we go from there?’” Halvorsen recalls. “Somebody at Rybovich shipyard in Palm Beach [Florida] had introduced me to an agent from Patagonia. We chatted and had a nice lunch, and when they left, I kind of went, ‘Where’s Patagonia?’ I was thinking about the expensive store at the mall.”"
After two years of planning, they left Fort Lauderdale and explored Panama’s San Blas Islands. Next, it was through the canal and down to Lima, Peru, where they took some time to explore the 15th-century Incan citadel Machu Picchu. From Lima, it was a three-day run to the northernmost end of Chile. They based out of Iquique Bay, near the Atacama Desert.
“There are weather stations that have not seen any precipitation in 20 years,” Halvorsen says. “So most of the time, running down the coast, we were maybe 10 or 15 miles offshore—we could see shore, but there would be nothing green for days and days and days. It was just absolute desert. The crew and I, in Inquique, we hired a professional sandboarder. You go to the top of the dune, and it’s snowboarding, but it’s a desert.”
From there, it was a three-day run to the city of Coquimbo and Herradura Bay—a jaunt that saw the scenery turning greener and greener, and that led to one of the only places with any protection for Marcato along the route.
“There is only one marina between Panama and the tip of South America that can handle us, and there are very few anchorages on that run,” Halvorsen says. “It’s just rugged coast, and maybe a dozen anchorages where you can be truly protected from the Pacific Ocean, so you have to have the fuel range.
“There are ways to get fuel if you need to—you have to pull into a commercial shipping pier that might be sticking out into the ocean,” he adds. “So that’s very difficult.”
From Herradura Bay, they ran about 900 miles down to the northern end of Patagonia and the town of Puerto Montt, a leg that took six days at 10 knots. For Halvorsen, even before seeing the glacier, the feeling upon arrival was surreal.
“Even when we were going there, I was thinking, OK, we’re on the Pacific Ocean. We’re really doing this now,” he says. “But the boss still could’ve called and said, ‘Change of plans, we’re going home.’"
The marinas in Puerto Montt, he says, support the local salmon-fishing industry.
“We found it was a great place to get work done, to get things fixed,” he says. “I mean, if you need fine woodworking, I don’t know that you are going to find that there, but anything mechanical to keep you running, it’s a great place for it.”
From there, the journey turned inward to Patagonia’s fjords, glaciers and stunning encounters with nature. Marcato was there in January, which is summer; the temperature was about 60 degrees. While the mountains were snow-capped and the winds could whip at 50 or 60 knots, the waterways were always protected.
The problem Halvorsen encountered, though, was that Marcato’s 141-foot length overall made it challenging to find anchorages. The water is about 2,000 feet deep up to the edges of the fjords, he says, and squeezing into shallower spots was rarely an option for the big boat.
“If you’re there in a 50- or 60-foot Nordhavn or something, it would be a little easier,” he says. “There’s a book, Yachtsman’s Navigator Guide to Chilean Patagonia. They call it the ‘blue bible.’ For us, this book was almost useless. It was written by 30- and 40-foot sailors who could get into these tiny coves that we couldn’t get into.”
Another challenge, Halvorsen says, was knowing exactly where he was. Before the journey, Bluewater Books & Charts in Fort Lauderdale had helped him get charts from the Chilean government—a process that took four or five months—but those charts were created decades ago, when glaciers existed that are now gone.
“Even bridge electronics were very inaccurate,” he says. “There were times when we’d be cruising along, and it would think we were a mile onshore.”
The feeling of being alone in the world was palpable, he says. The distance from Patagonia’s top to bottom is roughly the same as the distance from Maine to South Florida. The whole way, Marcato encountered precious few other private vessels.
“There were four or five big explorer yachts, two big private sailing yachts, and then maybe a small cruiser or sailboat once in a while,” he says. “We did see a Nordhavn down there. Think about at most a dozen private boats between Maine and Fort Lauderdale. That gives you an idea of how remote you are.”
Every day, the Chilean government required Marcato’s crew to check in at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. with a position fix.
“When we started doing it, I thought, what a pain,” he says. “But then we’d go days without seeing a boat, and I wanted somebody to know where I was, that I was there.”
Farther south, they were forewarned about the English Narrows, the skinniest passage of the journey. But when they got there, Halvorsen was underwhelmed.
“Me, coming from Fort Lauderdale and the Bahamas, it was wider than most of the stuff I travel through on a daily basis,” he says. “I don’t know why they make such a big deal out of it, but they do.”
Beyond that was the Strait of Magellan and Carlos III Island, where the locals told Halvorsen to look out for whales.
“We stopped in that bay and probably saw 100 whales in an hour,” he says. “You could not look out a window on the bridge and not see whales. They were everywhere—breaching tails, fins, it was incredible. The locals told me they estimate about 200 or 300 whales at any given time in this bay.”
As Marcato approached the jumping-off point for Antarctica, weather forced the crew to turn back toward home. They returned through the English Narrows and, one night, found themselves about two hours deep into the fjords, searching for an anchorage.
“We jumped in our tenders and went maybe 40 miles in from the main channel, and it was so steep that we couldn’t get on shore, but we tied our tender to a tree and climbed up it and got to this clearing,” Halvorsen recalls. “Then we hiked probably 800 feet high, up the side of this mountain, and stopped at the ridge and took some pictures. At one point, we all kind of spread out. We could see each other but feel like we were by ourselves.
“I just laid there, looking at the sky and the snow-capped mountains, and I thought, There’s a really good chance I’m the first human to set foot here. Can I prove it? No, but that somebody would go this far up an uncharted fjord and then pick this spot on this ridge, probably not likely. It’s probably the only time in my life I’ll be where no other human has stepped foot. I just remember thinking, This is pretty special.”