Beagle Channel: An Icy Shangri-la

Imagine careening down a narrow channel through the mountains with the wind whipping spray off the waves and throwing it hard at you. It’s cold and the spray stings your face. With just a scrap of a headsail, it’s difficult to slow the boat below 7 knots as you try to navigate a reef-choked channel attempting to find a protected anchorage where you can spend the night. As you round a corner into a narrow inlet, the wind drops to a whisper, giving you a chance to gather your wits and gain your bearings.

You creep a little farther into the poorly charted inlet. Close on both sides of the sailboat the mountains tower into the clouds. Looking at the deeply scoured granite cliffs, it’s easy to imagine the grinding retreat of the glaciers. Small tortuous trees appear to cling delicately to the rocks.

Farther ahead you see a small nook scarcely larger than the boat. You let fly the anchor and back slowly into the diminutive nook while your crewmember urgently rows a line to shore. With the anchor down and a single line ashore, you are safe from drifting up onto the rocks. After weaving a spider’s web of shorelines, you feel confident that the boat is secure for the night.

Off the bow, the short horizon disappears into a gray languid mist. In the morning, the mist has cleared and the immensity of the snow-capped mountain range is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The Beagle Channel, south of Tierra del Fuego, offers just these challenges and surprises, and it is an oasis for sailors, hikers, climbers and naturalists alike.

The gateway to this icy Shangri-la usually begins at the brightly colored little town of Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, Chile. Puerto Williams is an eclectic clash of cultures where we met the last descendants of the Fuegian Indians weaving baskets, fishermen mending traps and armed military personnel walking around in uniform. The tiny, yet secure harbor is home to the most southerly yacht club in the world, and it is a melting pot for sailors who gather here before or after a foray to the Antarctic, Cape Horn, or the Chilean Channels.

Armed with a domestic zarpe, Chilean military exit papers, we decided to embark westward on a calm and frosty morning. The weatherfax indicated that we were in the center of a strong high-pressure system, so we were sure to have calm conditions, as opposed to strong westerly winds that typically ravage the channel. We slipped the lines early in the morning and motored past the sleepy town, slowly making our way out into the Beagle Channel. In the distance we saw a spectacular panorama of snow-covered peaks awash in an array of pastel colors. Edith and I looked at each other and without saying a word, we knew there was nowhere else in the world we would rather be than right here in the Beagle Channel during winter.

Westward bound

Our destination was Caleta Olla, 55 nm to the west, where Isla Gordon divides the Beagle Channel into the Northwest (Brazo Noroeste) and Southwest Arms (Brazo Suroeste). As we motored along we could hear donkey-like braying from the common Magellanic penguins. In the crystal clear waters, we were able to see the penguins dive down and fly by as if performing an underwater ballet. As we passed the restricted Canal Murray on the west side of Isla Navarino we could not help but feel the presence of the Fuegian Indians. We tried to imagine what the famous naturalist Charles Darwin had seen during his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle in 1833. The indigenous Fuegian people carried fire everywhere they traveled, even in their canoes, and this is why Captain Magellan called the area Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) in the 1520s. It was hard to imagine how a population of thousands was reduced to only one woman, who now lives in Puerto Williams. As we contemplated the demise of the Fuegian Indians a loud “FFFWWEW�VbCrLf startled us back into reality.

A Humpback whale had just surfaced off the starboard bow. We throttled back, grabbed the camera and headed for the bow. We could see this graceful behemoth gliding just below the surface, spreading out his long white pectoral fins as he arched his way toward the boat. He passed underneath in a slow spiral motion, and we were able to see the large pleats under his mouth. He surfaced again, sending a large spume of water particles that hung in the air like glistening jewels. He lifted his massive tail fluke out of the water and was gone as quickly as he had appeared.

It was getting dark and we still had not arrived at Caleta Olla. As we passed the lighthouse at Punta Yamana, the radio crackled to life and we heard a woman’s cheerful voice. After we provided the mandatory boat information, we had a friendly chat and discovered that she and her family were posted at the secluded lighthouse for one year. Other lighthouses, like Punta Yamana, rarely have visitors and will fend for themselves for months at a time.

After passing Punta Yamana, we slipped into the narrow channel behind Isla Diablo (Devil Island), where our speed dropped from 6 knots to 3 knots, as we pushed against the strong tidal current toward Caleta Olla. By this time it was completely dark and we crept past the reefs and sandbars under radar alone. Once in the bay, we deployed our dinghy and readied the shorelines. We sounded cautiously into the bay until the bottom shoaled rapidly from 9 to 2 meters, which prompted a quick about-face. We motored out about 50 meters and let fly our anchor and backed Zephyrus toward shore. With the chain taunt and the stern toward shore, Edith quickly rowed a line ashore and secured it to a large tree. A few minutes later, the second line was fastened and we were finally safe for the night.

With the engine off, we sat on the bow and admired the moon as it crept above the mountainous horizon. As we soaked up the surroundings we noticed clouds were blotting out the stars and small zephyrs of wind were creeping across the deck. Chilled by the cold night air, we slipped below to see our diesel heater casting a soft yellow glow across the cabin. It felt magical to have our snug little home nestled in such a majestic area.

Late in the night, we woke to the sudden heeling of the boat and the shrieking of wind in the rigging. This signaled the end of our glorious high-pressure system and the arrival of an intense low. The winds outside continued to increase and our previously tranquil anchorage was whipped into a cauldron of spray. Approaching williwaws (wind gusts) signaled their arrival with a steadily increasing crescendo of thunder until finally the boat lurched over onto its side with the sound of stretching shorelines resonating throughout the hull. Confident in our anchoring techniques, we dozed in and out of sleep as the rain-filled rachas buffeted the boat.

In the morning, we were greeted by a glorious sunny day. Eager to go ashore, we launched the rowing dingy and loaded our day packs that contained the necessary clothing and emergency supplies for all weather conditions.

Across a bog

Closer inspection of the forest revealed a dense stand of twisted beech trees. The branches and trunks were intermittently encapsulated by different species of lichens, mosses, mistletoes and ferns, creating a complex mosaic of grays and greens. As we entered the forest, it felt like we were walking on a waterbed. We encountered a large multicolored peat bog that expanded for more than half a kilometer. We soon realized the different colors represented different species of mosses and plants. Most mosses are incredibly fragile and grow slowly; therefore, a footprint will remain unchanged for years after a visit. Many such misplaced footsteps would destroy the pristine nature of this area. We quickly learned which were hardy enough to walk on without leaving a footprint.

After a quick game of hopscotch across the bog, we turned our efforts toward a gully that divided two peaks. After 20 minutes of scrambling, we were at the top of the steep terrain and were blessed with a spectacular view of the Beagle Channel and our boat securely anchored in Caleta Olla. Wa felt like we were the only people on the planet.

We plodded farther up the gully and past cascading waterfalls, where we encountered trails made by guanacos, the southern equivalent of the llama. These trails made walking easy through the impenetrable undersized beech forest. At the top, we encountered a picturesque blue-green alpine lake surrounded by a cirque of steep granite
s that were broken by a large cascading glacier. After a much-needed lunch break, we headed up the east ridge of the cirque to a point that offered spectacular views of the Holland Glacier below.

The following day was as beautiful as the last, so we ventured across the bay in search of the elusive North American Beaver. They were introduced to Tierra del Fuego during the 1950s in hopes of creating a prosperous fur trade. Soon after its introduction, the demand for furs declined and the beavers were left unchecked. After a brief 15-minute walk along the river, we witnessed their destruction. The beavers have been rapidly expanding their range and are now found as far north as the Straits of Magellan.

The barometer had been falling all day and when we got back to the boat it was reading an incredible 947 millibars. In North America, rapid drops on the barometer are accompanied by strong winds and rain, but in Southern Chile this is often not the case. We have found that traveling is often best in the center of a depression. Eventually, the barometer began to rise and before we knew it gusts of 70 knots were tearing through the anchorage picking up tornado-like waterspouts and marching them across the bay. We were curious as to how tempestuous the Beagle Channel could get, so we decided to find out. Leaning hard into the wind and holding on during strong gusts, we fought our way to the top of the peninsula that formed one half of the bay. From this vantage point, we saw that the Beagle Channel was transformed into a frothing mass of waves and spay. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see we were not going anywhere today and it would be a good day to get caught up on projects.

Glaciers and icebergs

The conditions improved the following morning so we decided to continue farther west along the northwest arm of the Beagle Channel. Once out of the anchorage we passed a 300 m-high waterfall that thundered out from the Romanche Glacier. We recalled a picture that Hal and Margaret Roth took while sailing Wander 3 in front of this glacier in the early 1970s. Inspired by them, we hoisted our sails to pay tribute to the Roths.

Looking ahead, we noticed something that would end this perfect day. The mountains and the shoreline had disappeared behind a veil of clouds. We were clinging to the last rays of sunshine before we too were engulfed by wind, snow and waves. We have become familiar with the winter snow squalls that often follow depressions that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours. Tediously pounding into the funneled winds, we took turns standing out in the spray and blowing snow while the other stayed comfortably below watching the radar and passing up hot drinks. A 1.2-mile-long glacial moraine guards the entrance to Seno Pia (Pia Inlet), with only a 100 m-wide gap deep enough to allow vessels to pass through. With the poor visibility, we relied on radar and the absence of kelp to guide us through the gap. Once through, we hoisted the foresail and continued on with squally but favorable winds. We eventually gybed the jib and steered the boat behind a narrow treed point that sheltered us from the wind, enabling us to easily douse the sail. After an exhilarating but frigid day, we were eager to tie Zephyrus to shore in Caleta Beaulieu and start our diesel heater.

In the morning, a large thundering roar woke us and we expected the boat to heel sharply under the force of the approaching williwaw. But to our surprise, the boat did not move. Puzzled, we climbed out of bed to see what had made the noise. In the distance, we could see a large wave cresting toward us. After the wave passed under us and crashed on the shore we realized the thunderous noise came from a calving glacier. Fully awake and bathed by the warm rays of the sun we stood in awe as we admired the dramatic landscape of Seno Pia. Snow covered peaks and granite spires surrounded by a sea of cascading blue and white ice soared from the ocean’s edge into the heavens above. Icebergs and brash ice from the cascading glaciers littered the inlet and anchorage in a kaleidoscope of sapphires.

We were anchored in front of the 2,135 m-high Cordillera Darwin that was named by Capt. FitzRoy after Charles Darwin for heroically saving their unsecured sailing dinghies from being washed away by waves created by a calving glacier. This folly almost left the crew stranded, miles from H.M.S. Beagle, with no means for a rescue. A fellow sailor had also almost suffered a similar fate; therefore, regardless of how far the dinghy is out of the water, it should be tied to something secure.

Inspired by the majestic surroundings, we quickly slipped the shorelines and picked up the anchor to explore the east arm of Seno Pia. We wove our way through the ice-choked fjord past a massive glacier flowing into the sea. We shut the engine off, drifted in front of the glacier, and listened to the cracks, creaks and groans that emanated from the ice as it moved or calved into the water. We sat in awed silence for we knew no words could describe this experience. Reluctantly, we started the engine and proceeded deeper into the fjord. At a snail’s pace, we moved along, gently bumping bits of ice out of our way as we continued to admire the stunning views of several glaciers and mountain peaks.

Dolphin encounters

Heavy snow fell silently throughout the night, and by morning everything, including the waters of the bay, was buried in a thick blanket of white. After shoveling most of the snow off the deck, we pulled in the shorelines, weighed anchor and slowly motored out toward clearer water. After a few minutes of motoring, the engine alarm sounded so we quickly shut it off. Closer inspection showed that the raw water hose, filter and pump were thoroughly plugged with slush. A quick cleaning of the filter solved the problem, and we were on our way again. As we were leaving Seno Pia we were blessed by the presence of the rare and endemic 1.5 m-long Chilean Black Dolphins. They were leaping toward the boat and playfully escorted us to the mouth of the inlet. We said farewell to Seno Pia and the black dolphins as we turned our bow west, bound for Canal Barros Merino. Canal Barros Merino is officially off limits, but it is the safest and prettiest channel connecting the Northwest and Southwest arms of the Beagle Channel.

As we motored along the placid waters of the Beagle Channel, we could barely make out the fog-enshrouded shoreline. After several hours of motoring, we reached the narrow entrance to Canal Barros Merino. When we entered the channel, we were accosted by a pod of Peale’s Dolphins that leapt with such zeal they were flying clear out of the water. Having such a playful pod of dolphins was unique so we donned our dry suits to get in on the fun. The more we thrashed about the more excited they became, leaping out of the water and swimming at us from every direction. Chilled by the water and running out of daylight we decided we had better find a place to anchor for the night.

There are many all-weather anchorages along the Beagle Channel, but there are a few things to consider when selecting an anchorage during the winter. During calm, cold periods avoid enclosed anchorages that have an abundant source of fresh water because they will freeze, making it difficult to enter or leave. One time we found ourselves completely frozen in with 2.5 cm of ice on the bay! If you do find yourselves frozen in, there’s no need to worry, as the rain and wind will inevitably come and break the ice apart.

Climbing an ice-capped peak

We decided to go to Caleta Coloane, which was one of our favorite anchorages on the Southwest arm of the Beagle Channel. With still an hour of daylight left, we decided to collect water from one of the waterfalls that flowed into the anchorage. With the tanks full and four lines ashore we were able to sit back and admire the amphitheater of mountains and glaciers through the fading light. Weather conditions were perfect and we figured we should try to get a condor’s view of the anchorage from the top of one of the mountains. Just before bed, we remembered our crab trap and tossed it over the side.

The following morning we took off before daybreak in hopes of making the summit. Armed with crampons, ropes and ice axes we traversed a ridge and headed out onto the ice. The deep snow made crampons unnecessary, and we plodded along at a painfully slow pace, sinking up to our knees with every step. By mid-afternoon the clouds moved in and it began to snow. Being close to the summit, we decided to push on. While on the summit, surrounded by clouds and blowing snow, we joked about our condor’s view, and how we were not thwarted by Patagonia’s fickle weather. However, we were not off the mountain yet and our return was hampered by poor visibility and the fact that the snow had erased our tracks.

We were just off the ice face as the light began to fade. We moved along as quickly as possible and were able to make it down the steep
s before dark. The descent down the ridge was made in the dark. After a long day we were happy to be back at the boat.

Upon our arrival we remembered our crab trap. Hungry, we eagerly pulled the trap up and found it packed with spiny, bright red Centolla, the southern equivalent to King Crab. We quickly sorted through our catch, threw back the females and undersized ones, and were left with enough for several days of feasts. This crab feast was the icing on the cake and signaled the end to another adventurous day.

Windy farewell

After one month, we completed an enjoyable circumnavigation of Isla Gordon, and it was time to return to Puerto Williams. Sailing wing on wing we neared the narrows in the Southwest arm. In the distance we could hear loud bellows from the giant South American Sea Lions and the smaller Southern Fur Seals that were hauled out on the rocks. As we sailed close by the rocks, the fur seals quickly jumped into the water and were in hot pursuit. Effortlessly they leaped like dolphins alongside the boat as we sailed along at 7.5 knots. After several miles they tired of this game and left us to tend to the sails.

Winds increased to 30 to 35 knots, and it was going to be a fast and fun sail back to Puerto Williams! It was a joy to be careening along the channel with a small headsail and a deeply reefed main. The advantage to sailing in these tight channels is that the fetch is short and seas do not match the wind strength. However, one can’t get too complacent, as williwaws will often whip down the hills. Farther down the channel, we saw spray and water spouts pouring out of Bahia Yendegaia. We quickly dropped the main and flew past under jib alone. Once past Yendegaia, the winds eased so we hoisted the main and continued on at full speed ahead. All around us Black-browed Albatross, Giant Petrels and Antarctic Fulmars wheeled about effortlessly in the strong winds.

As we watched the birds, we were amazed at the diversity of moods and experiences the Beagle Channel has offered us over the past month. It is impossible to sail in these waters and not be moved by the majestic splendor and history of this area. We were unforgettably touched, and we promised we would return again.

By Ocean Navigator