When we left our homeport in Holland in the summer of 2002 our voyaging plans were flexible. But we always had one solid thought – We wanted Patagonia to play a major part in our scheme. When we reached Mar del Plata in Argentina, it was time to act on our plans.
For many sailors, arrival in Mar del Plata is like crossing a magic border. It is the jumping-off point toward the deep south – the last major port on the way down through the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties to Ushuaia. According to one cruising guide it is “Without exaggeration, one of the toughest routes a yacht is likely to meet.”
The question, “Where are you heading?” is hardly ever heard here. Every voyager you find in Mar del Plata at the end of the year will sail to “the bottom of the world.” Instead of talking about destinations, the international sailors gathered here talk about possible routes to reach their common goal. There is more than one route leading to Tierra del Fuego.
There is a choice of three strategies to sail to the far south. The first follows a straight line from Mar del Plata to Puerto Deseado (a true course of 210°), followed by a straight line to Staten Island (175° T). With favorable winds coming from the Atlantic High, this is without a doubt the fastest track.
However, with the southwesterly winds that accompany the inevitable low-pressure systems, this strategy is the toughest and most exhausting one. The general course takes you more than 100 miles offshore where the South Atlantic can play its tricks at full force. The swell is high and the waves are even higher. Nevertheless, there are quite a few voyagers who choose this route – usually charter boats with tight schedules and plenty of crew. Average voyagers tend to make other choices.
The second option is a lot more popular and offers more protection. This strategy follows the coastline until the 50th parallel. On entering the Fifties a straight course is set toward the entrance of the Strait of LeMaire. For the first half of the journey the coast is only 10 to 15 miles away, which means southwesterly waves have no time to grow into monsters. On the second half there is no such protection, and the Furious Fifties are especially infamous for their rough seas. However, by now the course will be SSE, keeping Staten Island within reach – even with the southwesterlies that howl here so frequently.
The third option counts the most miles. It follows the coastline all the way down. Not before reaching the southernmost tip of the mainland at the entrance of the Strait of Magellan do you cross to Tierra del Fuego. Here the course is redirected toward the Strait of LeMaire. The obvious disadvantage of this strategy is the considerable detour. But its advantage is just as obvious: One never gets too far away from the coastline to favor the protection it offers, and the sea state will be rewardingly calm.
The triangle of possibilities is a daily topic on the dock in Mar del Plata. What’s the best choice? Like with other destinations, the weather plays a very important part in making up our minds, of course. But unfortunately, the weather in this region is fast moving and hard to predict. A forecast for more than two or three days is unlikely and conditions change rapidly.
We were in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer – the right season to make this journey. In summer the Atlantic High occasionally stretches farther south than its usual position and will stabilize there for a while. A sailor’s delight, for this situation will give winds from the NE for several weeks. However, if the High stays farther up north – as it very often does – the NE winds will never last more than three to five days and will be followed by a depression with fierce winds from the southwest.
While deciding which strategy suited us the best, we worked on our list of odd jobs and final preparations. No matter the route, the 1,100 miles ahead would be different than all other miles on our journey. The cruising guide describes them as “Not easy to deal with, pestered as they are by violent wind and hellish weather.”
Preparation for conditions
We wanted to be prepared, so we installed acrylic shutters in front of our portholes. We bolted down all floorboards, put a big lock on the lid of the icebox, and double locked every cupboard and drawer. Every storage area that didn’t have a door or lid got a net. This made our main cabin look like a cheap Italian restaurant, but it would work. We would be safe from flying binoculars or flashlights, no matter what the force or the direction of any boat movement.
In the first weeks of December a couple of early birds left the Yacht Club Argentino. Most of them chose to follow strategy No. 2. We kept in touch and heard how they were doing via the Radionet and Sailmail. The first leg of their journey was trouble free, but south of Puerto Deseado the Southern Atlantic Ocean lived up to its reputation. Slowly the stories started coming in: a mainsail torn to pieces, a genoa blown out, heaving-to for 30 hours in 50-knot wind. We knew these circumstances and we preferred to avoid them. Consequently we decided on the third option: the longest and most conservative one, but also the most comfortable and therefore most enjoyable one – or so we hoped.
On December 27 we had a last drink with friends who, like us, had spent the past 10 days waiting for a weather window. The cruising guide was not exactly the right source for those looking for encouragement: “A long record of wrecks, accidents and misfortunes, amplified by time, could not but strengthen the discomfort sailors feel leaving Mar del Plata.ï¿½VbCrLf And it was true; we did feel a tension that we had never felt before. But at the same time, we were also looking forward to going.
An easy start
The window turned out to be everything the GRIB weather files had promised. With a fresh following breeze we left Mar del Plata. Sailing conditions were perfect, as was the weather. The good start gave us confidence and strengthened the idea that this trip didn’t have to be about hardship and perseverance only. It could be fun, too.
Every day that passed we loved our Pactor modem a bit more. We used it to collect GRIB files and forecasts on www.buoyweather.com. Together with the NAVTEX messages and weatherfaxes they gave us an accurate picture of what was happening weatherwise – never with 100-percent certainty, of course. There is no such thing. But we certainly knew a lot more than we would have without the modem. And knowledge is power; more information means more options.
We agreed to keep on sailing as long as the wind stayed favorable. As soon as we saw a southwesterly coming our way, we would find an anchorage. Our track was expanding south and the weather stayed delightful. On New Year’s Eve we shared a mini-bottle of champagne and sailed into the New Year at 42ï¿½ south. Fireworks were replaced by an awe-inspiring starry sky.
“We have to go in there?ï¿½VbCrLf When approaching the GPS position given for Caleta Horno, a well-protected anchorage, we wondered if we were mistaken. There was a tiny inlet in the barrier of red rocks, but it hardly looked navigable. A sharp turn blocked our view and we couldn’t see Caleta Horno. But it was supposed to be behind that curve, and it was said to be “bombproof.ï¿½VbCrLf
Breathless and as gently as possible we motored through the narrow entrance and into the basin. Surrounded by steep red walls we found ourselves in one of the most remarkable places we had ever seen. A Patagonian llama was watching us from a far peak while we made a plan for how and where to anchor. Although the wind had picked up outside, we hardly noticed anything in here. The weather was as good as it had been in the past days and the water looked tropical except for the penguins floating around in it. For four lovely days we explored the volcanic rocks and caves around the Caleta wearing shorts and T-shirts. Halfway down the Roaring Forties we couldn’t help feeling like we were on a holiday. Hardship? So far, none of that. Enjoyment? Plenty.
Ahead of the weather
Our pace was defined by the fickle rhythm of the weather in this region. Just before the next low-pressure zone caught up with us we reached Caleta Sur, a small bay near Cabo Blanco. Anchoring here turned out to be a lot harder than it seemed due to kelp. It was our first encounter with this water plant, which has the diameter and stiffness of a garden hose and reaches lengths of more than 65 feet.
We tried anchoring seven times, enough to get slightly desperate, but still not enough to get the anchor well settled. Then we decided to abandon the recommended spot. Half a mile farther down the bay it looked much better. The CQR finally dug in while the sun was setting. The wind rose to Beaufort Force 8 for more than 48 hours and we enjoyed some time at anchor to read a few books.
When the storm had passed, the GRIB files showed that the southwesterly winds would last at least another week. We decided to move to Puerto Deseado, a destination we had rejected earlier, since it didn’t look very attractive or safe. But then again “many boats go there, so how bad can it be?ï¿½VbCrLf We were looking forward to a hot shower and a slice of Argentine beef, so we agreed to give it a try. When we entered the channel with 30 knots of wind on the nose and a 2-knot current on the stern, we wished we hadn’t changed our minds.
A first glance at the tiny bay with the only two moorings in town didn’t make us feel any better. With careful maneuvering, a boat hook and a fair portion of luck we managed to get one of the buoys in the swirling current. We doubted its strength, but the caretaker at the local Club Nautico assured us that we didn’t have to worry. We had tied ourselves to 6 tons of concrete and weren’t going anywhere. After 24 hours we knew that was true. But by then we also knew that there were still plenty of things left to worry about.
An unintended raft-up
“Mark, help!ï¿½VbCrLf Still half asleep, we heard our neighbor calling. We noticed that she sounded a lot closer than she actually should, but we couldn’t see why. When we got on deck we did. Thalassa and the two boats sharing the only other mooring in the basin had drifted toward each other when the wind died. By now the three of us were touching in a not-so-gentle way. With joined efforts we managed to end the “get-together.ï¿½VbCrLf
We kept an anchor watch for the rest of the night and took a stern line to the old pier the next morning. That did solve the problem of the calms. Unfortunately these calms take turns with periods of 30- to 40-knot winds from the southwest, creating yet another set of difficulties. Being on a lee shore was one of them, and eventually Mark went scuba diving to attach a security line to our block of concrete. After a long week of waiting for an opportunity to leave, we were treated to an awesome sunset. As beautiful as it was, it did not change the feeling of relief when we left Puerto Deseado the next morning. A family of Commerson’s dolphins joined us for the first few miles.
The Furious Fifties
A day later we entered the Furious Fifties. There was zero wind, the sky was gray and the ocean had copied its color like a chameleon with a lack of inspiration. The monotonous sound of the engine emphasized the drabness. The ocean was like a mirror and the only movement in the water was caused by our bow sliding through it. This was the only situation we did not expect in the Furious Fifties. Howling southwesterlies, heaving-to for days on end, yes, but calms? Apparently so.
The leg that followed was by far the most stressful one on the journey south. There are no “officialï¿½VbCrLf anchorages between Puerto Deseado and the Strait of Magellan. But our waypoint was Cabo Virgenes where the mainland of South America ends. A fisherman in Deseado advised us to seek shelter there if our window was too short to reach the Strait of LeMaire, and it seemed we needed his hideout. When the wind came up it started from a favorable direction, but quickly worked its way around the compass and ended up in the southwest. Again we were glad we chose the strategy we did. Our course was to windward but the waves were still young and not very high, which enabled us to sail as close to our rhumb line as possible.
We reached our shelter before the storm set in and anchored as close to the beach and the steep s as we dared. On our port side was the lighthouse of Cabo Virgenes, the entrance to the Strait of Magellan. On our starboard were thousands of miles of South American coastline stretching north. The wind was blowing through the top of our mast and the sea was boiling a few meters behind the boat. But the fisherman from Deseado was right: down on deck we hardly noticed the storm; we had the s of Virgenes as our windscreen.
With a south-running tide and light winds from the northeast we entered the Strait of LeMaire at sunrise. “Couldn’t be better!ï¿½VbCrLf said Mark, as bits of Staten Island loomed up from the clouds on our portside. We were happy to find that our calculations had worked out since the strait is an infamous stretch of water. Wind blowing against the tide should be avoided at all times, since this situation can create standing waves of 30 feet. With the conditions we experienced when we entered, it was hard to imagine that happening here.
Unfortunately, that changed rather suddenly. When we were nearly halfway there the light northeasterly died and an unexpected wind from the southwest set in. It was just a few knots at first, but soon increased to 10, 20 and later 30. When nearing Force 8 the wind stabilized and we found ourselves in the one situation we had tried to prevent – a strong wind on the nose and a considerable current from the opposite direction. We decided to push through and slowly tack our way to the south end. Near the south exit, an Argentine navy vessel showed up and called us on the radio, “Thalassa, are you OK?ï¿½VbCrLf I told them we were, and let them know we were heading toward Ushuaia. “Oh, but this is a very bad wind for Ushuaia, you know?ï¿½VbCrLf Yes, we had noticed.
The beauty of Beagle Channel
No matter how often we have tried to imagine the Beagle Channel, as soon we entered it we knew our imaginations had failed. Guided by dozens of dolphins we sailed where Charles Darwin had sailed in 1832.
In a few hours time four seasons passed by and we went from rain and hail to snow only to return to sunshine and the fresh smell that is unique to springtime. Together with our friends on Dream Away, we decided to visit one more anchorage before reaching Ushuaia to relax and relish the feeling of being there.
The last miles to Ushuaia were completed with a strong wind on the nose – an appropriate welcome to Tierra del Fuego, since this was the prevailing wind. This was where we had been going for so long and this was where we wanted to be. A friend welcomed us on the dock of the southernmost city in the world. “Had a good trip?ï¿½VbCrLf
“We had a great trip!ï¿½VbCrLf we replied. “We enjoyed every minute of it.ï¿½VbCrLf
“Why did it take you so long, then?ï¿½VbCrLf We took our time. We spent 34 days making the trip south form Mar de Plata. We waited for opportunities and slowly “coast hoppedï¿½VbCrLf our way down. Looking back, that turned out to be a perfect strategy for us.