243 Anclote Road
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
by Stephanie White and George Van Sickle
An adventure south of the Equator in Patagonia made possible by a Sea Pearl 21.
It is late January, the crest of summer in Patagonia. This is the first morning of our six week, 500 mile journey through the coastal wilderness of southern Chile in our 21 foot Sea Pearl cat ketch, Pinguino Azul, the "blue Penguin." We are rowing, four oars driving ahead. The water of 30 mile long Aisen Fjord shimmers beneath the surrounding mountains. The forested lower slopes sweep up into gray, rocky summits where tongues of hanging ice are shrouded in scraps of mist. White-ribbon waterfalls thread down from the heights, to disappear in the forest. We are overly warm in the early sun, our drysuits peeled down to our waists.
Patagonia, we thought, would be cold, windy, and miserable, blasted by squalls sweeping in off the Southern Ocean. We brought lots of clothes, food, extra everything. It's all in the boat. For six weeks, we will be self-sufficient. No outside support will be required - where we are going, none is available. We shipped the Pinguino Azul from Seattle on a container ship, then trailer Ed south as far as we could. When the road ended, we took a ferry. When the ferry landed in tiny Puerto Aisen, our journey began. Today is a day of squalls violently parading in from the southwest. They bring alternate periods of sun, rain, erratic blasts of wind. Whatever the weather gods are about to throw at us, we are ready for it. We are bundled up in multiple layers of clothing topped off with drysuits. This lesson in Patagonian weather is keeping us watchful and busy at the sheets. The next squall appears, a dark shroud of rain and black water marching down the channel. The clouds pick up speed overhead and the water astern turns frothy, like a warm beer opened on a summer's day. We take up combat positions; George goes forward to reef the mainsail. We roll a couple of reefs into the mizzen. George possesses hands the size of a polar bear's paws, along with strong forearms from his ice-climbing days. This makes him the number-one candidate to reef the sails in high winds. We do our foredeck work on our hands and knees; as the waves and spray crash over Ponguino's narrow bow, they wash into the cockpit and out to sea. This, the final squall of the afternoon, is a real monster.
Deeply reefed and struggling not to lose ground, we head for shore and duck behind a bed of kelp that provides a modicum of protection off a gravel beach. Anchoring is not as difficult as we thought it might be. The methods we've developed in our years of beach cruising work well here. We typically set a bow anchor off the beach and secure a stern line to a tree, or set a second anchor high up the beach. Anchoring this way allows us to secure the boat close to shore for loading yet easily move it to deeper water overnight.
Sometimes it is necessary to swim to or from the boat, but our drysuits make this and easy chore. In fact it is great fun to bob around in the kelp like a sea otter, the Andes towering overhead. It is often difficult to find a treeless spot ashore large enough to pitch a tent. We use Ponguino's floorboards to create a flat level place to sleep. Giant ferns and fuchsias covered with red flowers surround our campsite. The tree we've anchored our tent to is and ornamental houseplant at home in Ohio. We feel like munchkins under the 7 foot diameter leaves of a forest of deep green, 6 foot high pangue plants. The vegetation is so thick that attempts at traveling into the forest are reduced to a crawling thrash. Birds of unusual shapes and colors are abundant and curious. We are constantly being inspected by caracaras, the local birds of prey, and a host of forest birds. Under way again, each new channel we turn down reveals a surprise. We pass raucous sea lion rookeries that we smell and hear long before we see. Gangs of juveniles swim out to inspect us while red-footed cormorants keep a watchful eye on our progress. We are also the guests of dolphins, occasionally a whale, and albatrosses that glide effortlessly over the waves in the worst of weather or rest patiently in a calm. "Hey, I just saw a penguin," George exclaims. "No way, penguins live in Antarctica, a thousand miles from here." But, of course, he's right. It is a Humboldt penguin, and soon there are many flying by under water, reminding us why we named our Sea Pearl Ponguino Azul - Ponguino's two winglike leeboards are the underwater wings that lift s to windward.
Heading south in Canal Costa, the north wind, the bad-weather wind, is behinds us, and we make good progress. We see very few boats, speak with no one, seep father into Patagonia on the way towards our objective, San Rafael Lagoon. The San Rafael glacier drops 4000 feet from the Northern Patagonia Ice cap, whose highest point, Monte San Valentin, exceeds 13,000 feet. The glacier is amile-and-a-half wide river of ice, draining 700 square miles of Andes snow accumulated over the millennia. Strangely, having carved its way down thought the strength of mountains, this ice river crumples when it encounters the calm water of Laguna San Rafael. Here, in a bay 6 miles across, the 10,000 year-old ice joins the Pacific in a punchbowl of brine and jostling icebergs.
Changing winds and tidal currents ensure that this slushy mix is well stirred and always in motion. Opposite the glacier's crumpling ice face, the Rio Tempanos, the River of Icebergs, drains the lagoon into the larger channels. This 5 mile river of ice strewn, swirling current floods and ebbs with the tide twice each day. The icebergs in the river grind and slam into one another, tear away at the banks, roll and break apart unpredictably. The larger bergs, aground in mid-channel, become target practice for the in-motion smaller ones. This is not a place to navigate carelessly - especially in a small, open boat.
The morning is calm and sunny as we enter the Rio Tempanos under oars, our entrance timed for slack water. We'll make what progress we can in the still water; then, as the current increases, it will flush us into the lagoon. At all costs, we must avoid being in the river when the current is at its maximum rate - up to 9 knots. We could be capsized in the swift, turbulent water, caught in a whirlpool, or smashed by a careening mass of ice. We set sail in a light breeze and make our way upriver through a kaleidoscope of bergs, weaving and tacking like boats in a busy harbor. Now we are nearing the entrance to the lagoon, and the current is getting stronger, the ice is moving faster and so are we... right toward a house sized berg. We pull hard at the oars to add to our sailpower; we dodge the berg, pass through an eddy line, enter the stillness of the lagoon. a few minutes later there is a massive crunching. Just astern, two big bergs are colliding in the current.
We pick our way through the floating while boulders and islands, fending off smaller ice bits with and oar when the going gets thick. A mile north of the glacier we discover a small, shallow inlet on the edge f the larger lagoon. Any ice larger than a volleyball cannot pass through the entrance. We pick our way through the guardian rocks and anchor in the security of Laguana Caiquen.
For several days we explore the gravelly shore, hike through lush forests, and climb up along the side of the glacier. Up close, the gleaming blue-white surface of the ice is a jumbled frozen plain of craggy towers and deep blue crevasses. It is so broken and irregular that, like the adjacent jungle, it is practically impenetrable. With no warning, an improbable mass of ice topples forward from the 200 foot high calving ice cliff. In slow motion a great roar, a tremendous splash, and a high rolling wave ripples out as the new berg slowly rotates and bobs in search of an equilibrium of buoyancy and balance. Streams of water cascade down its ragged blue sides. Gradually, the cataclysm subsides in a shuffle of rolling ice. The infant giant maneuvers away from the cliff and joins the rest of the white fleet assembled in the bay. If the San Rafael glacier is a grand spectacle, the 120-mile-long-by-60-mile-wide Chonos Archipelago is a journey into the sublime. We ride the ebb current back out the Rio Tempanos and for the next three weeks sail north through the fractured islands and channels of the Chonos, an uninhabited and intricate network of islands, bays, channels, and rocky reefs.
Each day the wind, current, and landscape combine in new and unpredictable ways. Sun and rain alternate frequently in a continuous procession of rapidly moving weather systems. Deserted in the middle of summer. the Chonos becomes our private world of wind, tide, forests, and animals. One day we sail around a point and a singular white beach appears, rising to a level grassy terrace between green water and dripping forest. Mussel shells crunch under our feet when we step ashore. We have stumbled on an aboriginal village site. The well-drained terrace, 15 feet above the water is composed entirely of mussel-shell fragments, discarded hundreds of years ago.
Suddenly, February has become March, and we must go home. We pilot our way back to Aisen Fjord. In these final days of our sojourn, we are treated to views of the ice-shrouded volcanoes, Melimoyu and Maca. Eight and 10,000 feet high, respectively, these summits rise implausibly from the seacoast jungle. As we run wing-on-wing up Aisen Fjord, we leave behind the albatross, the penguins, the wilderness of ice and rock and lush green channels and islands. Our journey is over. Patagonia is already pulling at us to return.
Marine Concepts , 243 Anclote Road , Tarpon Springs, FL 34689 , 800.881.1525
We chose the Sea Pearl 21 specifically for this expedition - the boat seemed ideal for exploring the unique flora, fauna, and geology of remote coastal Chile.
We needed a strong but light weight sailing and rowing boat that was seaworthy enough for rugged inshore sailing and would be easy to handle, row well, could be brought up on a beach if necessary, and could carry equipment and food for an extended expedition.
The Sea Pearl's shoal draft allowed us to navigate handily close inshore and to anchor in nooks that keelboats can't consider. In addition, the boat can be effectively rowed in calms and to anchor, With no engine, there are no worries about mechanical difficulties or fuel capacity.
The cat-ketch rig is quickly reefed, thanks to a clever and stout boom attachment. this was our first experience with a leeboard boat, and we were pleased with the performance; no centerboard trunk meant there was more room in the boat,too.
The Sea Pearl is fairly narrow. Consequently, it is easily driven under oars but is a bit tender under sail; 360 pounds of water ballast helps add stability. With the ballast tanks empty, the Sea Pearl weighs only 600 pounds, which eases beaching and trailering.