Tuesday 22 March 2016

Estrecho de Magallanes

I alluded to the quixotic history of the Magellan Strait in my last posting, and having anchored in Bahia Mansa off Paso del Hambre and spent some time ashore it is starting to really come alive.

This short stretch of coast contains several ruined pioneer settlements dating back to the 16th century. Until the mid 19th century this resulted in tragic consequences due to the inhospitable conditions and distance from any meaningful supply lines (Paso del Hambre translates as Port Famine) . The establishment of an independent Chile in 1818, followed by the introduction of steam driven ships, transformed the straits into an important trade route. It was only in 1849 that the settlement of Punta Arenas was founded, which today is the largest town in Patagonia.

My principle objective in going ashore was to visit the isolated grave of Captain Pringle Stokes, who was commander of HMS Beagle until he shot himself in the head due to the “effects of the anxieties and hardship incurred while surveying the western shores of Tierra del Fuego” (according to the inscription on the grave). This act of suicide precipitated the promotion of Robert Fitzroy to captain the Beagle and the subsequent appointment of Charles Darwin (all accurately disclosed in the historical novel This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson).

So with my head down into the breeze I struck out to find the cemetery. It felt good to be stretching the legs after several days of being cooped up aboard. Within this extremely desolate area there was a large, modern building on the ridge above the anchorage which had me wondering what this could possibly be. As I was pondering this I passed a four-wheel drive vehicle (all non-metalled roads in these parts) pulled over to the side of the road, and the guy behind the wheel beckoned me over.

“Where are you going?”

I was a bit taken back by the directness of the question, but the face seemed friendly enough. I explained I was headed for the cemetery of the English captain, making the link to the Beagle and Darwin to try and persuade him that I wasn’t completely bonkers. Just when I thought I’d totally lost him he piped up with the name “Harry Thompson”.

The conversation then transferred into English and Randy explained that the shiny building I had seen was in fact a new visitor centre that he had been project managing for the last 6 years. It was an even bigger stroke of luck when he pointed out I was actually on the wrong road to the cemetery and that he would give me a lift.

“Are you sure I’m not interrupting you?”

“Well sort of, but I need a break anyway”.

Apparently he had been monitoring an area where people often come to barbeque (it was Sunday afternoon) as he was concerned about fires starting in the vicinity of his precious development.

It turned out that the project was more or less unique in the whole of Chile, a privately funded “Strait of Magellan Park”, backed by a local businessman, along with banks and the various tiers of government. Randy said that such a scheme would have been beyond the resources of the Chilean National Park body.

By the time he dropped me off at the cemetery he invited me and the rest of the Sea Wolf crew up to the visitor centre on Tuesday.

“Till Tuesday then”.   

So come Tuesday the four of us arrived at the visitor centre which was deserted to the point where it was slightly embarrassing how many people were working there. Like someone showing you where to park in an empty car park.

Randy generously waived the entrance fee for us, and gave some interesting insights into the history of the project and what it was hoping to achieve. He saw the visitor centre as a means to open discussion on what this stretch of coast means to Chileans, and particularly those living more locally. His perception was that historically the narrative has been dominated by the European settlers, and it was only really in his generation that this view has been questioned, with more recognition given to the indigenous tribes that lived here for thousands of years before the white man began charting the Americas.

The visitor centre wasn’t completely finished, but I was disappointed in what I saw. Whilst no expert on the area I had read enough elsewhere to find the displays lacking in the depth I was looking for. But maybe that was the point, simply to spark an interest and open dialogue about a very unique place.  

Everyone's Heading the Other Way

The Magellan Straits is one of the most historic natural channels in the world. The 310 mile S-shaped link between the Pacific and Atlantic was discovered by the Portuguese in 1520. In the centuries that followed some of the most illustrious navigators have plied this stretch of water, including Bougainville, Drake, Fitzroy and Slocum. It does feel quite something to be down here in a small boat following in these footsteps, surrounded by the dramatic scenery and sense of isolation that remains largely unchanged.

Timing of our entry into the western approaches of the Strait was important as you are exposed to the full fetch of the Pacific and the prevailing north / north-west frontal winds. Once inside substantial protection is offered by the thousands of islands on our starboard side, so the waves which are the real danger any vessel become much less of an issue. That said, the orientation of the western side of the Magellan Strait means that the prevailing winds not only blow uninterrupted down its path, but the winds are in fact accelerated by the topography. In the bottlenecks the anemometer has shown readings of 60 knots before becoming so overwhelmed by the wind speed that it just starts blinking. Throw in some snow flurries and gets quite exciting.

But what a relief to be travelling west to east with the winds at our back. Nearly all of the other boats we have met are going the other way which seems rather masochistic. Many of them are forced to shelter for weeks at a time in the protected caletas (coves) off the Strait, until suitable weather windows allow them to continue. 

There is of course good reason why most of the boats we meet are going in the opposite direction; we are travelling at a similar speed as those heading the same way as us and so we rarely pass each other. Less explicable is the fact that the marine life also appears to be going in the opposite direction – humpback whales bobbing and blowing their way sedately past, while the seals pop out of the water like rubber torpedoes. Whether this is part of a well trodden migratory journey or just a short-term run for cover I have no idea.

Travelling by night is pretty suicidal in these waters so getting sufficient protection from the elements in a caleta for the night is of paramount importance. This usually involves feeling our way up a narrow channel in the lee of the land, dropping the hook and then reversing towards the shore before attaching two long lines to the sturdiest looking trees available. The next big test will be transferring from the Magellan Strait into the Beagle Channel, which requires crossing some very exposed bodies of water, including the Aptly names Desolation Bay at 55 degrees south.

Living on a Floating Canada

Sea Wolf is a Canadian flagged vessel on which I differ from everyone else because I’m not Canadian. Below decks there is very little that would give any clues as to the nationality of the boat. The keen observer might pick up on maple syrup stowed in the galley and a higher percentage of Canadian authors in the bookshelves. Without more physical clues one is forced to seek out Canadianishness amongst Sea Wolf’s crew.

The first striking thing is that they are very proud of their country, and rightly so. A nation that began with British immigrants has continued to take in a wide range of displaced people with considerable success. I’ve heard it said that Canada is the salad bowl to America’s melting pot, in the sense that in Canada immigrants are encouraged to keep their identity, as opposed to the expected level of assimilation in the US.

And this brings us on to the prickly subject of their neighbour, and you strongly get the impression that Canada wishes it could be transplanted somewhere else on the world map due to issues of association. Whilst anxious to appear different to America, it appears there is much more that connects them than separates them. Or in the words of Jonathan Raban, “Canadian differential more as absence than presence”.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the crude way in which the bulk of the border divides the two countries. The rigid parallel of 49 degrees north makes no attempt to assimilate the natural geography of rivers and mountains, which typically tend to provide a division between communities and hence a contrasting psyche.
If the agitation of being linked with America wasn’t enough, there are also the historical and cultural ties to Britain and France. Whilst the Canadians on board like to poke fun at the British (rich pickings there), it is ultimately where they came from and the Queen’s head still appears on their bills. Again, resemblances appear closer than they care to admit.

The Canadian province of Quebec serves up another dichotomy. Those Canadians outside Quebec seem to view it with both disdain and respect, much in the same way that France and England observe each other. I’ve yet to meet a Canadian who doesn’t revere the city of Montreal for its sense of identity and place. 

And this appears to be the crux of it. Canadians are to some extent envious of the strong identities of the triple influences of America, Britain and Quebec.