Tuesday 22 March 2016

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.

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