I find high latitudes sailors tooled up with a great selection of 'shoot-to-kill' heavy duty yachts

When your staple business is sailing
back and forth across the Drake Passage to Antarctica, you need a tool
not a toy. Like Skip Novak’s 54ft steel Pelagic (above), on which I was sailing
to Cape Horn
with editor David Glenn last week, the yachts of choice are the AK-47s of the sailing
world: proven weapons that shoot to kill and won’t jam when you’re under
heavy fire.

There’s quite a little village community of sailing people down in Tierra del Fuego, congregated in the towns of Ushuaia and Puerto Williams. The sailors and their boats and equipment are fascinating.

Several of these diehard adventurers I’ve known over the years, either by correspondence or from previously crossing tacks with them here or in some other part of the world. The adventure cruising world is a small one.

They are folk like Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk on Northanger, Darrel Day and Cath Hew on their 60ft Trintella Icebird, former BOC Challenge and Vendée Globe winner Christophe Auguin and son aboard his Cigale 16 Antipode, Steve Wilkins on his Challenge 67 Xplore and Brazilian adventurer and Blue Water Medallist Amyr Klink on his custom built twin Aerorig boat Paratii.


Cruisers at Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in Chile. Icebird, Darrel and Cath’s specially reinforced aluminium-built Aerorig Trintella, is the red boat on the far right

Among them you can find the odd migratory bird, such as broadcaster and journalist Paul Heiney, to whom I chatted briefly last week at Puerto Williams. He and two crew had just rounded Cape Horn in his Victoria 38 Wild Song and were on their way back north to Montevideo.

Wild Song and other birds of passage excepted, all these cold waters voyagers have boats that would look thoroughly out of place in a marina in northern Europe. Their vessels are aluminium or steel, they have doghouses or pilothouses for warmth or shelter and the equipment on deck and aloft is heavy duty and looks it. As a rule, aesthetics takes a distant second place to robustness and comfortable living under well-reefed sail.

Boat choice for these storm-blasted places of remote anchorages and remorseless winds is telling. It’s utterly different to most coastal or tradewinds passagemaking, and as far from regatta racing as Earth is from Alpha Centauri.

For sailing downwind in warmer climates almost anything will do. The most popular article I’ve ever published online is this one about sailing across the Atlantic in which I say the boat you own right now would probably be fine if properly prepared. A standard production boat with a few thoughtful modifications can sail round the world without too many troubles.

But in high latitudes it’s different. I shudder to think of a Bénéteau or Legend or a Bavaria down here: they’re just not set up for really harsh conditions. Many production boats are actually too complex for crews to be completely self-reliant, have too much canvas, the deck gear is too light, the bunks aren’t really that seaworthy, etc, etc. I could go on.

That’s not to say a production boat couldn’t make a voyage to Antarctica – that’s provably untrue – but it certainly wouldn’t be the right sort of vessel to operate in this area longer term. Arguably, even the mindset that would consider them suitable craft is a bit suspect.

This is an element of our Cape Horn project that has been so very interesting. It’s been a kind of back to basics wake up call. As in any technical sport, we yachtsmen are highly suggestible to fashion, especially at the professional end. That drives many an ordinary sailor’s perception that they need the latest hull design, sail material or fancy equipment.

In Tierra del Fuego, like other high latitudes areas, a rougher and more functional boat with belt and braces systems is a better bet, which is why most of the yachts here look a bit, well, tractor-ish. It’s a culture shock.

To sail here I think you also need to adjust your attitude. This is important. It isn’t cruising in the tradewinds sense at all, it’s not about being on a boat that feels like home. You spend a lot of time on board, especially down below out of the cold and relentless wind. Personal space and privacy is limited.

In common with offshore racing, your idea of what is a clean item of clothing, or indeed a clean person, has to change. Resources are scarce and need to be conserved. You have to live more simply.

For me and David that’s been a big part of the pleasure of our trip. It’s a liberation of sorts. This style of sailing is similar to what we each grew up doing when we were children cruising in small boats with our parents, albeit that Pelagic is a whole lot bigger and far more luxurious than we were used to. Anyway, the point is we have very fond feelings about all that.

So there’s definitely an ascetic part of me that believes there ought be a good element of compromise in living on board a yacht. You should have to adapt. That’s what it’s all about.   

I have a deep-seated aversion to thinking of a yacht as a luxury status object. Function, safety and fitting yourself to the environment ought to come first. Equating a boat to an apartment on the water is a potentially dangerous fallacy.

And maybe I’m also a bit of a slob at heart. I quite like it from time to time when dressing for dinner means simply pulling off a set of damp oilskins and sitting down.

A few more snapshots below of our trip. Read more about it here