A British-Canadian couple experience a rough time of it while cruising Patagonia in their 27ft yacht

Nicholas Coghlan circumnavigated in the late 1980s with Jenny, his wife, on their small yacht, Tarka the Otter, before taking up a career in the Canadian Foreign Service. Many years later they were back at sea sailing their Vancouver 27 Bosun Bird from Cape Town to the Beagle Channel. Thence, over the winter, they cruised through Patagonia and the Chilean Channels.

Coghlan makes little of their achievements, describing in a matter-of-fact way what is really a remarkable adventure. Happily for us, he also writes with great perception and is a shrewd observer of the human condition. In this extract from Winter in Fireland he and Jenny are working their way northwards up the west coast of South America.

Dividing their time between playing Scrabble and life-threatening mast climbs in shocking conditions, they are not much troubled by overcrowding. Indeed, other vessels are a rarity, but the contrast he draws between the two that they meet is dramatic. Fishermen or superyacht owners – which would you choose for company on a nasty night at the end of the world?

Read on, and join me in a moment of enlightenment…

From Winter in Fireland

For 13 days we got up anxiously at sunrise to download weather forecasts. The window did not come. The wind stayed in the north or north-west, or went calm. One day a 25m luxury yacht arrived from the north. The owner was an evidently successful investment banker but the paid crew, Kiwis Adrian and Jenny, were so desperate for some relief that they invited themselves over for dinner and brought two bottles of wine.

“The high life, mate? Not all it’s cracked up to be. I gotta say, we’d rather be on a boat your size. We’ve got so many labour-saving devices, half of which aren’t working, that we spend all day fixing them.”

Adrian’s Jenny chimed in: “And then there’s the skipper. Likes his three-course dinner every evening, prime lamb or beef from the freezer, fine. But you know what? His wife’s a vegetarian. That means two separate meals to be cooked every night, not counting ours…”

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The captain and his wife separately called us up for long and rambling chats on the radio, ignored our invitation to come on over, and conspicuously failed to reciprocate. Jenny told us that her boss spent half his time on the satphone checking share prices.

Gales came and went. It rained, hailed, and blew. One day Cabo Raper lighthouse, 70 miles north, was reporting 50 knots of sustained winds. On the news, we heard that an inter-island barge had capsized south of Chiloe. A dozen or more drowned.

When really bad weather threatened, we laid out an extra anchor. There really wasn’t much else to do. Only at extreme low tide was there one small beach on one side of the bay, where we made a couple of runs ashore to load fresh water and burn rubbish. Otherwise there was nowhere to land. We played yet more Scrabble, read a lot, slept a lot.


Jenny takes the opportunity for a snooze

The longer you dither, the more difficult it is to actually make a decision. But on the night of 13 November the Navy was forecasting winds from the south-west to south at 25-30 knots, gusting 40-45: a bit strong, but at last the wind was now from the right direction. For once Jenny, who had lost a dozen Scrabble games in a row, was adamant. “Time to go.”

Out in the mouth of Canal Messier next morning it was blowing westerly at 25 knots, with frequent squalls. Disappointed there was no south in the wind, we decided to duck into a small nook behind the San Pedro lighthouse to see how things developed.

A rapid front brought a hailstorm, but soon the sun was out again and the wind down. Cabo Raper was reporting only south-west at 17 knots, and a ship out in the gulf confirmed it. Out we went again – only to run into yet another fierce squall that had us careering back towards Lamento del Indio, last seen 14 days earlier.


The well travelled Bosun Bird off Tanna Island, Vanuatu

By evening things had settled. We came abeam the San Pedro light at nine o’clock and set a course into the gloom, to the north-west and the open sea.

The subsequent night was one of the worst I have ever spent. We soon left the lee of the land and started reaching through an area of short, steep swells that seemed to come from every direction. It was necessary to hand-steer but, with my eyes fixed on the wildly swinging, red-lit compass, it wasn’t long before I started to feel queasy.

It had been many months since we had been in seas of this size. At about 2300 the wind picked up to 25 knots and I called Jenny to help me put a third reef in the mainsail.


Bosun Bird goosewinged and surfing in the Pacific

Tonight, for the first time ever, as the main was coming down, its luff forming a series of loose Ss. One of those Ss was blown in front of one of the mast steps, halfway up. The sail could neither be pulled up nor let down and risked flogging itself to shreds.

Feeling more nauseated by the second, I passed the tiller to Jenny and carefully climbed out of the cockpit onto the swaying side-decks. Bereft of forward motion, Bosun Bird was rolling horribly.

I made my way forward to the mast, uncleated the halyard of the staysail which was not in use, secured it to my chest harness and looked wearily up into the darkness.

The mast was whipping back and forth at random. At the signal, Jenny tensioned the halyard and, running it around a winch, made ready to secure my climb.

I was used to going up the mast but had never done so at sea, still less in 25 knots of wind, at night, and in cross-swells like these, which every few seconds were sending the tip of the mast weaving in complicated patterns.

After each long upward step – made more difficult by cumbersome foul-weather gear – I had to hang on for 20 or 30 seconds hugging the mast with both arms while the motion settled a little. After 10 minutes I reached the point where the sail was jammed. My arms were weak and I felt ready to vomit. I picked at the sail ineffectually with one hand, holding on with the other. Nothing.


Adjusting the hanked-on trysail means going to the bow

The cloth was stretched too tautly to be just prised away. I realised there was no choice. I’d have to time it perfectly, let go of the mast and pull at the S with both hands and my body weight.

For a moment I thought it wasn’t going to give. I leaned with all my weight and pulled so hard I thought the sail might rip. As it started to ease its way free I shouted to Jenny “Hang on!” and gave a final desperate tug. I swung for a moment completely free. Jenny took most of the strain as I banged back into the mast and slid down it. I collapsed in an undignified, retching heap.

The sail was free and the waves were washing over the side-decks so frequently and copiously that the mess was soon gone. I crawled to my bunk, placing a saucepan handily on the cabin sole, and spent the rest of the night trying to sleep while Jenny steered. The Gulf of Sorrows was living up to its name.


Cautionary reminder: A shipwreck in Patagonia’s Smyth Channel

By dawn, when I emerged into the cockpit, we were close-hauled in light winds with the steep wooded hills of the Tres Montes peninsula ahead. The forecast now was for a wind switch to the north-west, at up to 25 knots, which would make it very hard to get around the exposed Cabo Raper and into the first available secure anchorage.

But if we gave up, reached away to the east, and made for one of the secure anchorages on the north shore of the gulf, it would be very difficult to get out in any kind of westerly wind at all. We had visions of another two weeks of playing Scrabble. So we persevered and were rewarded by the winds remaining light to moderate in the west.

Soon we were off the dramatic rock-strewn headland that is Cabo Raper. I read that it owes its rather unlikely name (pronunciation ‘rap-AIR’) to Captain F.V. Raper who had surveyed the River Ganges in 1808 before venturing into Patagonian waters.


Nicholas and Jenny Coghlan

This is a place not only of notoriously rough weather but also of great oceanic upwellings that bring shoals of fish and small organisms to the surface; they attract whales, other large marine creatures, and diverse bird life. For several hours we sailed through swooping albatrosses and less beautiful giant petrels.

Now we were back in the wake of the Beagle. We anchored in a snug little cove at the foot of some high hills, near the northern extremity of Tres Montes. Darwin’s party ascended one of these mountains, which was 2,400ft high. The scenery was remarkable.

The cove in question is today called Caleta Suarez; at its entrance is the tall, cone-shaped pinnacle that Darwin climbed. In perfectly still conditions, we dropped anchor in the late evening to pass a well-deserved quiet night.


A stop-off at Rio de Janeiro while heading south

The only disappointment was, in the fading light, seeing some plastic debris on shore: the first garbage of any sort that we had seen since leaving Puerto Williams ten weeks earlier. It was a sign that we were now entering more frequented regions.

Next day was a beautiful run north in the open ocean, with rugged cliffs and headlands to starboard, and glinting seas. Reaching along gently in these conditions we experienced a sense of freedom that we’d forgotten in the often claustrophobic channels, although an ironbound rocky shore to leeward at 47°S was not a comfort.

In the late afternoon, with 15 miles on the log, we turned into a long, narrow fjord with a small lake at its end: Caleta Cliff. Later, a rusty fishing boat, the Juan Antonio II, joined us: the crew waved cheerily as they adjusted their lines and pulled themselves in close to the beach.


Winter in Fireland by Nicholas Coghlan is published by University of Alberta Press, RRP: £18

Next day, with a bad forecast, the Juan Antonio crew invited us to come over and raft up beside them. As we’d discovered farther south, it was always wise to take the fishermen’s advice, so, in gathering rain, we manoeuvred our way gingerly in, put out every fender we had, and tied up snugly beside them.

Over the next few days, as flurries of white water whipped over the surface of our ‘lake,’ we realised we were in the only quiet patch of water. You might think that working fishermen would look down on rich foreigners who were here for fun, but the crew of the Juan Antonio were some of the friendliest and most open people we have met.

All seven of them crammed into our tiny cabin, bringing as gifts not only two large gutted conger eels, but a box of herbal tea, some dried peas, and a bucket full of abalone. It’s a cliché, but true all the same: the poorer people are, the more generous they often are, as well.

The Juan Antonio was based at Quenon, in southern Chiloe. “We’ve been here for the best part of a month,” the captain said. “But in 23 days we’ve had only five when it’s been calm enough to fish.” We asked about the economics of fishing this coast. “Sometimes, after three months at sea, there’s not enough for the bus fare home.”

But the Juan Antonio’s was a happy crew. As they brought us mug after mug of tea, and plates of freshly baked sopaipilla pastries, they joked about each other’s cooking abilities and they argued intelligently but good-naturedly about politics. Like the rest of the country, they were divided down the middle over Pinochet and the years of dictatorship, but “You have to say it: life for us is better than it was for our parents.”

They’d all had at least a year or so of secondary education; they knew where Canada was. And although they were fishermen, they were passionate about the environment and fully aware of the dangers of over-exploiting the country’s fragile fish stocks.

Today as I turn to their carefully written names in our visitors’ book, I feel proud and privileged that we met the crew of the Juan Antonio, and that they accepted us as friends in that remote bay on the edge of the Pacific.

First published in the June 2020 edition of Yachting World.