‘A love and hate affair’ is how Michael van Bregt describes sailing through the Magellan strait and around the South of the Americas
A voyage around the southern tip of the Americas, will always be a mix of heaven and hell. If you’re prepared to take on the abrupt and unforgiving weather systems, then the pure remoteness of Patagonia, with its marine life and unspoilt deserted coastlines, all await.
In the southern hemisphere winter of 2020, Pumula was docked in the small marina of Punta del Este in Uruguay. It had been decided to curtail cruising plans for South America and bring this 37m/123ft Royal Huisman sloop from Uruguay to the warmer climes of the South Pacific.
Once that call was made, we then had the choice of sailing all the way around Brazil into the American armpit of Panama, going through the cumbersome formalities of the Panama canal and onto the regular fair wind trade route to Polynesia, or taking the more logical yet challenging option to save thousands of miles by ‘simply’ passing through the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America.
Pumula was designed by Dysktra for global cruising and has been down south before. I’ve sailed her there on previous passages and know that such a voyage is not to be taken lightly. So as soon as the decision was made, the crew and I started preparing the yacht for all it might face.
All weather systems approach from the west across the wide southern Pacific before clambering and streaming over and through the southern Andes. We were heading to the south and east into the face of this. Traditionally the winter and spring seasons offer lighter weather than the summer, even though the temperatures may be lower, but in my experience all seasons anywhere near the Horn of South America offer a full scope of weather, ranging from idyllic calms to raging tempests.
The latitudes nicknamed roaring forties and furious fifties always seem to live up to the sailor’s worst expectations.
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For any captain contemplating a passage to the region of Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego, I’d advise studying (and being amazed by) the passage transcripts of Ferdinand Magellan, who first passed there to the east in the 1500s, and the famous Joshua Slocum with his ordeals aboard his tiny sloop Spray. In my childhood I’d always dreamed about sailing there and after the first time knew I both loved and hated the place, but above all that it offered zero tolerance for complacency.
Our passage to Polynesia would be broken up in three stages. The first leg would be to the Punta Arenas in Chile, lying at the gateway of Patagonia just after the entrance to the Magellan Strait. The second would be through Magellan and up the Chilean channels to the sheltered Puerto Montt, where the yacht could be prepared and resupplied for the third long leap to Polynesia.
To start with I needed a good team. We can normally sail and maintain the yacht with four crew: our first mate Ollie, who had sailed with me through many a storm; Abbi, our seaworthy crew chef; and deckhand Tom, who’d only recently joined the yacht but had already proved himself to be steady in a blow. However, it’s easy to become short-handed on such a voyage, so we increased the crew to seven, which included flying in my good friend Rob, who I knew to be a seasoned sailor and dependable watch leader.
Except for Ollie, none had been down south before, so it was key to prepare them for what may lie ahead.
Prep for the worst
It was important to go over all mechanics as well as update and revamp the spares list. Once underway we’d need to be very self-sufficient. Whatever we could not find in Uruguay, we needed to fly in from Europe and we only had a few weeks to get the yacht ready.
The rig was checked and double checked, and all deck fittings were extra secured as we added a spiderweb of straps and lines to help keep all in place in the event of a storm. Abbi stocked up for the first leg, doubling up some supplies just in case and pre-cooking several comfort meals for the expected cold and rough weather.
Once we completed customs and immigration formalities the sun was already setting, so I decided to anchor off just outside the port for the night to start the passage with a rested crew on a fresh morning.
Next day, the wind had picked up to a stiff breeze, blowing out of a dark grey front at 30 knots. Not a nice overture, but the crew were alert as we motored out of the mouth of Rio del Plata. The weather settled once we made our way from the murky brown delta into the open sea.
Some main and staysail was set in a lighter breeze but, as often, the wind veered south onto our bow. After trying a high angle with a full main and full blade, we finally had to give up sailing all together with a dying 12 knots directly on the nose.
After another 24 hours of trying to keep the yacht moving in varying winds, we picked up a steady system of wind. The passage plan would be to cruise reasonably close to the Argentinian coastline. Any heavy weather would be from the west and the further out to sea, the wilder the sea state would become. The large ocean bay Bahia Grande, stretching down to the entrance of the Magellan Strait, was something to get especially right, as this was where the toughest conditions were expected.
My plan was to hug the cape and use the lighter weather to get as far west as possible. Unfortunately, as we were beating upwind a few miles offshore the breeze picked up to over 30 knots and the swell in the relative shallow water became quite uncomfortable, also hampering any boat speed. We had to change plans and head out to deeper water straight into the oncoming waves.
As often, these kinds of situations occur in the darkness of night. The crew in the forepeak were thrown out of their bunks. After a few bumpy miles, the sharpness of the swell decreased to a normal storm level, the crew resettled and normal passagemaking resumed.
With no relative calm to work with, it was now a matter of heading straight for Magellan. A big blow was on its way, so it was important for the watch to be extra vigilant. In this region things can change at an enormous pace. Several years ago, in the same area, I’d been taken by surprise and was determined not to let that happen again. I was on watch when the storm announced itself.
During steady coursing, a strong gust blasted through the rigging. It only lasted about ten seconds, but it made all the stays and mast hum with excitement – a dark rumbling sound. There was no time to lose in shortening sail. In the regular breeze that resumed we went straight down to four reefs in the main and furled away the jib.
Just after resetting the sails the wind arrived in earnest. A new regime had now come into place. With a minimal main and the engine pushing us over the waves we managed to progress southwards. We needed to course about another 300 miles south to reach Magellan.
I knew we had to make it by the end of the storm, so we could navigate due west through the Strait to Punta Arenas. If we waited to move until the next calm we may well have been hit by the next storm at the entrance or when moving west through Magellan.
Motoring directly into something in the region of 50 knots of wind in the narrows of Magellan would not be possible. And if we chose to bear away and make for Port Stanley in the Falklands, we’d later have to pay the price of a direct westerly course with all weather on the nose.
It didn’t take long for the swell to build, and with peaks of over 70 knots of wind, we were soon riding up and down 7m waves in a fuming sea. Progress was slow and extremely uncomfortable. The 115 tonnes of Pumula were being thrown around like a drunken sailor and even with minimal mainsail the 50m rig on its own produced a pronounced heeling.
At first the crew was looking a little worried in the howling conditions, but after a while they got used to it and maybe even enjoyed the challenge. Tom especially, being a keen surfer, loved it all – the waves were majestic and powerful. Abbi was happy with her pre-cooked meals, as were the hungry crew. The temperature had plummeted down to just above freezing and watchkeeping was hard work.
I was happy sailing a very well-built Royal Huisman yacht. Pumula has proven herself to manage even the most adverse conditions over the years. Despite the very stylish Spirit of Tradition freeboard, the designers at Dykstra had drawn a modern underwater hull which functions well in extreme ocean conditions, either downwind or beating up against it all.
Although moving slowly, we managed to keep course without too much drift. The crew gained confidence, more grins appeared on deck, even though everyone, including myself, really longed for it all to end as soon as possible.
It took us three days to finally spot the lighthouse at the entrance of the Strait. As if by magic, conditions lightened, and we motored into a calm and flat Magellan Strait. It was so nice not to be thrown around, to eat, drink and sleep in a fine, stable and upright yacht.
It was another 100 miles to Punta Arenas. With a large tidal difference between there and the entrance of the strait, tidal streams can run up to 8 knots against any vessel on the approach, but with 450hp and little wind it posed no real problem for Pumula.
We contacted Tomas Miranda of SASYSS, a dependable Chilean agent I’d worked with before, to set up the welcoming committee. Working with an agent is essential when travelling to and through Chile. It’s very bureaucratic and a local man to streamline procedures definitely pays off.
The port of Punta Arenas does not amount to much. It has one large commercial jetty and all yachts must anchor off with little shelter from the weather. Fuel was to be delivered by truck to the dock, timed with the army of officials to board simultaneously.
The weather window to continue west was looking good, so I was eager to get going as soon as possible, but allowed the crew one day of relative rest and a little sightseeing ashore.
The next morning, fresh supplies restocked and with fuel tanks brimming, we set off on the next leg. It would be another thousand miles to Puerto Montt. The first part would be some south followed by due west through the Magellan Strait and after a few days, we’d turn north for the passage through the Chilean channels.
We couldn’t have wished for a better start: no wind to speak of and clear bright skies. Spectacular landscapes emerged. The approach to Punta Arenas from the east is very flat and lifeless, but soon after this port it becomes a wilderness of the wind-beaten southern Andes.
This is the separation channel between Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego and on both sides of the sea strait are clear, wide views of enormous peaks and extensive glacier fields. It was the end of winter so there was a lot of snow, reflecting the crystal sunshine with a deep blue backdrop. It was absolutely stunning.
We made good progress south and west and left the Strait of Magellan. Within only a few hours a new depression closed in on us. While we were cruising in the relative shelter of the narrow channels going north, storm winds blasted eastwards through the strait.
If we’d been headed by that system there would have been no choice but to find some shelter, to anchor in a bay with a spiderweb of shorelines and sit it out. The area is famous for williwaws. In severe weather these katabatic winds have been recorded to locally exceed 130 knots. As the cloud base scoured the mountains and we were pelted by icy wind and driving rains, we were fine to motor on with relative ease.
It would take another four days to reach Puerto Montt. We were missing the poetry of using the wind and waves: motoring for 100 hours is no fun, but the amazing scenery around us wiped away most boredom.
Sparing pages of superlatives, to summarise, Patagonia offers the peak of raw beauty and wilderness. The remoteness and savage feel drew us back in time, to a wide and largely uninhabited world that has disappeared from across most of the globe.
Pumula plodded along dependably mile after mile. Hours of bright calm were alternating with seemingly longer hours of storm and cold. We reached Puerto Montt on a clear night, anchoring outside until morning. The compulsory pilot took us safely past the shallows on the approach channel. We docked at a small marina, again with officials and their elaborate paperwork to greet us.
The log showed around 2,500 miles since we left Punta del Este – a 16-day passage never to forget.
About the author
Born and raised in the Netherlands and UK, Michael van Bregt’s first yachting experience was a Mirror dinghy in the Bristol docks. Since then the boats have become larger and destinations more exotic. van Bregt helped with the commissioning of Pumula and has skippered her to both polar extremes.
First published in the July 2020 edition of Yachting World.