Through Patagonia with Lista Light

Brian Lowrie

Lista LightWhen our son David and his wife Katharine invited us to join them to take their old wooden gaff ketch, Lista Light, through the Chilean channels of Patagonia, we couldn’t refuse.  Lista Light is a 75 year old, 50ft converted Norwegian fishing vessel with a 13ft bowsprit which they had purchased in UK in 2008. They sailed down to Morocco and on to the Caribbean, spending two years there during which they did an exhaustive survey of the breeding seabirds of the Lesser Antilles, publishing their research in 2011. They transited the Panama Canal, spent as long as they could in the Galapagos and reached Chile in March 2011 after a brief stop at Easter Island.

They were based at Puerto Montt, about 2/3 of the way down this long (2,500 miles), thin country, bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and the east by the Andes. Patagonia is the southernmost section of the continent shared, not always amicably, with Argentina.

Map of Patagonia
We flew from Newcastle on 15th January 2012 arriving the following morning in Santiago where we did a walking trip around the city before setting off the next day on a 4 hour flight to Coyhaique. That evening we bought a massive amount of supplies, as this would be the last chance to provision the boat for the 4 of us for a month. Next morning saw us and our baggage on a small bus on a 11 hour long bumpy ride to a tiny settlement called Caleta Tortel where in the bay was Lista LightDave and KatThe whole village is built on wooden walkways up the steep hillside and we were delighted to be met by David and Kat who clambered up the steps to greet us and help carry all the heavy goods down to the boat. It had taken us 3 ½ days to get there. We spent 5 days getting the boat ready and sewing sails while Dave and Kat worked on their computers, sending off funding applications for their next project. We also tried to become proficient at paddling -ie not capsize- the 2 man kayak which would be the only means of getting ashore when their big RIB came aboard. Caleta Tortel is at the mouth of the Baker River which runs fast and furious for hundreds of miles from the largest lake in the Andes.  Currently there is a government plan for a series of dams to generate hydro power for the cities in the north. This is deeply unpopular in the area and is being fought by local conservationists and others around the world. Caleta TortelWe left on 23rd Jan after getting a reasonable forecast from the grib files through the satellite phone. The prevailing winds are strong westerlies, being diverted to the south by the Andes to give strong northerlies with heavy rainfall. These conditions suitLista Light as she can’t sail to windward and David won’t use the engine for environmental reasons, except briefly to manoeuvre into an anchorage.  We entered the Canal Messier which is link between the Pacific at the Golfo de Penas and the route through the archipelago. The wind is often strong in the channels with gusts and sudden williwaws with hail and winds of 40 to 50 knots. On seeing one approaching we had to get the sails down quickly in order to save them and the masts (they had already lost the main mast on the Atlantic crossing and made a replacement in Grenada).  Anne and KatIt was very cold on deck and the lucky one got to be the breadmaker and spend an hour or so down below in the comparative warmth of the galley.  By evening we were glad to creep into a sheltered anchorage, usually steeply wooded, off the main channel.  The boat had two drums on the stern with 200 meters of floating line and another two long lines up forward. As we approached the head of a creek we let go the main anchor and carried on going ahead until the boat spun round. Kat leaped into the kayak and paddled ashore with the windward stern line, attaching it to a stout tree as quickly as possible, then returned for the second stern line.  All the time we were winching in on the stern line to back the 35 ton boat into about two meters of water- there is very little tidal range and the best shelter is to be found right at the head of the creek. Where possible we also tied bow lines to the trees. Only then would we go down below to light the woodburning stove and start cooking our evening meal.

Minke WhaleThroughout the days we saw abundant wildlife, hundreds of Minke whales, seals, dolphins, sealions, albatrosses, imperial cormorants and skuas that would feed out of your hand while comical steamer ducks flapped their way across the bays. In the anchorages we were often checked out by tiny green humming birds the minute we arrived. Little cinclodes and sierra finches would come right up to us, even when we were wearing bright red sailing gear; they were totally unafraid, just curious. Most anchorages had at least one resident kingfisher sitting out on a branch over the water and on one occasion Kat showed us a Magallenic owl, a big bird, sitting quite still up in the trees, looking down on us. We would have missed it but for her trained eye- in the UK she worked as an ecologist for the RSPB.

By 27th January we were passing Puerto Eden, the only settlement within 200 miles, a few small houses around the Armada (naval) base. The Armada also performs the functions of the coastguard, air-sea rescue, chart production and the control of zarpes (sailing permits). As required, we called them up on the VHF and they sent out a small launch to guide us through the narrows. By 31st January we had reached the fiord that led to the Alicia glacier, a great wall of ice 200 meters thick moving down the valley from 8000 ft up. In Tillman’s day this fiord was full of ice floes and he got stuck in the ice. The view was rather spoilt by the mist and the Star Princess cruise ship that hove into view, passengers warm and dry, watching the scenery go by through their windows! The only other shipping we saw was the Navimag ferry which goes between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales and a few small fishing boats.

Brian and DaveWe didn’t sail every day. Sometimes the wind wasn’t good or Dave and Kat wanted to do some running. We would all go ashore but getting much further was often a problem. The temperate rainforest in this region is primary forest. Every tree that ever lived there is still there in various stages of decay covered with a thick layer of mosses and lichens under the living forest. Sometimes you are standing on a fallen tree trunk, then the next step your foot goes down a meter or more onto the forest floor. Eventually you get up out of the forest onto bare rock where you can move and see around you.
Living off the land wasn’t an option. The rocks around the shore were covered with large, tasty-looking mussels, but we were warned that one bad one could kill you, so we left them alone. We did eat some berries and gathered wild celery, much beloved of the old sailors for curing scurvy, to make into soup and we managed to catch few spiny fish.

On 4th Feb we started to head inland (east) towards Puerto Natales, the only settlement of any size, in 40 knots of wind under storm sail only.  We had to go there because Dave and Kat had to renew their 3 month visa to stay in Chile.  We anchored about ½ mile across the bay from the town, in the anchorage described in the excellent Italian sailing directions as, ‘just short of tragic’! We laid out 70 meters of chain and a second anchor as it was quite exposed. The forecast was for 50 knot winds for 2 days- we were clearly sailing nowhere until it blew through. We launched the dinghy and Dave and Kat ran 20km to the Argentine border to renew their visas, while we organised a trip to the Torres del Paine National Park. MountainsLeaving at the crack of dawn the next day we toured the park which is a dramatic place with jagged, soaring snow-covered peaks and lakes with bright blue glaciers. When we returned the following evening it was too windy to get back onto the boat, so we stayed in a B&B, which allowed the rest of the crew to have a hot shower when they came over to shop the next morning. They had spent 2 days with the anchors dragging, working away on their computers as they got a wi-fi connection. We trecked round the town, shopping for stores and gas.  On the 10th  February there was a light wind forecast, so we left under engine and motored back up the main channel, continuing into the night to get back to where we had turned off before the northerlies kicked in again. MapThe scenery and wildlife began to change as we went south toward Tierra del Fuego. We now began to see humpback whales, penguins and kelp geese. We stopped in Caleta Extra where Bouganville and Cook had sheltered and where Tillman had found the remains of a settlement- the fences are still there, though how anybody hoped to make a living in that stark and lonely place is a mystery. On 14th Feb we passed the Armada post lighthouse at Profudundo Isoletes and entered the Magellan Straits. The rule is that transiting yachts have to call up the Armada every day at 8.00 and 20.00 hours. David largely ignored this because we didn’t have SSB and calling on VHF was often impossible. They try to monitor the yachts so that they keep to the main channels, which are patrolled by gunboats.  We sailed down the Strait for 7 days almost to Cape Froward, the southernmost part of the South American mainland. This area gets an average of 276 days rain a year. We could only imagine the hardship of sailors in the old sailing ships searching for a way through this maze of channels, without enough food, without dry clothing and ill with scurvy, in never-ending contrary winds, cold and rain, never mind the indigenous Indian people who lived in their canoes, with few clothes and carried fire from place to place.

We passed through Isla Carlos marine park where we saw large numbers of humpback whales and penguins.

Taking on waterOn 22nd February we entered the forbidden Barbara Channel which was a short, down-wind route into the Pacific and the entrance to the Beagle Channel, saving us 30 miles directly to windward. There was a series of violent squalls and we needed goggles to see where we were going. We sheltered in the spectacular Brecknock caleta, tying up with a four way tie, no anchor, to the sides of this narrow anchorage. A shoal of millions of tiny red lobsters swam slowly around the boat. We collected some with a casting net, but they weren’t worth eating. We were joined by a NZ boat sailing from east to west and a Norwegian boat which had sailed from Norway to go round Cape Horn and was now returning home. Dave and Kat went off running and to look for condors, while we did repairs and chatted to the neighbours and to a cormorant that plonked itself right next to us on the toe rail scrutinising us with each beady eye in turn! A rushing waterfall dropped into the bay so we filled up our tanks at this well-known watering hole used by generations of sailing boats.

GlacierWe then entered Brazo Noroeste, passing a spectacular series of glaciers flowing from the Cordillera Darwin and anchoring behind a headland. We went up to the glacier in the dinghy, through the bergy bits, and  landed on a flat iceberg which made a good diving platform for a very brief swim in the sunshine, followed by a gin and tonic with 10,000 year ice in it! We spent several days amongst these glaciers, which was wonderful.  On 6th March we rejoined the Beagle Channel now patrolled by both Chilean and Argentinian navies, and with more traffic. We stopped in Bahia Yendegaia, a former estancia which an American philanthropist, Douglas Tompkins (owner of North Face), is working to return to wilderness. He and his wife have done this in other parts of Chile, then given the restored land to the government as a national park. This was the first place where we had seen lots of other yachts.  MiclaviThree boisterous sea-lions made getting ashore in the kayak rather a doubtful business. On 7th March we went back out into the Beagle Channel in 35 knots of wind and a flat sea and rushed past Ushuaia, the Argentinian regional capital with Puerto Navarino on our starboard side. From there the channel would have led us down to Cape Horn in 60 miles if we had been allowed to go that way, but the Armada has a naval base at the neck and you have to go into Puerto Williams to get permission before heading back upwind to Cape Horn, something we were not prepared to do. The wind got up and we powered along under bare poles until we came abreast of the town. At this point we tried to start the engine and it failed for the first time ever.  Dave got it started fairly soon, (a blown fuse), and we motored in to anchor at the Yacht Club ship, the Miclavi, which was surrounded by long-distance cruising and charter boats from many countries, mainly now laid up at the end of the season. We had sailed 940 miles to Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world, essentially a Chilean naval base. From there we took a flight to Punta Arenas, then long-distance buses through Argentina, while Lista Light sailed that evening for the Falkland Islands and onwards to Uruguay.

Postscript.

David and Kat left Lista Light in Uruguay and returned to Cape Froward where they began their next venture, running the length of South America to raise awareness of man’s damaging effect on the environment and to raise funds for Conservation Patagonia and Birdlife International. After two months they are now in Cochrane, Chile having run almost 1000 miles. See www.5000mileproject.org Their previous adventures on Lista Light are at www.listalight.co.uk

One Response

  1. Paul Chamberlain says:

    Can anyone tell me where Lista Light is now?

    Just a passing interest, I helped renovate her in 1987 in Bristol.