Overview: the landscape is incredibly dramatic, the coast is packed with coves, inlets, bays and channels, many of them barely known, and the whole course meanders through a perfectly deserted, weather-beaten and gale-pestered area full of mountains and glaciers.
The top places to visit: Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Beagle Channel, Caleta Brecknock, Pia Glacier
Our top 3 SAILPRO anchorages
1. Caleta Brecknock
2. Caleta Olla
3. Caleta Frog
Weather and navigation: the ‘End of the Earth’ is not as bad as one could imagine. Winds in Magellan Strait are usually much worse because depressions tend to pass over the land rather than passing around the Cape. In the sailing season the wind is stronger than in winter. One should usually expect around 3 depressions per week. They begin with a fontal NW, veering fast to the furious SW cold front. The Chilean Navy offers an outstanding weather service and you can rely on it. It’s very professional bordering to laconic. I remember one of the last one I heard. ‘Situacion: frontal a post frontal. Vientos de 70 a 80 nudos con rachas de 90 nudos. Mar: 8 metros’. Fronts are usually very fast and it’s possible most of the times to do the cruise in the sheduled week with acceptable winds and comfort.
Harbours and anchorages: there are no harbours, well, there s nothing at all, between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas. But you have the most amazing anchorages of the coast
Note: most glacier cruises are limited to the Beagle channel area
Our sailing notes – Punta Arenas to Beagle Channel
This is by far our favourite Patagonian route. Due to the nature of the place, a cruise between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia must be planned in good advance and one cannot expect to follow a strict schedule. It can be done in 7 days, it might take 2 weeks, and one can get lost in there forever. If one can chose, the best way to go is starting from Punta Arenas, because there are very few things more distressing than beating up 40 knots of wind and 2 knots of current in the narrow Beagle Channel. We tried one day and we managed 7 miles made good in 8 hours of hard beating. There is nothing more distressing than crossing a channel twice beating like there was no tomorrow just to discover to be around the same tree!
Punta Arenas is a lovely town. The blocks are well laid and airy – could not be otherwise, especially when the wind picks up in the afternoon and sweeps the town mercilessly– some buildings are magnificent, trees abound, the outskirts show an ordered collection of pleasant suburbs with coloured houses, streets are wide and clean, the business district and the tax free area offer all you can desire at decent prices, and people are very, very friendly. Not a bad place to live if you love incessant wind. On water like on land, humanity is different in Patagonia. I am no judge, and cannot say if worse or better. South of Punta Arenas the hills increase in altitude and pleasant forests challenge the power of meadows and prairies. Greens are more intense, sign of increasing rainfall. Thirty miles towards Antarctica and the road ends under the old walls of the King Phillip City or, at the last crossroad of the continent, on the beach of Bahia Mansa and its moored fishing fleet.
From now on along the strait, there is nothing else. The only settler here is winter.
After few miles the Estrecho de Magallanes makes a wide bend of 120 degrees and turns northwest, entering a distinct, wilder, more majestic world. The size of things, previously lost in flatness, assumes a grander, more massive scale. When the view slowly opens to the fortunate voyager, verticality enters the scene. Rock jumps out of the liquid steely turmoil and climbs up eagerly and steeply, at first covered with courageous but battered trees, then by a thin layer of mosses, than by a sparse film of lichens before ending, when not into grey clouds, under a thick cover or ice and snow. The same vertical section moves NW, symmetrically on both sides of the channel, in endless variations of the same theme, in a succession of valleys and steep shoulders equally inhospitable, wild and majestic. The shores, previously straight and shelter-less, begin to follow this mountainous geology, bending into coves and inlets of various dimensions. Soon the Patagonian absurd geographic pattern is in full swing, with an unequalled complication of lines that, if stretched out, might well round the world a few times.
Moreover, Magellanes combines this with grandeur and size. All is big. Waves, mountains, glaciers, walls, rocks, ridges. And long. There are more than 180 miles to the end of it. The Strait of Magellan, even with water, can easily swallow the Grand and Glenn Canyon; dry it out, adding twelve hundred more metres of abyss, and there is room for a lot of nature.
The crossing from Cabo Froward to the ‘shelter’ of Canal Magdalena is rarely uneventful. Basically that is the end of the longest wind funnel of the planet, so expect a wide use of the foulweather gear.
Waves subside in Canal Magdalena but you might expect strong williwaws there, so take your sails down. A williwaw means 40-60 knots in a matter of seconds and you do not want to be caught with your pants down…
Canal Cockburn is amazing. Full of rocks and islets, the low islands to the north, Monte Sarmiento to the south and an endless succession of waterfalls and coves. There are two very deep inlets S of the main channel where with a bit of fantasy one can find a great anchorage by the small creeks under the walls. The other anchorages in the S side of the channel are indeed magnificent but are subject to very strong williwaws.
The exit of Canal Cockburn means sailing for some miles in the Milky Way and out in the Ocean. The name was appropriately chosen by Joshua Slocum who was pushed down here by a huge storm at night. The number of rocks and dangers is huge and the phosphorecence of the spray and surf at night was his only guide, the Milky Way. It’ s just 11 miles before entering Brecknock, but they could be very very long, because they are normally sailed against the westerlies, which have a regretful tendencies to come in sudden squalls here. At least keep in mind that you’ll be rewarded by the most famous and beautiful anchorage of South America, Caleta Brecknock. This amazing anchorage is tuck into a deep inlet with huge mountains of grey granite around, and the scenery is beyond belief.
Sailing from Occasion to Beagle along Canal Brecknock and Bahia Desolada is definitely rewarding, provided one does not hit the many obstacles along the way. For what I believe to be a stroke of luck, the area was flat as a mill pond all the four times I sailed through. There are plenty of very well sheltered anchorages well worth exploring, like Caleta Frog and Caleta Fanny, and while the whole area is far less dramatic, certain corners are so welcoming to become somewhat romantic. One can think about bringing here a mountain chalet and enjoy a perfect balance of mountains and sea, the first neither too far to lose splendour nor to close to become threatening, the sea able to induce both, desire to explore and a certain hope to do so unpunished.
Continuing west the route takes us back again close to the cordillera soon after Paso O’Brien. The Patagonian channels are a place where even a car in an empty parking lot can produce its own weather opposing its elevation to the wet wind. No wonder then that the entrance of Beagle can be often hidden in thick mucky drizzle, or incessant squalls, both having the notable effect of releasing a curtain over the world outside the lifelines. And no wonder the Chileans placed the first of their endless control stations here. Recently the navy saw the light and instead of displacing three males, decided to let a single one have a go, but with the wife. This is very cost effective (wives are not paid) and has a very pleasant effect on the passing sailors, who are often greeted by charming voices asking the usual lot of data, but in a sweet voice.
The Beagle channel certainly deserves the nickname of Glacier Highway. It is straight and the boat meets several hanging cascades of ice on the left during its voyage E. This is also where tennis might have been invented, because the wind can only blow either 0 or 40, often in the same game… er, hour. These contrasts are even amplified, if possible, when you enter the many inlets that hide a tidal glacier at the end, the most famous of which are Seno Pia and Garibaldi. True, to see the big calibers of tidal glaciering you have to be 4-500 miles north, where for example Pio XI glacier (pictured) boasts a face 5 miles wide and a never ending calving show. But to get to those corners one has to take a Sabbatical and also found a sailor sane enough to get into those channels. As the philosopher Jagger used to say, ‘You cannot always get what you want’.