January 27, 2010 – Beagle Channel, Chile
By Herb McCormick
Two-thirds of the way through the classic gangster movie, Goodfellas, the character played by Joe Pesci puts on his best suit and prepares for one of the biggest days of his life; he’s about to become a Made Man. The only problem is, he’d already committed an unforgivable sin, namely, whacking another Made Man. As he opens the door to what he thinks will be a group of his lawless peers, he sees the room is empty and immediately realizes what is about to transpire. “No!” he wails, helplessly. It’s the last word he’ll ever utter.
Two nights ago, the crew of Ocean Watch was whisked away to a somewhat similar, nondescript house on the edge of town. Inside, a group of bandana-clad men wielding machetes awaited our arrival. No, we weren’t joining the mafia, but little did we know, we were on our way to nothing less than an induction ceremony. We were about to become members of a secret, closed, Chilean society. We were about to be welcomed into The Brotherhood of the Coast.
Today, Ocean Watch was again underway, heading westward down the snow-capped mountains that border the famous Beagle Channel. It was a memorable day on multiple fronts, and we’ll get to it in a moment. But first, we need to recap our stay in Puerto Williams, Chile, and our honored entry into The Brotherhood.
To understand Puerto Williams, one must first understand the fractious relationship between the two nations that border the Beagle, Argentina to the north, and Chile to the south. As recently as 1984, the two countries almost came to blows over the endless border dispute that marks the history of Tierra del Fuego, the Patagonian islands that lie just to the south of mainland South America. It was Pope John Paul II himself who mediated the dispute over the sovereignty of a trio of those islands in the early 1980s, the upshot being a document called the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which narrowly averted war.
Still, Chile remains wary of its next-door neighbor, and the strategically located naval town of Puerto Williams, the world’s southernmost village, accomplishes two purposes: it serves as the base of the Chilean Armada, or Navy, and establishes a municipal presence in the region that is impossible to deny. To underscore that presence, throughout the channels of Southern Chile, the Armada maintains a network of coastal watch-keepers that monitor the presence of all vessels navigating the waters, including yachts and cruising boats. Twice a day, morning and night, vessels like Ocean Watch must report on their whereabouts in the channels (quite a few of which are off-limits to foreign-flagged vessels); failure to do so, by all reports, guarantees a very bad day.
For sailors, especially long-range voyagers, these days Puerto Williams is a crossroads for those about to explore the Chilean channels or take a shot at Cape Horn. An abandoned naval vessel called the Micalvi serves as the clubhouse and watering hole for the international fleet of voyagers passing through, and many of them tie up to the old ship while they’re in town (because of her size, Ocean Watch was assigned a mooring buoy nearby). It’s perhaps fitting that the first people to inhabit the region were the nomadic “canoe Indians” known as the Yaghan’s, the first of which arrived in Patagonia some 6,000 years ago. Alas, the last of the rugged, resilient Yaghan descendents only recently disappeared, but anyone who ventures far in small boats can relate to their spirit and connection to the sea.
Today, the local channel pilots, fishermen and other seamen who live by and work on the ocean can also understand that affinity, and are also vitally connected to the water. In fact, there’s a wide-ranging group of such like-minded souls in South America, and they call themselves the Brotherhood of the Coast.
Aboard Ocean Watch, for the last several weeks Argentine sailor Horacio Rosell has served as a trusted hand and also as our interpreter, and his services on both scores have been invaluable. Upon our arrival in Puerto Williams the other day, as we returned from customs, we found a note in our dinghy. It said, in essence, The Brotherhood would be boarding Ocean Watch for inspection in the next hour or so. We’d been warned.
They arrived on a pilot boat, laden with food and drink, wearing bandanas with the ageless pirate symbol, the skull and crossbones, emblazoned across their foreheads. Apparently, in Uruguay, a member of The Brotherhood had heard our tale and felt we were worthy of attention, and had passed word of our impending arrival to his brethren in Chile. The next day, Horacio informed us that the local chapter of The Brotherhood would be picking us up that evening and taking us to an undisclosed location, the purposes of which remained unclear. At the assigned hour, however, a couple of trucks picked us up and before long we were on the outskirts of Puerto Williams; unlike Joe Pesci, we lived to tell the tale.
We’re not exactly the rah-rah fraternity types on Ocean Watch, but make no mistake about it, we’ve just joined a fraternity. It was a night of speeches, song and camaraderie, of the exchange of gifts and respect. When we were dropped off back at the Micalvi, we too were all done up in bandanas, except our skipper, Mark Schrader, whose peaked hat looked like something out of Master and Commander. He cast a most striking figure! We’ve had more than a few evenings to remember in our journey, at sea and ashore, but none of us will ever forget the one when we were accepted into The Brotherhood.
Then, as newly minted “Brothers,” after a day of waiting in port on Tuesday while winds of 30-40 knots swept Patagonia, today we set out into the Beagle Channel.
It was worth the wait.
We were underway at 0500, with the breeze finally faltering after a long night of huffing and puffing. Your first impression of the Beagle is that you’ve wandered into the Alps, if the Alps were bisected by a 150-nautical mile strait of water that spans a colorful spectrum from deep, roiled blue to milky, glacial green. It’s incredible, but the stuff that completely barrels you over occurs well above sea level.
Heading west from Puerto Williams, the first major landmark is the Argentine city of Ushuaia, a sprawling, incongruous burg that nests on the shoreline as a long, wide shelf of civilization, the last we’ll see in a while. From a geographic point of view, the westward Channel winds past a narrow waterway called the Canal Murray and the Peninsula Dumas, to port, before coming to a bold headland on the eastern flank of Isla Gordon called, appropriately enough, Punta Divide. To the north the Beagle is known as the Brazo Noroeste (Northwest Arm), to the south, the Brazo Sudoeste (Southwest Arm).
Ocean Watch went north. And the scenery really fell off the charts.
The primary feature of the Northwest Arm of the Beagle is the Darwin Cordillera, a jaw-dropping range of nearly 8,000-foot mountains which is chockfull of ventisqueros, or glaciers, like Italia, Espana, and the most famous of them all, the Romanche. The latter come at you relentlessly: blue, blocky, angular, unforgettable.
A writer jotting notes while rolling down the Beagle gets an unparalleled opportunity to exercise his nouns and adjectives. The channel is one long series of columns and spires, peaks and valleys, canyons and forests, fjords and inlets, snow and mist. It is raw and cold and arresting. As hard as you try to describe it, it’s indescribable. But that doesn’t stop you from trying.
High in the summits, fast-moving clouds went skidding sideways in the big westerly air stream. The play of light and shadow was endlessly hypnotizing. Massive blue glaciers, one after the next, each grander than the last one, spilled into the sea. Way, way above, the panorama was a quilt work of patchy blue sky, scudding gray cloud and billowy white cumulus. Piles of vapor foamed over the tall, craggy landscape like a witch’s brew boiling in a cauldron. The contrasts and textures – rock, trees, ice and water – were simply spectacular.
Spider webs of waterfalls, an absolute network of watery veins, glistened in the patches of sunlight, carving deep furrows of rivulets in the steeps. A huge cube of ice calved off a glacier and hit the sea with an enormous splash, just a cannonball of a plunge. Great piles of untracked, virgin snowfields glimmered like diamonds in the sunlight. It was a feast for the eyes, one course after another, and then another still.
As so often happens, my mates, Dave Logan and David Thoreson, had words when words failed me. They kept a running commentary all afternoon, happy and insightful and wondrous at the same time.
“Look at those rock stripes going this way,” said Logan, “and look at those going that way. There’s new snow on the top of a lot of this. I bet the view looking up that little canyon is going to be something.”
And it was.
“Glaciers are mind-bendingly beautiful, aren’t they?” wondered Thoreson. “Check out that big, long hanger. Very cool. I could look at these peaks all day. I think that’s the most outstanding thing I’ve ever seen outside of Antarctica…just that pure, pure white. It’s one of those things that’s so beautiful it doesn’t look real. The scale of it all does something to your brain.”
After fourteen hours underway, some ninety miles down the track, we slid out of the Channel and up a deep fjord called the Seno Pia. There was an unsettling moment when, in a matter of a few minutes, the depths went from a thousand feet to fifteen. But then we were back in deep water, approaching a headland directly in front of us. We hooked a slight right up another, calmer inlet called the East Arm, then tucked behind a low spit into an anchorage called the Caleta Beaulieu. It took a couple of tries to get the anchor down and then we ferried a pair of lines ashore and secured them to a couple of trees.
A trio of glaciers surrounded us. The whole place was spiritual, surreal and sensational. Though Cape Horn is now behind us, for this band of “Beagle brothers,” it seemed like a worthy encore.
- Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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