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Sailing in Chile: Part 1 - The Journey Begins

Karina McQueen & Gary Peacock

Sea Rover II
Oyster 435
September 15th, 2019

After a “big” year of sailing from Guaymas, Mexico (27oN) to Valdivia, Chile (40oS) via the Galapagos and Easter Island, we were ready for a “quiet” sailing season.

We had left Sea Rover II, our 1985 Oyster 435, moored in a slip at Marina Estancilla for the Chilean winter.  The marina is located up the Valdivia River about 4 nm from the centre of downtown Valdivia and is considered an outstation for the Valdivia Yacht Club.  The Yacht Club downtown is quite small and primarily accommodates smaller sailboats, with the only spots for boats under 30 feet in length being on the outer breakwater.  While Marina Estancilla is a bit further from town, it has many slips for larger boats and is more protected from the winds than the Yacht Club downtown.  The local bus stops at the marina driveway and runs every 5-10 minutes and so it is easy to go into town to provision or enjoy the sites.  We left the boat for the winter under the supervision of Marcelo, the very kind and helpful manager of the Yacht Club.  Valdivia is one of the wettest places on the planet, with an average rainfall of 2.5 metres, and so we were not surprised to arrive back at the boat in the spring to a layer of green mould inside.  On the plus side, the decks were clean and free of all the salt we’d accumulated on our ocean crossings!

The wonderful Fish Market in Valdivia

Gary spent the Chilean spring months installing a hydronic heating system on the boat and fixing the many things that had broken on our trip south.  I arrived after Christmas to help finish the boat projects and to get ready to head into the Patagonian channels.  Our modest goal for the 2019 cruising season was to sail to the northern most glacier in Chile, Laguna San Rafael, at 46oS, about 450 nm south of Valdivia.  We would then return to Valdivia or Puerto Montt for the winter.

After spending a month on the dock at the Alwoplast boat yard, finishing projects and enjoying the company of other cruisers, including fellow BCA members Dave and Margaret on Heart and Soul, and Mark and Rosie on Merkava, a weather window for heading south was shaping up for February 4th.  As the wind blows from the south 99.9% of the time in the summer, finding a 30 hour period when the wind was going to blow from the north was like finding a pot of gold.  We had to take it.  So, we did a million last minute jobs, cleared out with the Port Captain and provisioned.  It was exhausting, but we threw off the dock lines at 1145h on February 4th and started on our way!

We headed down the river (against the current, of course) and sailed out of beautiful sunshine and 30oC, into fog and 10oC at the mouth of the river!  Brrrr.  The 135 nm trip down the coast was uneventful, but very cold.  With the fog and the fact there was no moon that night, it was probably the darkest passage we have ever done.   It was very difficult to discern the sea from the sky. The only light was from the phosphorescence in the water, which was the brightest we’ve ever seen. As promised by the weather gods, we had strong north winds the entire time and so we cruised along at 5 knots (should have been faster, but we had a major current against us) and arrived in an anchorage at the top end of Isla Chiloe in the late afternoon, just ahead of the prevailing southerly winds.  We spent the next day completing more boat jobs and preparing for our trip through Canal Chacao, the pass that separates Mainland Chile from Isla Chiloe.  The pass is about 15 nm long and only 2 miles wide and as such, an enormous amount of water travels between the ocean and the inner sea four times a day.  Currents can travel up to 9 knots and so passage of the channel has to be carefully timed.

Channel Chacao, which separates mainland Chile and Isla Chiloe

As always, we did our homework and knew when we had to go through.  For once the timing was even in our favour – we were to leave the anchorage at 0900h to arrive at the mouth of the channel at slack tide by 0930-1000h.  We could then expect a tidal push through the channel for the next few hours.  All went according to plan, except we hadn’t quite accounted for the wind.  Well, that’s not strictly true; we knew a SE wind was due once we got through the channel, but we expected the wind to pick up in the afternoon (as it usually does) when we would already be through.  Alas, it was not to be.  The wind piped up at 0850h and was a consistent 15-20 knots from the SE the entire way through.

Needless to say the first 15 nm literally flew by.  With a reefed main and triple reefed genoa, we reached a top speed of 11.6 knots while going through the narrowest part of the channel.  Definitely a wild ride!  Then we reached the inner side of the channel, where the 15 knot SE wind met the 8 knot W current.  Not a pretty sight, with BIG standing waves.  We got tossed around like a rag doll in the huge confused seas.  Not for the first time were we glad we have such a good, strong boat.  Sea Rover managed the nasty 1.5 m swell at 1s intervals in style, burying her nose when required, but slogging through it all with ease.

The only carnage happened down below, where in our haste to leave Valdivia on that good weather window, we hadn’t got around to screwing down the floor boards surrounding our salon table.  After hearing an enormous crash below in one of the particularly large, nasty standing waves, we looked down from the cockpit to see our salon table, with the floor still attached, on its side.  Luckily it had wedged itself between the port and starboard settees and so it wasn’t going anywhere for the rest of the trip.  Amazingly, it’s cargo of 13 bottles of wine (glass!), 2 liquor bottles (more glass!), 6 boxes of wine and 12 cans of ginger ale all survived completely unscathed.  Phew!

Ooops! But the salon table’s cargo all survived! Yippee!

After 30 minutes of really rough seas, we made it out of the standing wave section and into the normal, crappy seas you get when you try to sail upwind against a 20 knot wind in an area that has a huge fetch.  Luckily we only had about 10 nm to go to our next anchorage, where we took refuge behind a shellfish farm at the bottom of the bay.   All in all it was an interesting beginning to sailing in Patagonia and a fitting introduction for things to come.

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  1. Avatar Stan Homer says:

    Great story. Visited Chiloe by car some years ago when Homers’ Odyessy was in Ecuador. Chiloe reminded us of Ireland. Safe travels.