January 9, 2021
150 of the most difficult miles in Patagonia were in front of us. The waters in and around the Straits of Magellan have a reputation for challenging and gloomy conditions. Our first test was to transit Canal Cockburn, which is wide open to the Southern Ocean’s strength. Next, we needed to arrive to Paso O’Ryan at slack tide. Paso O’Ryan is a shallow, narrow bottleneck in Canal Acwalisnan, and the site of an impressive tidal race. Massive volumes of water move through the constricted pass between the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific Ocean. Imagine the gentle flow from a garden hose being turned into a jet by a well placed thumb. In this case, Paso O’Ryan is the thumb, and the current there reaches up to 8 kts. Slack tide, the interval between flood and ebb tides, is only about 15 minutes. Timing would be essential.
To move through this challenging section as quickly as possible, we decided to take advantage of light conditions and motor as much as needed to keep moving. The forecast showed two days of calm to moderate winds before the return of strong headwinds. Suspecting this was as good as we were going to get, we left Caleta Brecknock at noon in sunshine and light winds. We gave ourselves nine hours to cover 30 miles to Paso O’Ryan, high slack water was at 21:00.
We steamed north in Canal Ocasion towards Canal Cockburn. At the meeting of the two, we could see waves crashing in the milky way, a place where ocean swells meet a multitude of rocks and shallow depths. Isla Noir (Isla No Go) was a shadow in the distance. Gentle ocean swells, leftover from yesterday’s wind, rolled Dawn Treader from side to side, but the outboard engine’s propeller remained submerged and powered us forward.
We took a shortcut between canals through Paso Gonzalez. We wound our way through a narrow fairway, around small islands, kelp patches, and shallow depths. We passed a gigantic flock of terns, but instead of birdwatching, I focused on steering. I followed cues from Brian, who was absorbed in navigating by comparing the chart to our surroundings. Towards the end of the pass, the avenue opened and a half dozen dusky dolphins swam around us. Their enthusiastic bow riding and acrobatics took my attention as Brian took the tiller. Eventually, they dropped back into Gonzalez and we turned into Cockburn.
With our backs to the Pacific, we motored on. A group of over 50 Black Browed Albatross bobbed together on calm waters. Canal Cockburn is widest where it meets the ocean. Turning back to take in a view of the open sea several miles across, I considered how exhilarating and frightening it is, to sail out onto expansive waters-to sail out until a continuous horizon line surrounds you day after day, and the breath from your lungs exchanges with the air of one of the most vast, most open spaces possible on Earth. Maybe someday we will venture across the Pacific as we did the Atlantic, possibly when we reach lower latitudes, where the Ocean’s weather is more welcoming to small boats. The late afternoon sun was still high when we turned into the shelter of Canal Acwalisnan. We were delighted to have crossed Cockburn with relative ease, and we were looking good for a timely arrival to Paso O’Ryan.
By 20:00 we were motor-sailing at 4 kts and we could see the approach to Paso O’Ryan just ahead. As we closed in, our speed dropped a knot. We told ourselves it was the last of the adverse current before slack tide. We motored into the narrows right on time, but an unexpected thing happened. Instead of gaining speed, or at least holding speed, we came to a stop. We increased to full throttle between the south point of a small island near to port, and rocks and shallows near to starboard. The whining engine gained us a few feet, but then nothing more, as our speed dropped back to zero. The first five minutes in this spot were stressful. We were worried about veering into the rocky hazards to either side. But, we were incredibly stationary. If we averted our eyes from the rushing water around us, and ignored the high pitch of our laboring engine, we seemed peacefully at anchor. So, we relaxed a little and waited for something to give way.
The wind was a light headwind. We were trying to coax some speed with the mainsail, but we found that falling off a few degrees to fill the sail was detrimental to our station keeping. The current caught the bow and further overwhelmed the engine. We tried dropping the sail to reduce air drag, but that made little impact. So, we continued waiting. Finally, the breeze veered just enough for the sails to be useful without losing our heading. We began creeping forward with full main, genoa, and outboard. After only 50 meters of progress our speed jumped to one knot and not long after that we were making two. Soon after the pass we were motor-sailing at normal speeds and the effects of the current seemed to be negligible, but for about 30 minutes we were stuck in one spot, literally between a rock and a hard place in Paso O’Ryan.
Although the skies were darkening and the rain was increasing, we joked and relaxed as we sailed on. We were glad to have made it through O’Ryan on our first try. The currents are confusing in these waters, where a multitude of openings to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans complicate tidal predictions. The same tide can flow with and against you at different ends of a single canal. The current is also influenced by wind and barometric pressure. Our passage through O’Ryan was not easy, and we will never know exactly why. It is unclear if we were too early or too late, but we made it through and that was good enough.
As we sailed on, night fell and squally weather settled on us. Low visibility began to hamper my confidence. My glasses were covered with raindrops and sheets of rain obscured any outline of the ground ahead. It was shaping up to be a long night as we approached the Straits of Magellan. Just then, Brian popped out of the companionway with good news. He thought we should stop in Caleta Felix, a close by, wide bay with a simple approach. All we had to do was slowly steer in, guided by GPS waypoints, and drop the hook until morning. When we made our way into the anchorage, Brian turned on the high beam of his head lamp. Through the rain a shiny flash of reflective tape gave us a start. A small fishing boat popped out of the darkness and into our sights. It surprised us, but all we had to do was give the already anchored boat some space. We chose a spot, dropped our anchor, and were settled by midnight. We hung up our wet gear, made sandwiches, and an hour later we were dry and snug in our sleeping bags. After a few hours rest we were ready for the Straits of Magellan.
Distance Made Good: 35 miles
Total Distance Made Good: 205 miles
Distance To Go: 1,046 miles
Average Miles per Day: 6
Fuel Remaining: 49 gallons