A New England yacht designer sets his sights on the Chilean channels as the locale for the sea trials of his latest 57-foot cat. From our June 2012 issue.
The standing joke at the Alwoplast boatyard in Valdivia, Chile—the builders of my Atlantic series of cruising catamarans—goes like this: “Break out the umbrellas! Chris is coming to sea-trial a new boat.” So when my wife, Kate, and I recently landed in the town of Temuco to sunny skies, I was stunned. An hour later, however, as we turned off the Pan American Highway on the drive to the Pacific coast, the cloud deck worked lower and the raindrops increased with every mile. Ah, I thought, that’s better.
The plan was to board PataGao, a brand-new Atlantic 57 catamaran, with owner Jim Whalen and Alwoplast’s Alex Wopper and Roni Klingenberg, for a weeklong shakedown cruise in the spectacular cruising ground of coastal Chilean Patagonia. We eagerly anticipated sailing in a new region and sampling generous amounts of local seafood and wine.
For a month, Alex had been sending emails about the bleak El Niño weather and its near-continuous torrential rains with unseasonably strong winds. Though everyone had been looking forward to the cruise, I could sense the enthusiasm level receding with each report. February is normally Chile’s driest month, in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer, the prime time to enjoy a taste of Patagonia sailing. But it was looking like a washout.
Even so, at the boatyard, things were very much on schedule. Sails were bent on, electronics fully functioning, and engines and other systems checked out and operational. We agreed that early the next morning, we’d take a brief trial sail in the Valdivia River. If no problems developed and the weather looked OK, we’d make a break south the following day.
Our short sail in the river went well—it was sunny, and almost warm—and the weather forecast looked great for yet another day before strong northerly winds would close the harbor. In Chile, there are very few private yachts, and the Chilean national navy regulates their movements. You must obtain permission to move from port to port, and when the navy has doubts about the weather, it closes the harbors in the interests of safety and won’t allow anyone to leave. This seems a bit heavy-handed to me, but those are the rules. The coastline is very rugged, with long distances between safe harbors, and frequent gales. In any case, if we jumped on it, our cruise could begin immediately.
Valdivia is one of the best harbors in southern Chile, and in the days of yore, it was the first town where square-riggers coming north from Cape Horn could refit and provision. Today, Alwoplast Marine serves many yachts of all sizes in their preparations for southbound journeys. The prime cruising ground starts about 120 nautical miles south, where the monolithic coastline gives way to thousands of miles of islands, channels, and glacial fjords that allow inside passage most of the way to the Horn. Both Alex and Roni have sailed extensively in this region and would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. It was a treat to have such good local knowledge on board.
With a crisp land breeze and the scent of pine trees in the air, we set forth, but once we were clear of the river, the breeze vanished. Oh, well, part of our mission was to uncover what didn’t work before Jim and his crew departed for the Galápagos Islands and Panama in a few weeks. So on came the engines, and we powered south along the rugged coast.
Like her sisters, PataGao motors very well; she’ll do eight knots on one engine and 10.5 knots running both. Our goal was to get into the Canal de Chacao, about 100 miles south, before the forecast northwesterly filled in. This channel is about 10 miles long and a mile and a half wide, and it separates the large island of Isla Grande de Chiloe from the mainland. The rub here is that the tidal current can run at 10 knots! When it’s blowing hard, it creates overfalls that have rolled large ships. Roni had seen it in an ugly mood and didn’t savor a repeat experience, so there was some urgency to knock out that first leg quickly.
During the course of the day, the wind built to 20 to 25 knots, but it was right on the nose. The wind-induced chop on top of the eight-foot swell made conditions a bit rough, but PataGao—Portuguese for “big foot,” the original name that Magellan supposedly bestowed on the natives of Patagonia—was maintaining a very comfortable eight knots at cruising rpm, so we kept motoring in an effort to reach the canal before the westerly shift. Other than a few whales and a tugboat steaming north, we saw nothing afloat, just the mountainous wall of coastline mostly covered with evergreens, with an occasional glimpse of a snow-capped volcano in the distance.
It was well past sunset when we entered the Canal de Chacao. The wind had eased, and the fearsome conditions were only hinted at in great swirls of water and current rips—clear enough warnings to experienced sailors to watch and be wary. Roni piloted us into the anchorage on the northern shoreline at Carelmapu, where we could anchor for the night among the commercial fishing boats and wait for the morning’s favorable flood tide.