The Switch

The Gulf of Sorrows is not the only challenge that presents itself in the canales.

May 22, 2015
Galactic at anchor in Seno Pico Paico, Península Skyring. No picture could be more emblematic of our pre-Gulf of Sorrows experience of Patagonia. This southern winter stuff, it’s no bad! Mike Litzow

The weather forecast was from a different world from the one we had been inhabiting in the northern canales. If you just looked at the forecast without squinting and imagining, it was hard to see us traveling at all for the next week.

Which would be no biggie, of course.



Except that our visas for Chile were going to expire in less than a month, and Puerto Natales, the next place where we could cross into Argentina in a single day to renew our visas, and therefore not have to leave the boat unattended overnight, was still far away.

And, there was this thing with our propane. We left Puerto Montt with a stockpile of propane that would last us three or three and a half months in the tropics. But we have somehow gone through three quarters of it in about five weeks.

Alisa looked at this scene…and decided it was a divine invitation to do laundry. So she scampered off to the nearest creek and hung to dry before sunset. Mike Litzow

We weren’t using that much more with all the mugs-ups that were seeing us through each day. Were the tanks under-filled in Puerto Montt? We don’t know. But the idea of being stuck in some caleta days from anywhere, listening to the sleet on deck, with no propane to facilitate the cooking process, was not an outcome that I wanted to entertain.


And the next place where we could hope to fill our US tanks was…that same Puerto Natales, still so far away.

The clothes were still drying the next day as we pressed southwards. Our plan was to make another daysail to Caleta Suarez before we tackled the overnighter across the Gulf of Sorrows. Look at those conditions! The full genoa poled out, and we’re rolling down at a comfortable pace. Swell about two meters. You could sail these waters for a lifetime’s worth of Mays without seeing such good conditions for crossing the Gulf. But instead of grabbing the chance, we put into Suarez for the night. Mike Litzow

Back when I was an ambitious Alaskan mountain climber of mediocre ability, my ambitious-if-mediocre climbing friends and I would occasionally meet climbers coming up from Outside with plans to climb Denali (Alaska’s 6,000 meter peak) in winter. We’d roll our eyes and shrug our shoulders. Living in Alaska was proof against being so silly as trying to climb the highest peak on the continent in winter.

I’ve long ago decided that sailing to the Land of Fire in winter is not the same thing as trying to climb Denali in winter – i.e., proof that you are both clueless and a show-off.

And it’s good we did, as the five days in Suarez turned into one of the best getting-down-with-the-people experiences we’ve yet had in Chile. The weather was turning, and the whole longline fleet was coming into Suarez for shelter. At this point we’re rafted up with nine fishing boats – at the peak it was eighteen. Mike Litzow

We have so many friends and acquaintances who have sailed here – some of them in winter – and they’re such normal people. Better sailors than us, for the most part, but still complete amateurs and everyday people, just like us.

For us, sailing south in the winter was never a goal. It’s more or less that we frittered the summer away on one thing and another, and it seemed a better idea to get going south when we were ready, rather than to sit in the marina in Puerto Montt all winter, waiting for a “better” season. And besides, if those people we knew had done it, etc., etc.

But, in the dark night as we were dashing around at the end of the anchor chain in Caleta Ideal, it was all starting to seem a bit…adventurous.

I love the dueling hand gestures in this pic. I wish I could remember what I was trying to get across. Mike Litzow

We took more than an academic interest the next day when we shoved off to sail down Canal Messier. Could we, you know, travel in the conditions that presented themselves?

That was one of the most stirring sailing days we’ve ever had. Nine knots through the water under staysail alone isn’t our normal sort of outing.

It was such a stirring day that we didn’t get any pictures at all.

We were somewhat popular. Mike Litzow

The weather was supposed to go from nine-knots-under-staysail-alone to completely shitting itself mate, to quote one of my better-spoken Tasmanian friends. So we were very happy to execute a four point tie-in before dark.

And so we’ve established something of a rhythm. Some days we don’t travel, but we’re happily surprised that we are able to most days.

The weather cleared long enough for us to explore the beach in the outer bay – Seno Cono – described by the cruising guide as the best walking beach in Patagonia. But it didn’t clear for long enough to give us a chance to cross the Gulf. Mike Litzow

And though I’ve decided that people who sail to Patagonia and then talk about the weather are in the same category as those people who live in Alaska and complain about the cold winters, it is hard to escape the physical conditions if I’m trying to give some impression of the place. How dark it is when we wake up. How the rain is cold enough to feel like a different element from the water we’re used to. That sort of thing.

We’re also getting well into the routine of tying into shore every night. We know some other Patagonia newbies who express various degrees of skepticism about tying in, or who try to tie in only when they are forced to.

When our break came, it wasn’t great weather that was on offer, but more of a case of us recognizing that a better chance was unlikely to come along. We were expecting reasonably strong northerlies and a big swell. Once we entered the Gulf, we wouldn’t be able to easily turn around if we didn’t like the way the day was stacking up – we’d be largely committed to carrying on, towards the entrance to the southern canales on a lee shore, with the tide and currents doing what they would with the swell. Mike Litzow

We figure that until we know what the hell is going on, we’re going to act like our friends who know a lot more than us and tie in every night – with four shore lines if it feels like at all a good idea. Weather surprises do happen, and I figure the night will come when we’re very glad to be defensively set up. And the practice of doing this every night can only help when we come to a situation when finding a safe berth isn’t straightforward.

A Single Piece of Petrel Down

At the anchorage where we finished the crossing we met Patrick, a singlehander on Cephalais II. He had been sitting in Caleta Ideal for a week, waiting for a chance to cross to the north, with only the short-range forecasts relayed by the San Pedro lighthouse to guide him.

It was a hard decision to leave a safe anchorage with the forecast that we had. We very much like to be driving events when we’re sailing with the kids, and coastal sailing like this makes us nervous. But it was the right call. The conditions were as much as we would want, but things were never close to out of control. Mike Litzow

Patrick was finishing a tough trip from the south. In Punta Arenas a wind shift left his boat exposed to the full fury of the Straits of Magellan while he happened to be ashore dining with a friend. Repairs took two months.

Our second night in Ideal felt insecure. The rig shuddered and the boat swung. Although we have a very good anchoring setup, we would prefer to be tied to shore in some little nook rather than swinging in the gusts.

We started motoring in no wind and a four meter swell, then went to staysail and three reefs in the main when the wind came up on our quarter, then to jib alone when it veered to our stern. Mike Litzow

Leaving Ideal was a difficult decision. We were conscious of our inexperience in these waters, and the golden rule of never leaving a secure anchorage in bad weather. After we picked the hook Patrick followed, acting on his decision to go wait in the village of Tortel for a while.

We ended the day motoring in with the staysail to steady us, pleased to be making Caleta Ideal before dark, and generally relieved that the crossing had gone well. Mike Litzow

We fairly flew down Canal Messier, the main north-south route in this part of the canales. Nine and ten knots through the water, with the opposing tide bothering us not at all. Alisa kept me company under the dodger with its made-for-Patagonia back door/rain shield. No school, and the boys were for (literally) the first time in our sailing career abandoned to the electronic nanny of the iPad. They watched the French cartoons that I downloaded in my failed campaign to turn them into little Francophones.

“What happened?” Mike Litzow

That was last season. This season I’m concentrating on my failure to turn them into Spanish speakers.

I haven’t seen this many shades of gray since the Aleutians, said Alisa.

Giant petrels swooped behind us. A single piece of petrel down went scudding across the waves, passing us in the wind.

After coming to grips with conditions, rather than wondering what they’d be like, Puerto Natales didn’t feel so far away. Mike Litzow

We declined the offer of the first three good caletas we came to. We’re out here, traveling fast, I reasoned. No reason to stop. We came to rest in Caleta Morgane, a little nook surrounded by absolutely primeval rainforest. A creek pours foam and tannin into the ocean just off our stern and four shore lines hold us exactly where we want to be.

Elias was very happy to provide a fish for dinner. Mike Litzow

Elias helped with the lines, pulling out slack for me while I rowed them ashore. He shouted not-quite-to-the-point questions and misheard my replies. The diesel stove warmed us all up and Alisa made green chicken curry.

And, my fellow North Pacific marine biology geeks – doesn’t this look all the world like Sebastes? Mike Litzow

After the boys went to sleep we recapped the day. We just need to keep making good decisions, I said. We’re learning so much every day.

Elias has been lending a hand with the lines. And – news flash! – he’s real help. Mike Litzow

When we left Alaska to sail to Australia with our toddler for crew, we thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But then we had our second child, and bought our second boat, and sailed across the Pacific a second time. We’ve been living aboard for seven years now. Sometimes we wonder how long we’ll keep at it, but all we know for sure is that the end doesn’t seem to be in sight just yet. Click here to read more from the Twice in a Lifetime blog.

The lines make the trip ashore tied around my waist. Why do I get to do all the fun parts? I ask Alisa. Elias Litzow
Meanwhile, a parent’s concern over safety is ever-present. Elias is completely clueless about what a vicious thing a line under load can be. Here I’m giving an impromptu safety lecture. That’s my “no shit, pay attention to this” face that the boys will likely soon be making fun of when I’m not around. Mike Litzow
Galactic on the armada buoy at Puerto Edén. Mike Litzow
Today we made Puerto Edén, the very small, very optimistically named village that is all that there is in terms of settlements in these parts. Mike Litzow

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