Tick on an Elephant

Boat after boat stacked up in ranks behind us, and we are well and truly trapped until boats start leaving.
Elias and Eric Litzow

Elias and Eric Litzow

Elias and Eric Litzow Mike Litzow

There are at 16 longliners rafted up here in Caleta Suarez. Galactic is boat number 17, on the far side of the front row, right up against the side of the caleta. During a brief break in the weather all of the fishing boats save one went out to jig for cierra, the barracuda of southern Chile. Then they all returned, and a crop of new boats making the dash from the canales of the north followed them. Boat after boat stacked up in ranks behind us, and we are well and truly trapped until boats start leaving. Which is fine, of course, as we can’t go anywhere in the theatrical weather that’s prevailing right now. But it’s also a tiny bit disconcerting for us to ever give up our ability to move at will. Self-volition, and the ability to move where and when we want, are so much the keys to the game that we play.

So after everyone stacked in, the gale resumed in earnest during the night, and Galactic felt a bit like a tick on the side of an elephant. We were stuck to one side of this massive body of lashed-together boats, at the mercy of the elephant’s movements. Fishing boats are designed to be heavy and strong – to bash into stuff and carry heavy loads and to be driven by massive engines. Yachts are designed to be strong but light, to be fleet before the wind. Incidental contact that is no big deal for a longliner can be a very big deal for us. And moving up from a group of eight longliners in one rank, which we were rafted to for the first three days, to 16 longliners in three ranks, felt like a big step down in control over the situation. We were more tick, and the elephant was more elephant.

Luckily, we are steel, and stronger than average for a 45′ yacht. During that first night when there were 16 of us it was blowing 40 knots on the outside and gusting in the caleta. I was up on deck off an on through the night, and we were so glad to have our six massive stainless-steel mooring cleats welded into the hull.


And I’ve been so glad to have the little Spanish I have. I can row over to the far side of the stack to explain that we’re close to shore, and ask that boat to tighten up their shore lines to give us a little more security against swinging into the shallows. And when I do that, the crew of this boat that I just met will immediately offer to set another shore line. I’ll talk weather with the captain while the crew digs out a line, then I’ll row a deckhand ashore with the new line, and they’ll send me back to Galactic with a couple fish for our dinner. We have friends who have sailed here with no Spanish, and of course they’ve gotten along just fine, but I think that interactions like that one would require a lot more force of personality on the part of a non-Spanish speaking yachtie.

That interaction with the boat on the other side of the stack was typical, by the way. Throughout the five days we’ve been here every fisherman we’ve had dealings with has been solicitous and helpful. I’ve had some fun chats, as well, though my conversational ability in highly vernacular Chilean Spanish sets very strict limits on these.

If the rain lets up today I think I’ll take Eric and make the rounds of the boats.


Through the Door

In these waters the rule to never waste a fair wind applies with singular force. -Bill Tilman

“The Gulf of Sorrows” is the most compelling English rendition that I’ve seen for the Spanish name Golfo de Penas.

The secret to seeing Patagonia from the decks of your own boat is los canales – the intricate fjords that give you protection all the way from Chiloé to the southern tip of South America and the Land of Fire – about a thousand nautical miles of this spectacular coastline.


There’s only one break in the fjords that requires an overnight sail in open-water conditions – the Gulf of Sorrows, more or less a 95-mile crossing from Caleta Suarez to Caleta Ideal.

Among our friends who have preceded us to Patagonia, the Gulf of Sorrows enjoys a reputation that nearly lives up to its name. A perennially big swell, unreasonably strong winds, and a shoreward-setting current make it the full meal deal for sailing at 47°S.

For our southbound journey on Galactic, the Gulf of Sorrows is the door we needed to step through to gain access to the “true” south.


The two day trips along the outer coast that carried us to Caleta Suarez were emblematic of the weather we had experienced in Chile up to that point. Blue sky, flat water over a two-meter swell. Postcard weather. A quick look at the three-day forecast as we approached Suarez showed a day of poor weather, followed by more of the good.

Five days later, we found ourselves still in Suarez, rafted up to 18 weather-bound longliners. The Don Adrian II, the big Patagonian toothfish longliner next to us, was talking about spending another week waiting for good weather.

In the Gulf, it was blowing 40, with a swell up to seven meters. Some other crew without our stern outlook on the vicissitudes of the sailing life might have regretted our decision not to just get across the Gulf when we had such benign weather. We Galacticans, on the other hand, have long since gotten used to learning from our own mistakes. I figured that an enforced wait after throwing away such good conditions on sleeping at anchor was a good lesson on the road to becoming savvy Patagonia sailors.

The forecast showed breaks in the weather, but they tended to offer brief spells of fairly marginal conditions.

The other night, after the boys had gone to sleep, Alisa and I looked at the forecast over and over, wondering if we should make a break for it the next morning.

Uncertainty over the reputation of the Gulf and the paucity of bail-out options finally gave way to spirit of “ain’t never gonna get perfect conditions, and we won’t know if we don’t go.” When I went over to the Don Adrian II to tell the crew that we would leave in the morning, I felt confirmed in our decision to learn that 12 of the longliners with nearby fishing grounds were planning to go out to the day before returning to Suarez.

So we went.

And it was just about as gnarly as we would care for, thank you very much. We like the feeling (illusion?) of having everything under control.

Which it was – under control, that is. The swell was big, and the breeze was a bit more than we would like when the squall lines came through. But the wind was behind us, and we picked up a ridiculously strong current – up to four knots at times – that saw us complete the crossing in 14 hours.

The entrance to the southern canals was alive with seabirds – petrels (diving, storm and giant), black-browed albatross, and Cape pigeons, those Southern Ocean favorites we haven’t seen in any number since the New Zealand sub-antarctic. The mountains of Península Larenas and Isla Wager appeared out of the mist as the waves stacked up behind us. And, thanks to the current, we managed to anchor up in Caleta Ideal in the daylight, a real treat after groping out of Caleta Suarez in the pitch.

And so, we’re here. Puerto Edén is suddenly only a few days’ travel away from us. And our hope to reach Puerto Natales in a month to renew our visas is looking more reasonable.

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.