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From desert winds to Patagonia

Dec 19, 2011

Long, skinny Chile stretches 2,653 miles along the Pacific coast of South America from its border with Peru in the north to the bottom of the world at Tierra del Fuego. Our planned itinerary aboard our Liberty 45 cutter Nine of Cups would take us about 1,500 nm from the desert climate of Arica in the north through the Mediterranean-like climate of its central region to Puerto Montt, the gateway to Patagonia.

The Chilean coast south of Arica has little nooks and crannies to tuck into, and though the prevailing winds and current do not abate, the distance between anchorages need only be a day trip. The RCC guide Chile: Arica Desert to Tierra del Fuego is still the best nautical guide available for northern Chile and we had it with us.

It was September, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, when we arrived in Arica. A hoarse chorus of barking sea lions welcomed our late night arrival. The harbor was well lit and we were given instructions for anchoring over the radio by the Chilean Armada.

Within 30 minutes of dropping the hook, we were inundated with officials checking us in. Immigration stamped our passports. Agriculture confiscated our fresh fruit and vegetables. Customs performed a cursory inspection. Health cleared the crew for entry after ascertaining there was no plague and no deaths en route. We finally settled down for a good night’s sleep.

Situated on the Peruvian border, Arica is dubbed Chile’s “First Port.” In fact, the city once belonged to Peru and was taken by Chile during the War of the Pacific in 1880. Arriving at night, we could not appreciate the immensity of the El Morro headland which dominates the city’s landscape, but it was a splendid sight while drinking our coffee in the cockpit the following morning. The fishermen were friendly and made a point of waving and shouting hello each time they went by. We were welcomed by everyone we met. We were invited home for dinner, taken on city tours, driven up to the top of El Morro for terrific views and directed to the local fresh market. The Chilean Coast Guard gladly watched our boat while we took a day trip to the Lauca National Park in the higher altitudes of the Altiplano and encouraged us to raft our dinghy to their inflatable whenever we went into town.

Clearing our itinerary
Our planned coastal itinerary was long and after nearly a week, it was time to start heading south. Before leaving, we were required to provide the Armada with a list of each port we intended to visit along the coast. The list was substantial including some 30 prospective ports of call, but was approved without discussion. We were instructed to check in at any port with an Armada office and otherwise twice daily via radio or e-mail when at sea.

Our plans for an early morning get-away went awry immediately when we had problems hauling the anchor. One fluke of the anchor was caught up on a piece of cable. For nearly an hour, we tried knocking it off with the boat hook and maneuvering the anchor to remove it, but to no avail. As we prepared to launch the dinghy again, two wizened old fishermen with big smiles came up next to us in their rowboat, saw the problem and using a big knife, cut the cable in a matter of seconds. We were on our way.

Caleta Chica, just 50-nm south, proved to be just a tiny cove as its name suggests. With only a small house and a tent visible ashore, we stayed aboard and spent an uncomfortable rolly night. We were happy enough when dawn arrived and we continued on to Bahia de Pisagua, location of the infamous prisons and executions during the Pinochet administration in the 1970s and 80s. The town’s blue and white town clock sits high on a hillside and is conspicuous on approach. Tired from the sleepless night before, we preferred to admire it from the deck.

With brisk northerlies, we actually sailed the 40 nm to Iquique. We anchored with the fishing fleet and dinghied into the Club de Yates. With our seven-foot draft, we needed a high tide to negotiate the bar at the entrance to the yacht club and moved in the next morning with only a few inches to spare under the keel.

Info from other cruisers
Iquique is a bustling city and the evidence of its 19th-century mining boom is preserved in its Georgian mansions, Victorian town clock and an ornate Corinthian theater on the central Plaza Prat. Three other north-bound foreign yachts were visiting here and we had lots of information to share. We were also able to buy used Chilean hydrographic charts and extra lines from one of them for use in the Patagonian canals.

After 10 days in Iquique, including a bus trip to the Atacama Desert, we were on our way again. An overnight anchorage in Caleta Patillos, a bulk salt-loading terminal, had us positioned for a late, next-day departure and a 143-nm overnight passage to our next port of call.

Mejillones del Sur translates literally to mussels of the south. Though they have good seafood, this little fishing port town is not particularly known for its mussels. In fact, it was more known for its guano and nitrate trade in the past when it originally belonged to Bolivia. The wind piped up as soon as we anchored and trying to launch the dinghy was akin to flying a kite. The Armada, tired of waiting for us to come ashore, finally accommodated us by bringing out their own launch and checking us in.

Fueling challenge
Fueling up had been a challenge throughout our trip. Lugging jerry jugs to local gas stations and back was heavy work. Here the problem was exacerbated by tides that left the dinghy far below the pier when we returned with full jugs. The local fishermen pitched in readily and helped to lower jugs down to the waiting dinghy. We hauled them to Cups, decanted them and repeated the process. There’s much to be said for actually sailing a sailboat.

Another overnight and we arrived in the little fishing village of Taltal. We purposely anchored a good distance from the fleet as we noted lots of fishing boat traffic coming and going. We tied up the dinghy at the crowded pier and headed into town. This was the first time that no one in the Port Captain’s office spoke any English. My Spanish sufficed for check-in.

The only petrol station in town apologized that they were out of diesel until the next fuel truck arrived in two days. We returned to the pier to find that our dinghy was gone. We finally spotted it...tied up to Cups several hundred yards away. We figured that when the fleet came in to unload their catch and the pier became too congested, the fishermen left their tenders at their boats and relied on each other to get back and forth to shore. Unfortunately, we didn’t see anyone around. We waited for nearly half an hour before we spotted a tender heading in our direction. We flagged him over and got a lift back to Cups.

Wrapped up by a fishing boat
During our second night there, we were suddenly awakened by a loud thwack at around 0200, followed quickly by another. We rushed on deck to find a large fishing boat banging into our stern, its bow pulpit inches above our solar panels. It was obvious as we fended it off that the fisherman had anchored and gone home for the night. He had let out lots of rode, 300 feet or more of polypro line, which had managed to wrap itself totally around Nine of Cups several times. Hails to the Port Captain’s office rendered no response. We were on our own.

After considerable manhandling, we managed to swing the fishing boat up beside us, put fenders in place and raft it to us. David climbed aboard, detached the anchor rode from the Samson post, unwound it from our anchor chain, resecured it to the Samson post once again and we cast her free. The ordeal took over three hours and we were so wound up at the end, we decided to haul anchor and head out.

We barely managed the 24 nm down the coast before the wind and waves picked up considerably. We spent the rest of the day and night in tiny, well-protected Caleta Cifuncho. The anchorage was calm, though we could see whitecaps outside the cove not far away. The little village ashore looked tidy and inviting, but after our Taltal adventure, we were happy to relax and go to sleep early.

Light southerly winds found us motor-sailing once again to Caleta Flamenco where we spent a rolly night before heading out the next morning for Caldera.
Caldera’s friendly little yacht club sent their launch to meet us on arrival. “Mackerel scales, furl your sails,” an old mariner’s rhyme, was very apropos to the weather that ensued and we happily swung on the visitor’s mooring for several days while waiting out big winds and high seas.

Isolated island
We had heard about Isla Damas from other cruisers and although it was not mentioned in the cruising guide, we had permission to stop there. Part of a Chilean national reserve, this tiny, rugged island looked gray and lifeless. We dinghied to shore on a misty, overcast day. Once we began exploring, there were flowers blooming everywhere. The mist had awakened the sleeping bloomers and the bright colors of pink, red, purple and yellow were a dazzling contrast to the otherwise monotonous gray of the island. There were paths lined with white shells. We followed them along the beach and through the interior. Cacti flowered profusely. Gulls, pelicans and cormorants were thick, but no penguins greeted us although they’re known to visit here. We did see several colorful little rufous-collared sparrows that were fearless and allowed us to get close enough to touch them.

Our calm, easy landing on the beach proved to be just the opposite when we attempted to leave. The waves and wind had increased and the tide was now high. We faced a crashing surf. We launched the dinghy only to be hit by a huge wave, flipped over and thrown back on shore. With difficulty, we righted the dink and emptied it amid the crashing waves around us. Two more failures rendered us totally soaked to the bone in the freezing water. Spending the night on this island was not a pleasant option. The third try was the charm. We timed it just right, finally made it over the breakers and headed back to the boat…cold, wet and relieved.

Only 40 nm from Isla Damas, we entered Bahia de La Herradura in the city of Coquimbo. We anchored off the pleasant, well-protected yacht club expecting to stay a week. Two boats were already anchored there and our social life improved dramatically within hours.

From two weeks to two months    
Our week’s stay lengthened to nearly two months when a medical emergency resulted in major surgery for David. The prospect of undergoing surgery in a foreign country was daunting, but we had no choice. We are pleased to report that “second world” Chile has first world medical care at third world prices. We were, however, way behind schedule now if we wanted to make it to Puerto Montt for a timely first-of-the-year departure into the Chilean canals.

With David fit to go, we departed Coquimbo on Dec. 14 with a good forecast for northerly winds. With the extended delay in Coquimbo, we had decided to bypass the rest of our ports of call and sail directly to Puerto Montt. We were very disappointed when 40-knot southerly winds and big seas pummeled us our second day out. For the most part, there’s always somewhere to tuck in and little Caleta Tuman afforded us refuge for the night as the wind continued to howl from the south. Dense coastal fog in the morning burned off by midday, but the winds persisted and we stayed another day.

Northerlies were forecast and we were southbound again ... but not for long. The wind switched all too quickly to the south and we hove-to for 12 hours hoping it would abate. It didn’t and we miserably headed back to the calm of Caleta Tuman to spend another night. On Dec. 20, we set out once again in N/NW winds. We were actually sailing for a change and it was grand, but short-lived. The prevailing southerlies reclaimed their turf and 30-knot winds on the nose had us hove-to for another 10 hours. Our hopes of making Puerto Montt by Christmas disappeared.

We finally surrendered to the winds and two days before Christmas pulled into the port of Talcahuano, headquarters of Chile’s Armada. Low on fuel, we anchored with the fishing boats and went ashore to suss out our options. Luckily, the petrol station was directly across the street from the dinghy tie-up. David had plenty of help from the local fishermen who lugged the jugs with him, both empty and full, back and forth to the station. We made two round trips and they were happy to help both times. A bottle of rum was most appreciated as our way of saying thanks.

The Port Captain hailed us and offered us a berth at the naval yacht club. Since the club is on navy base property, we were given passes to come and go as we pleased on the navy base. The club was nearly deserted, but hot showers, shore power and unlimited fresh water were most welcome. In the neighboring city of Concepción, we managed to scrounge up a small, exorbitantly expensive, smoked turkey and all the fixings for Christmas dinner. A Salvation Army band was playing traditional Christmas carols. It was warm, bright and sunny as shoppers hustled about, doing their last minute shopping. Santa, sweltering in the summer sun, sat in the plaza waiting to be photographed with kids on his knee.

Hitting the weather window    
A short weather window appeared and we thought we’d make it the 250 nm to Valdivia for New Year’s. The window unexpectedly expanded and when we reached the waypoint for the entrance to Valdivia, we bypassed it and headed straight for our final destination of Puerto Montt, just another 120 nm south.
The narrow, natural waterway between Chiloé Island and mainland Chile is called the Canal de Chacao. We anchored overnight at calm Puerto Inglés just west of the entrance to the canal and waited for the flood tide. The canal itself is only 18 miles long, but the trip from Puerto Inglés to Puerto Montt is a circuitous 60 miles. With the flood current, we literally flew through the canal at 12 knots. Since there are no bridges to Chiloé, ferry traffic is frequent and significant and we were on our toes.

The water was glass smooth as we wended our way through the canal. The scenery was beautiful as it whizzed by. Quaint little towns appeared with salmon pens edging the shore. The tiny village of Abtao would have provided a lovely anchorage, but we appreciated its charm from afar. We could see the snow-covered peaks of the Andes in the far distance. Rafts of shearwaters floated by. Peale’s dolphins entertained us for nearly 30 minutes with their tail-walking antics.

We arrived at Puerto Montt’s Club Nautico Reloncavi late in the day on New Year’s Eve. With a sigh of relief, we toasted each other with a glass of champagne and relaxed for a couple of weeks before tackling the Patagonian canals.

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Marcie Connelly-Lynn and her husband David have lived aboard Nine of Cups, a 1986 45-foot Liberty cutter, since 2000. They have sailed more than 65,000 nautical miles. Visit their website at www.nineofcups.com.