Rite of passage: solo cruising the fjords of Chile

Exploring the fjords of Chile is more of a daydream for most sailors but to fulfil that dream solo as an 18-year-old is something else. Loris Pattinson tells ST how he did it:

A bit about me before I get started: sailing is in my blood. My great grandfather, Geoffrey Pattinson, was a member of the Royal Ocean Racing Club. He had raced his yachts Fanfare and Uomie in the Sydney Hobart yacht races. His yachts featured on the club walls. His son Peter Pattinson was the founder member of the Welsh Sailing School. But it was my mother, Sasha, who worked for a living on yachts from Australia, Caribbean and the Mediterranean who encouraged me to sail.

I started sailing when I was seven years old, in my local town, Lochcarron, north west Scotland. When I was 11, I sold eggs and put the money toward buying a dinghy of my own.

At 13 I started at Gordonstoun school which brought me my first meaningful contact with the sea on board Ocean Spirit of Moray, the school’s fully manual 80ft Oyster. During the five years I spent at Gordonstoun I sailed around the Outer-Hebrides, from Inverness to Lisbon in the 2016 Tall Ships Race, and the Bristol to Glasgow leg of a round Britain voyage to mark the 80th anniversary of the school. It was a sound preparation for Chile but none of this could really prepare me for what came next.

I left Gordonstoun eight months ago, took my RYA Day Skipper ticket at Commodore Sailing in the Hamble with a great instructor, Peter Vogel, and started what I hope will be a career in yachts. Knocking on hulls in Palma I found my first job including months on a 74ft Sunreef Catamaran in the Caribbean before it was sadly sold and the new owner’s crew came aboard.

Crew wanted

Answering an ad on Crewseekers website for unpaid crew, I joined Dan Stroud, who is sailing around the world in a 31ft Rustler. Having been rebuffed by the extreme weather of Tierra Del Fuego, Dan sought a helping hand to sail from Ushuaia to Puerto Montt It was apparently summer, although you wouldn’t realise it through the horizontal hail.

Sadly, for family reasons, Dan had to leave the boat part way through the voyage and said to me, “You can either stay here in Puerto Eden for a month polishing brass or you can sail the remaining 700nm to Puerto Montt.”

I opted for the latter, not being one to sit around. As an 18-year-old it isn’t often you get an opportunity to sail solo, especially not in a region so remote and unspoilt. Needless to say, my parents weren’t thrilled by the prospect of their son, fresh out of school, being battered by the elements in the South Pacific ocean at the mercy of the gods. However Dan reassured them that I was a competent sailor and unlike many people my age, or indeed older, capable of making informed decisions regarding my own safety. I beg to differ with this last point – at one stage during the voyage I found myself stranded standing on a rock in front of a retreating glacier wearing nothing but swimming trunks, chunks of ice the size of small houses falling into the sea causing small tsunamis to wash over the rock almost knocking me in many times.

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Dan likes to keep things simple on board: no fridge, radar or shower. The result was almost two months without beer and meat, essential parts of my diet, but it’s always good to try new things.

Solo in the Gulf of Sorrow

I set off solo from Puerto Eden, which has a record for being the wettest place in the world and is home to more dogs than people, on the stroke of 11am on 18 January having made exceptional progress thus far. I had heard reports of people waiting a month for a weather window to get out of the Magellan Straits. However, I travelled the whole thing in just a few short days, although one day I managed to travel three miles in five hours, beating into a 30-knot headwind to reach the safety of the next anchorage. My first obstacle was a narrow channel just north of Puerto Eden, where one can experience 9kt riptides. At ‘slack water’ there is still the convergence of two tides which at one point caused me to be spun 360° in a narrow space, no more than 200m wide, and pushed towards a shrine to Mary – which the fishermen claim give them good luck through this channel.

I made my way cautiously up to the mouth of Canal Messier, battling against northerly winds, from where I would be able to launch my offensive into the ominously named Golfo de Penas, the Gulf of Sorrow.

The first 2½ weeks were fraught with tremendous storms, horizontal rain and sleet, funnelled winds and ‘bergy bits’ which were translucent lumps of ice that at a distance resembled the crest of a wave – this made every breaking wave suspect. I had to be constantly looking out for hazards and this need to be alert took a drain on my energy meaning I had to recalculate my Snickers bar rations from six per day to 10.

I tucked myself into narrow protected caletas inching my way up the chart northbound. The most spectacular of which was Caleta Yvonne from which I kayaked out through half-frozen Seno Iceberg to see the mile-long craggy face of a Glacier. In Caleta Point Lay a tree fell during high winds, missing the boat by inches but clipped the flag pole at the stern.

One disadvantage of this part of the world is that as so few people come here, the charts are largely inaccurate, or not filled in, meaning I found rocks in the middle of anchorages which luckily I narrowly avoided. Part way through, the echo sounder gave up on life, due to moisture; this made navigating these already dangerous waters even more risky and put an end to me exploring uncharted caletas for the improvement of charts.

From Caleta Lamento del Indio I made my first excursion into Penas and I was given a strong telling off by the sea. I made a hasty tactical retreat into the nearest caleta (Caleta Ideal) and waited a day for the weather to change from the NE winds which had caused a confused sea.

On 2 February I set off across Penas, a 7m swell blocking the wind as I descended into the trough. On the top of the swell my mind was brought back to the terror of seven-year-old me jumping off the 10m diving board. I traversed up one side and the top seemed to go on forever then all 7.8 tonnes of me screamed down the other side. I was being thrown around like a rag doll in the mouth of a dog and nothing could make me happier.

As Prince Philip, a fellow Old Gordonstounian once said: “The sea is an extraordinary master or mistress. It has such extraordinary moods that sometimes you feel this is the only sort of life – and 10 minutes later you’re praying for death.” Being in Penas at that time was one of those moments where I thought this was the only sort of life.

Whale of a time

The 52-hour passage was one of the highlights of the trip. I passed a feeding frenzy of dolphins that covered an expanse of water the size of Hyde Park, hundreds of dolphins jumping and body slamming; at one point I saw five dolphins jumping abreast out of the back of a wave, performed with a precision that would have made an British army Drill Sergeant impressed. Then there were whales that came slightly too close for comfort, the closest merely 100ft off the port bow, its colossal brown body gracefully breaking the surface followed by the awesome sight of its fluke.

As I approached the Peninsula de Tres Montes, one of the busiest stretches of water in the Chilean channels, I was hit with thick fog and the ship I had seen a mile off overtaking me was now nowhere to be seen. I sat on deck, unable to catch much-needed sleep, with the fog horn, a plastic trumpet, barely audible over the noise of an engine.

I reached the final stretch of the passage around the 43-hour mark, and having had just 50 minutes of sleep since I set off, I was experiencing some extraordinary hallucinations. This was the most hair-raising thing I had ever done; under the cover of darkness with no radar, depth sounder or moon to light the way, I slalomed between the poorly lit salmoneras (fish farms), sandbanks at 0.4m datum and through three channels, the widest of which was 240ft, the narrowest 90ft. Approaching these channels I was edging towards them at half a knot, the noise of the engine seemed to be playing music, “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. The entrances to these channels were unapparent until the last minute with my low power spotlight. Had there been any other option other than to go through here, I would have gladly taken it.

As I dropped anchor, the stars reflected in the mirror-flat darkness.  There was no moon and the streaks of shooting stars scarred the sky. Nothing can prepare you for the magnificence of the area. From sea level, the snow-capped mountains and volcanos tower above. The end of the Golfo de Penas passage was a particularly proud moment. I had battled against riptides, eddies spinning me 360°, horizontal hail, icebergs, fog, water spouts 20m off the bow, whales, and wind, tide and currents all against me. Up until now the weather had been particularly unkind, but it seemed to change as I passed Bahia Anna Pink – apparently what I was now experiencing was a tropical heatwave, a sure change from the ‘sub-Antarctic’ climates of some of the fjords in Tierra del Fuego. I had set off wearing ski googles and thermals and ended this long leg with my head wrapped in a scarf to stop the sunburn! The following day I headed for Puerto Aguirre. I was sick of cabbage and porridge and looking forward to steak and a beer. To my delight I had a 3G signal and could communicate with my family and friends again.

Dietary diversion

At Puerto Melinka I had engine troubles, a coolant hose had split causing salt water to leak into the boat. I replaced this, but it delayed me a day. I took the opportunity to go fishing for Spanish mackerel with some of the locals. Within two minutes of putting my lure in the water I had caught one. I was told it was a medium sized one but this monster was nothing like the mackerel I was used to fishing for in north west Scotland.

By extraordinary chance, (and you really couldn’t make this up!) my journey between Puerto Aguirre and Puerto Cisnes was bisected by a friend from home (Peter Wilson of ThreeJourneysRound) who is travelling around the whole of South America in his helicopter. This was a complete coincidence, especially after all the waiting for a weather-window and we had an amazing photoshoot together.

Sailing solo is a challenge, but a welcome one. This is my first solo voyage and I quickly learned quite how essential it is to have a plan A, B, C, D and E, because no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Through the moments of boredom, waiting in the caletas for as long as a week in some cases, I have climbed to the summit of nearby hills, some as high as 2,500ft, hiked through the dense vegetation with a machete and committed to memory the first 150 decimal places of Pi. I am not sure how useful this last achievement will be however…

I hope to save up enough money to buy a small sailing yacht of my own and sail around Britain – I suspect this won’t be achieved by selling eggs though. Then I plan to join the Army hopefully continuing to sail with them. My dream however is to compete in the Golden Globe Race if it’s still going after 2022.

I have been exceptionally fortunate to have met Dan. He has given me the opportunity of a lifetime. I would encourage anybody with a boat to set their course to the Chilean channels. The scale of the mountains, fjords and glaciers; the abundance of marine life and the feeling youare the only person on Earth is an experience I will never forget.

For an easier passage head south through the channels – heading north is distinctly unpopular. I met one other sailing yacht heading north but when there is the slightest bit of wind this route is like repetitively slamming into a wall.

Route planning

For route planning I used the invaluable ‘blue bible’ – the Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego nautical guide – plus the Chilean Naval weather and the Predictwind subscribed weather service.

The plan at the start was to spend three months weaving through the channels, from Ushuaia to Puerto Montt, without stopping if we could help it. Unfortunately, fate had different plans and Dan left me at Puerto Eden, 700nm from Ushuaia.

From Puerto Eden I had one goal – to find beer and steak. It wasn’t until 350nm later that I would find them in Puerto Aguirre.

From Puerto Aguirre I took a more relaxed approach to reaching Puerto Montt, and I asked Dan to fly back so we could have one last sail together before he headed off to Tahiti, so my solo sailing finished after 572nm in Quellón.

This Article was originally sourced from Sailing Today and can be directly viewed here.