Magellan’s Port St Julian
Ferdinand Magellan left his stamp on Uruguay in the name of its capital Montevideo, (“I see a mountain.”), which was no doubt a disappointment for him since he was searching for a strait. Juan de Solís, who became a meal for cannibals, is also remembered in the form of an obelisk at Nueva Palmira. Nowadays the natives are more hospitable and the carnival is nearly as much fun as Rio’s. Not so the crowded boat harbour, sometimes inundated by stormy seas crashing over the breakwater.
There is plenty of yachting activity in the estuary of the River Plate and I took advantage of the facilities for running repairs and an anti-fouling job for Wathara. We sailed about 100 miles up the River Paraguay and were treated as celebrities by the locals. The Magellan story was well alive and I was interviewed on TV a couple of times. Among the many friends we made were Tommy Braithwaite, an English expat, and his family. His 75-year-old mother in law was the matriarch of a large extended family who sat in a wooden chair and beamed upon her offspring. She had some advice for us planning to sail through the Magellan Strait. She had been shipwrecked there 50 years before and spent several days in a life- boat before being rescued.
“You must stay out of the water,” she said, wagging a forefinger. “It is very cold.”
“Yes, thank you,” I said. “We shall certainly try.”
The San Isidro Yacht Club in Buenos Aires was organising a Regatta to Patagonia and our new friends urged us to take part. Although I am not a racing man I eventually agreed. Why not? Nearly 500 years after Magellan showed the way we shouldn’t get lost. A fleet of about 20 yachts crossed the start line with a crowd waving banners, shouting and cheering. A Coast Guard cutter followed the fleet like a sheep dog and an aircraft flew overhead every once in a while keeping an eye on us.
It wasn’t really a race, it was a cruise. The weather was perfect and Wathara loved it. The organisers had arranged hospitality at sailing clubs along the way. In Rio Negro we were treated to TV interviews, a banquet and presentation of trophies followed by a visit to a dance where the queen of some festival was chosen. Next day was a bus tour of the countryside and a visit to a colony of seals and penguins. Magellan never had it like this.
We pulled out of the race at Port St Julian, where Magellan faced the biggest challenge of his career. The entrance is marked by low bluffs on each headland. It appears as no more than an inlet and the fact that Magellan found the spacious harbour inside indicates the thoroughness of his search. There were no trees and the stony earth was speckled with khaki grass and thorny bushes. It is hardly surprising that Magellan’s decision to spend the winter here was unpopular and contributed to the sombre events that followed. I had sailed half way around the world to see this place and it opened my eyes on events nearly 500 years before.