Ferdinand Magellan and me (66)

see:A Singular Captain

Sailing in Magellan’s wake

Wathara’s cruise to Patagonia was rather more convivial than Magellan’s 500 years before. We sailed from Buenos Aires as part of a fleet of around 20 yachts shepherded by a Coast Guard cutter named Esperanza, which turned out to be a liability. They called it a regatta but it was lacking in competitive spirit. These guys were just out for a good time. To us, accustomed to sailing alone, it was a damn nuisance to have the VHF radio squawking continually and having to send a position report every 4 hours. Every once in a while a Coast Guard aircraft flew overhead and waggled its wings.

Getting out of Rio de la Plata was like rejoining the real world. The water turned from brown to blue and dolphins once again played in the bow wave. We put out a trolling line and caught a nice dorado. Wathara was enjoying herself too, keeping up among the leaders. Our first social engagement was at Viedma, a small town about 20 miles up the Rio Negro. Therein lay the problem. Esperanza, the biggest boat with the deepest draft, ran aground on the bar. Our saviour needed rescue. Three of us put lines on her and towed her into deeper water, suppressing blasphemies, but then a launch arrived from Viedma and led the fleet through the narrow unmarked channel.

We were the first yachts to enter the river in 40 years and the local sailing club had organised TV interviews, a dinner and presentation of prizes followed by a visit to a dance where the queen of some festival was chosen. Next day it was a bus trip to a seal colony and a visit to the local small museum. The three foreign yachts, Wathara, a German ketch called Regina Maris and a French boat called Ski received special attention.

Next leg in the so-called regatta took us to Caleta Horno, a narrow, steep- walled and serpentine inlet sheltered from all directions – too small for Magellan’s fleet. The town of Camarrones lay about 40 kilometres away and next day we were collected by pick-up trucks and driven into town. It had only about 700 inhabitants, poor people in shanty houses, but they put on a dinner for us that must have strained their resources. Camarrones means prawns and that’s what they served to the 200 or so people in the assembly hall of the local school.

The regatta terminated at Puerto Deseado but the three foreign boats continued southwards. The entrance to Port St Julian is marked by low bluffs on each headland. I had sailed half-way round the world to see this place and my expectations were coloured by its dark history. Magellan was not the only admiral to execute a crew member here. Nearly 60 years later, having found the remains of Magellan’s mutineers, Francis Drake ordered the execution of Thomas Doughty for mutiny.

Magellan anchored his fleet near the mouth of the harbour but we followed the winding channel to the town well inside. We spent six days in San Julian and on four of them were unable to get ashore because of strong winds and a rocky bottom in which the anchor dragged. We had almost no contact with the people ashore, which seemed strange after all the attention we had received in the regatta. One man I did talk to was an Englishman who had lived 30 years in Patagonia and lamented the fact that, through lack of practice, he was losing his Cockney accent.

    Sailing in Magellan’s wake


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Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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