Ferdinand Magellan and Me (71)

Wathara in Punta Arenas.

No fit place for a yacht

We crossed the border between Argentina and Chile and I reported the fact to Punta Dungeness lighthouse, who asked for our ETA in Punta Arenas. I felt like saying ‘I have no idea.’ The Chilean navy monitors all traffic through the Strait and Patagonian channels and maintains several stations. The two sets of narrows discovered by Serrano about 500 years ago are tricky passages. According to modern sailing directions, tides can run up to 8 knots, which would have us going backwards. I made a guess at the ETA based on our long-term average speed.

We anchored near the first narrows around sunset to await the favourable tide. We got under way about midnight and shot through the first narrows but the tide turned against us in the second narrows. For the next five hours we made only about 1 knot, with the wind getting up and the barometer falling. By four o’clock in the morning it was blowing 50 knots and we were reefed down to storm gear. Helen, wearing a safety harness on the foredeck, struggled with flogging canvas in the howling wind and pelting sleet. And this was midsummer!

But Wathara behaves magnificently in such weather and once clear of the narrows we were making five knots on a reasonable course although a cold and wet ride. I take my hat off to those old navigators in clumsy ships with no charts, sailing directions or tide tables. We had it relatively easy. On arrival in Punta Arenas close to the ETA, we dropped anchor in the lee of a long jetty with ships of all sorts and sizes tied up to it. There is no real harbour but it is reasonably well-sheltered from the west and the Admiralty Pilot assured me that easterly gales are rare. We climbed into bed and slept for many hours.

Punta Arenas is a vibrant town with a busy port and a statue of Ferdinand Magellan on a pedestal, but it is no fit place for yachts. Tied up alongside ships at the jetty, we frequently had to shift or go back to anchor when other boats or ships arrived or departed. Westerly gales were frequent but the friendliness of the locals was well up to South American standards.

In Punta Arenas Helen announced she was pregnant. This was news to make my head spin. I couldn’t decide whether I was delighted or simply shocked.

“So, what do you want to do? Do you want to call it off and go back home?”

“No. This is my home.”

“You can’t be up on deck changing sails in a gale if you’re pregnant.”

“Who says I can’t?”

“I don’t know but you have to take it easy don’t you? I don’t want to be delivering babies. The only thing I know about babies is you have to hold them upside down by the ankles and pat them on the back to make them breathe.”

“Old wives’ tales.”

“Well, you had better go and see a doctor.”

When I joined the Navy as a callow youth I never dreamed I would have this kind of issue to deal with. Magellan avoided it by prohibiting females aboard ship. Nowadays, that doesn’t work, when females are not only mates but masters. Maritime jurisdictions are careful not to call them ship mistresses.

Helen received an all clear from her initial medical inspection. I predicted it would come to a bad end.

see:A Singular Captain

    Punta Arenas


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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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