South American Adventure

The crew of Galactic has made it to Patagonia, and ice is in the water once again.

June 15, 2015
“This is so much fun,” I keep saying to Alisa. “I’m having such a good time.” I wonder if I’m protesting too much, and then decide no, this really is a blast. “I’m so glad you keep saying that,” Alisa always answers me. The pic above is in Seno Eyre, just south of Puerto Edén, as we’re making a valiant and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buck the north wind and take in views of the Ventisquero Pio XI. Mike Litzow

The Thing With Pictures

Days like this, you don’t get pictures of.

We arrived in Puerto Natales late yesterday, just in time to sniff out a place of rest in this notoriously un-welcoming anchorage. The Italian Guide, with a poetic flourish, calls the anchoring situation here “just a step short of tragic”.

When we woke this morning, our solution to the anchoring puzzle from last night wasn’t looking too good. Onshore breeze (light), half a meter of water under the keel.


So Alisa and Elias (yes! a helpful little deckhand these days) and I spent the morning untying the cat’s cradle we’d woven the night before. Shorelines aboard, stern hook up, except that it was set so hard I couldn’t budge it from Fernando with the trip line; so bow hook up first, then stern hook pulled with the windlass, doing the dance between anchors with that shore just downwind of us.

We did all that without taking a single picture. Just like we took no pictures during the afternoon filled with the traveler’s chores of armada paperwork (the bit of piping that attaches the armada guy’s pistol to his body, and why is it only the guy at the front desk who is always armed?), food run (a thousand pesos for the taxi to drive through the gate to the fisherman’s dock? we’ll shlep), and propane fill-up (clouds of white vapor collecting around legs of the voluble woman, queen of all that she surveys in her backyard propane emporium, as she decants cooking gas into our foreign cylinders). Days like this stretch and surprise you, and the memories last. But somehow I never end up with pictures of these days.

Watching whales, Canal Concepción. Mike Litzow

Now that we’re in Natales, we also have access to the internet. So, after that intro on what sort of pictures you don’t get, here is a story told through the ones we did.


So, two things strike me at this point. First, this is such a linear adventure. It’s not like crossing the Pacific, when you travel across incredibly open spaces. Here you’re always hemmed in on two sides, with only the decision of going forward or going back. Which is no decision at all. So it becomes quite intoxicating, this forever traveling southwards, waiting to see what the next day will bring.

The second thing is that this is such a democratic adventure. A lot of boats come here, and from what we’ve seen they’re pretty average sorts of boats for the most part. Whatever the drawbacks of our age, we do live at a time when it doesn’t take a Tilman. Any Jane and Joe can come here and have their own adventure.

Alisa getting in on the good sailing. Mike Litzow

And if you want to escape the maddening crowds, you can just come in the winter.


Family Affair

The last time we picked ice out of the water was in the very first two weeks after we left Kodiak – perilously close to eight years ago. Someone gave us the local knowledge to get through the sill into the upper part of Northwestern Fjord in the Kenai Fjords. What did we know back then of using a laptop as a plotter? In front of the glacier, I used our landing net to pick some ice out of the water for G&Ts that night. Elias watched from the cockpit in his snow suit, gumming on the end of a sheet.

We just spent two days knocking around the floating ice of Estero Peel. This time there was no need for me to do the ice netting. Elias was mad for the sport – patiently waiting on the bow with his net, and then charging along the side decks to chase down any small piece that came alongside. He and Eric ate the stuff – bit right into it and chomped it on down. I couldn’t watch. They also had some glacier ice in a celebratory juice, and Alisa and I had scotch on the rocks for two nights in a row.

The day that followed saw us down Canal Concepción in comfortably rowdy conditions. Fast sailing in protected waters, the family staying cozy below in the rainy bits and coming up to stare at wildlife in the dry – it’s no bad. Mike Litzow

Not incidentally, both boys were ecstatic with our experience of being around the ice. “This is the best day of my life” has a certain honesty to it when it comes from the mouth of a five-year-old. They can presumably remember most of them at that point.


Many of the anchorages so far have offered zero walking opportunity. The terrain is too steep, and the forest too thick – this is something that we expected based on our experience with fjords in Alaska. But enforced time on the boat has really weighed on the boys over the last few weeks – especially Eric, who has a younger kid’s need to run and scream, and less of an eight-year-old’s ability to cerebralize his way through a day spent inside.

Ah, but! Glacier-viewing is one of the lower forms of nautical tourism, hardly to be mourned when the chance goes astray. Besides, traveling north to south as we are, there is always another glacier in the offing. Things get better as you go. The real consolations of travel are moments like the one above, in Caleta Parry, our backup anchorage after missing out on the glacier. This golondrina de mar, aka stormy petrel, aka Mother Carey’s chicken, was in the cockpit when we bestirred ourselves before dawn to retrieve shore lines. It was doubtless brought in by our lights. I passed up the chance to examine its plumage and thus to get a solid ID on these difficult birds, and instead just put him in a quiet spot on the bow to regain his wits. The conditions that these tiny birds handle at sea just beggar belief. Seeing them is one of the continual delights in the life of a marine biologist on a traveling sailboat. Mike Litzow

But when it’s good for the kids – when there’s ice in the water, or when the clouds part to reveal glaciated peaks above us, or when Caleta Tilman gives us the terrain for a walk – at those times, near-freezing rain is no barrier at all to their enjoyment. The revel in the moment, they scream out the news of their happiness. After Estero Peel we came into Puerto Bueno, which gave us our first taste of real upland walking, a close view of culpeo, the fox, and our first taste of centolla, the king crab of Patagonia. (It was a female and we ate it anyway. Standards are slipping.) We seem to be on an upwards trajectory in terms of getting off the boat, and we expect that to continue all the way south.

Giant petrel, Canal Concepción. Mike Litzow

And, during all the long days that we’ve spent together, we’ve hit a certain sweet spot in family life. Lots of games of Uno while the diesel stove heats the saloon, lots of time for me to listen to Elias go on and on about his make-believe world, No-Cars Planet, time for me to look at Eric across the saloon and to notice how his face is maturing and how tall he is getting, and to remember how recently it was that I was telling Alisa I was enjoying the experience of having a three-year-old again. Except that now he’s five.

The Old Man Was Here

On the day we crossed into the 50s south latitude we saw our first ice. Floating bits that had calved from the glaciers at the head of Seno Penguin had just made it to Canal Wide before melting away completely and they gave the boys no end of delight. I jibed to get us a closer view before calling them up to deck. They oohed and ahhed and then after they went back to their lessons I hand steered through the field of little floaty bits that the jibe had brought across our path. I realized that a crew more used to ice would likely have just let the autopilot steer a ruler’s course through this inconsequential scattering but I was happy with the novelty and also happy not to find out how big a “thump” these little things might make if we hit them.

Every day, nearly every mile, the snowline seems to come closer. Mike Litzow

One of the delights of our trip is the number of giant petrels that we’ve found in the canales. I wonder if that isn’t just a winter occurrence. Not vast flocks of them but often a single one wheeling around the ship, three or four or five of them in the course of the day. These improbable-looking giants have become my favorite pelagic seabird and their presence in this inland setting gives the canales an extra touch of grandeur. As if they needed it.

Alisa at the laundromat in Caleta Tilman. Gals, if your husband has some so-called “dream” about sailing away, know that this is where that dream will get you. Mike Litzow

On the day we saw that first ice we sailed down Canal Concepción in the company of blowing whales. There appeared to be two species, both with strongly falcate dorsal fins and one of them very small – much shorter than Galactic, for instance. We were near the open sea and the weather was coming in waves, clear followed by sharp and foul. The mountains around us were cyclically revealed, gauzed over in the mist, and hidden completely. On our starboard we had an island called Madre de Dios which should give an idea of the scope of the scenery. Each one of those islands might produce an enjoyable fortnight of exploration for a yacht in no hurry to be somewhere else.

We came screaming around Isla Canning going ever so fast as we chose, the acceleration where the wind funneled by the canal made the turn around the island giving us all the breeze we could need. Running backstay set up firm, jib half rolled in. We saw our first honest-to-goodness williwaw lifting water off the surface of Canal Andres just downwind of our selected anchorage and elected to make the final approach under engine alone. The anchorage was perfectly snug, a little slot in the rock not much wider than a marina berth. We ended up with a comfortable four-point tie though not without the exertion of myself scrambling up slopes of mixed moss and branch to make the tie onto a stout trunk and Alisa finding herself in command of the ship when it very nearly laid up against the trees at the side of the berth, ten meters of depth being available directly below the outermost dripping branches.

We took a weather day and on the morning we left sighted a full-grown centolla in about four meters of water on the rocky bench just next to us. We have yet to taste the king crab of Patagonia and so, scarce propane be damned, Alisa and Elias set out in Fernando to effect the capture with a landing net lashed to a boat hook for the event.

Only kids could have such a fantastic time on such a wet day. Caleta Tilman

It was a close thing, but in the end all they caught was long faces.

As we continued southwards I became convinced that I could see the snow line coming closer with every mile we traveled. We are on half rations of propane and so a warm breakfast and lunch and endless cuppas are not among our consolations in the wet and cold. Alisa though is a champ about giving the on-deck crew the lion’s share of the hot water from the thermos and Elias is very delighted with himself for being the first to give voice to the idea that we might heat water on the diesel stove while at anchor. Which we are, quite successfully, and short diesel is not a problem that we are contemplating. Alisa has reacted to the propane shortage by doubling or tripling the amount of bread she makes on each baking day, reasoning that the increased production takes little or no more propane than her normal two loaves. She also has produced pigs in a blanket on her last baking day and has promised them for today – hot dogs wrapped in extra dough. So we have a hot lunch to look forward to. All sorts of food that are normally “just in case” rations – hot dogs and canned fruit most notably – have become staples. No one is grumbling about the shortage and though Alisa is occasionally at a complete loss when meal time arrives she has expressed the upside in the form of not feeling her normal remorse and responsibility if a meal falls short of expectation. Which of course they never do. We’ll all feel the luxury of living with no limits to the propane whenever that happy day comes again.

Caleta Tilman itself. Mike Litzow

The final end to all propane on board and the end to our visas – both these events are far enough in the future to allow us the chance to explore a bit around Estero Peel, the fjord that gave Bill Tilman and crew access to the Patagonian Icecap on Mischief in 1956. We are at this moment anchored in a little cove that the monumental Italian Guide refers to as “Caleta Tilman”. The old man would have likely found this a comic appellation, as he only anchored Mischief here because he couldn’t reach Caleta Amalia, where he really wanted to be, due to all the floating ice about. See the quote from Mischief in Patagonia at the top of this post. Or, on the other hand, the old fellow might have found that if some place was going to be named for him, it might as well be as inconsequential a place as this.

Alisa motoring out of Caleta Tilman to next-door Caleta Amalia. We wanted to see something different. But the new Caleta looked much the same as what we’d just left. We are 1) not ones to notice much; and 2) certainly not ones to sail to Patagonia and then go on about the weather. But at this point we were completely used to being soaked by rain day after day. Mike Litzow

The boys quite enjoyed our arrival at Caleta Tilman because low tide revealed a scrap of open land that might more or less reasonably be called a beach, and with it the attendant chance to walk a few hundred meters before turning around. Eric has in all the innocence of extreme youth asked Alisa why we came to this place (meaning Patagonia), anyway? He feels the enforced confinement more than Elias who can read Harry Potter over and over. Eric has been pining a bit for Polynesia, where at least he could swim, though his inability to swim at the ripe old age of four, and now five, has attracted quite a bit of negative attention from management on board Galactic. On the bright side he is just now learning the basics of literacy, though he takes greatest delight in reading (and writing, in a surprisingly clear hand) words like “scream”, “stinky”, “fart” and “butt”.

Which is why so much of family life was happening downstairs, in the snug saloon of Galactic. Too soon to crow, but so far I have been very happy with the way that the core living areas of the boat are standing up to the challenges of the climate. We’re dry and warm, which are all that counts in a cold place. Mike Litzow

On the beach of this caleta where Tilman and company found bugger all we found a pair of Adidas trainers, a smart phone and a Becker beer can (empty). Alisa found a substantial stream for doing laundry and now the laundry is hanging in the rigging to “dry” at the same time that our rain catcher is hanging in the rigging, doing its job. This is either a setup for ineffectiveness or a situation where we’ll win one way or the other.

boy with fishing net
Leaving Caleta Amalia, we started to get into bits of glacial ice. Estero Peel, the larger body of water that hosts Caletas Tilman and Amalia, gives access to several glaciers flowing down from the Patagonia Icecap, which is why Bill Tilman and crew were here in Mischief nearly sixty years ago – they wanted to access, and cross, the icecap. Which they did successfully. Mike Litzow

It’s all how you look at it.

And how the world does change. What Tilman would think of our family outing to the canales, in winter no less, I can hardly imagine. What was a foray to an unknown corner of the world then is now a completely routine trip. That said, Mischief ventured far up the Estero, far beyond the point at which we on Galactic started to think prudent thoughts. Mike Litzow
Estero Peel. At this point Alisa is thinking that it’s time to have a meeting with el capitán about expectations, etc. Mike Litzow
The boys, as always, are blissfully unaware of any considerations of operational conditions, like where a good anchorage might be, how far the backup is if we can’t make our first choice, and when night will fall. Mike Litzow
A Peales’s dolphin, we believe. Mike Litzow
On our third day in Estero Peel the ceiling lifted enough for us to get some views. In the picture above you can see the line of ice that was the turnaround point for Galactic, and would have been the forge-ahead point for Mischief. Mike Litzow
I don’t think I’m the only one having fun Mike Litzow
Eric, on the other hand, still occasionally asks to return to French Polynesia. Mike Litzow
Estero Peel
Estero Peel, on our way out Mike Litzow

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