CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF SOUTH AMERICA - 1994

CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF SOUTH AMERICA 

It's 1994 and I'm now sailing a forty foot sailboat which is strong and fast. My crew would consist of 12 groups of friends and family who would be piped aboard at different ports of call for periods of from two to six weeks. Our sail-plan would take us across the Caribbean to Limon, Costa Rica, then on through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean, down the West Coast of South America to the Chilean Canals, East on the Straits of Magellan to the Beagle Channel, around Cape Horn and on to the Atlantic Ocean, North along the East coast of South America and back to San Juan. Estimated miles 14,000; sailing time 240 days including shore stops.

Today we're eons ahead of the early navigators for we have accurate charts, detailed weather data in both book form (historical) and forecasts over the short wave radio. Most important of all, GPS, the same satellite positioning system used in the Gulf War, would provide us with continuous position, course, and speed data while our on-board computer (the size of a large hand-held calculator) would solve most our navigational riddles. After I enter the position of our destination we can obtain course and distance to this point, time of arrival (if nothing changes... and it always does) and the distance we stray off course.

On July 26, with a crew of four, we sailed out of San Juan Harbor. The run down the Caribbean resulted in our fastest leg. We're generally satisfied with a days' run of 120 to 130 Nautical Miles (1 NM = 1.15 land miles). On our fourth day out we logged 195 NM as we surfed West on 12 foot breakers. We have two auto pilots (great crew members... they don't eat, drink, smoke or harass the skipper), one wind driven and the other an electronic pilot. In heavy seas, the electronic pilot keeps a steadier course. On the downside, it draws five amperes, which forces us to keep an eye on battery charge.

Seven days after departing San Juan, we sailed into Limon in Costa Rica. Limon, a once thriving city on the Caribbean and now in total eclipse, which provided our first drill with Customs, Immigration, Health, Port Captain, and Police formalities, something we would learn to live with every time we entered port. Though Costa Rica has seen be

Two days later, just as we prepare to depart, a series of squalls shoot over Limon. Winds increase to 50 knots and lighting cracks steadily. I can handle wind but lightning, as we were taught in EE and later at GE, is another thing altogether. I put New Chance, with its sixty foot aluminum mast, next to a large container crane stowed in the straight up position. Two hours pass as tons of water and billions of volts drop out of the sky. When skies clear we head for Panama under a still menacing sky.

Ships (and small boats like ours) on the way to the Pacific enter in Cristobal to transit the Canal. Colon, a small town outside of Canal property, is in even worse shape than Limon. Cruise ships no longer stop in Panama because of the lack of personal safety. We always left the Yacht Club in Taxi and never never walked the streets of Colon. Visits to a half dozen offices in Colon and Cristobal resulted in authority to transit the Panama Canal.

 

PANAMA CANAL, MONDAY, AUGUST 8, 1994

Transit day. With our Panama Canal pilot aboard, we head for the first of six locks, three up and three down. Between the up and down locks, New Chance motored across Lake Gatun. Lush rain forests followed us all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Two days later, fully loaded with water, ice and fuel, we headed towards the legendary Southern Ocean. Out of curiosity, I punched in the latitude and longitude of our destination, Cape Horn, into the GPS... we had  5349 NM to go. Ever so slowly, against wind and tide, we tediously worked our way south. When the wind failed, our iron genoa, our faithful diesel engine went to work.

Five days later, short of fuel we called the Port Captain of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, for permission to enter. A 16 foot tide left us to enter at three in the morning. When dawn came, we found a city on the par with Limon and Colon which prompted my crew to remark: "Gee skip, you sure take us to some exotic places!" Our taxi driver took me to church, then to fill our four 5 gallon jugs with diesel. Trapped by the tide, we toured the countryside. We found a poor country, the land arid and cropless, the people predominantly of Andean Indian descent Everyone we came in contact with were extremely helpful and friendly.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 21, 1994

Water and air temperatures plummet. Sky and seas leaden. Mysterious bright lights in the midst of the ocean turned out to be large Korean factory ships netting giant squid. Soon after animal life vanished. We hug the Peruvian coastline where the scenery changes from gentle sand hills to mountains of spectacular reds and greens. The entire coastline of Peru is a desert, with high rock cliffs that plummet deep into the ocean which allowed us to sail within several hundred feet of shore during the day.

We investigate every "Isla de Lobos" and we find each one densely populated with sea lions. Though most of Americas' prominent geographical features were named by explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries and with serious attempts by humans to eliminate the species, we were ever amazed to find sea lions still residing on all of the Islas de Lobos that we crossed. These islands are all special, for they must provide a "ramp" for access (though a sea lion can leap 10 feet out of the water), a grassy sunny flat bed on its apex (usually about 50 feet off the water) where they rest, warm-up, mate and fight, and a vertical cliff nearby for rapid escape into the relative safety of the ocean.

CALLAO, PERU, SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 3, 1994

In dense fog, followed by a legion of seals mixed with dolphin all followed by dozens of squawking gulls, we make our approach into the busy harbor of Callao, Peru. Peruvians are quiet, genuine people, slightly poorer than their cousins to the South, yet sincere in their friendship to visiting sailors. The Director of the Maritime Museum in Callao, presented New Chance with a plaque to remember our visit. Peru, now poised to emerge after a dozen years of mismanagement and civil war, has the lowest commodity prices in the South. We loaded up with winter clothing and wool blankets. An alpaca wool sweater cost $12, blanket $15, heavy wool socks $1/pair. Local fresh and canned foods were reasonable.

ARICA, CHILE, SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 18, 1994

On Chile's National Independence Day  we enter the Port of Arica. Since it never rains, wheat is stored in huge mounds in the open, no doubt the reason most birds in the area appeared incredibly fat. At the local Yacht Club we watched a four hour parade with the Army, Prussian up to the goose-step and the Navy traditional English. General Pinochet supervised the entire event. In our five months in Chile, we found a depth of civil peace and order today unknown in our hemisphere. Clean streets and parks remain packed with people until midnight. Small children play in the streets unsupervised.

In each port, a taxi, bus or friends would drive us inland to better know the country. Inland from Arica, Chile olive orchards prospered in the arid soil. 100 foot high outlines of llamas formed on hills with rocks by inhabitants more than 400 years ago appear no more than a year or two old. Thirty miles inland from Caldera, Chile we drove through a desert green with vineyards rescued by Israeli know-how and their drip irrigation system. Later we climbed to the top of a hill where ancient tribes had built a copper smelter... the site chosen because the wind always blows a gale.

VALPARAISO, CHILE, THURSDAY JANUARY 27, 1995

New Chance rested alone in Chile, while the crew attended to holiday activities North of the equator. On January 27 we set sail for Robinson Crusoe Island, 400 windy rough miles off the coast of Chile. The shadow of Alexander Selkirk still hangs over this small island where no more than 200 people now reside. Since their principal resource are lobsters, we ordered one each for supper. When the bill for $120 arrived we concluded their second resource is piracy. On we sailed to Valdivia and Puerto Montt where we took on our crew for Cape Horn. A bus drive from Puerto Montt to Osorno Chile took us past three snow capped presently dormant volcanoes that run along the towering peaks of the Andes.

PTO. MONTT, CHILE, MONDAY FEBRUARY 20, 1995

My new crew arrives with but three weeks time for this next leg to Ushuaia. I must plan the trip to maximize speed, sights, and safety around the varying weather that rolls in bands of low pressure out of the West. We decide to sail hard when the cold rainy fronts hit and slow down and enjoy the scenery on sunny days. With the help of our newly purchased Atlas of Chilean nautical charts, we must carefully weave New Chance through 1000 miles of intricate inland canals and fjords. Each night we need to find a suitable anchorage to escape the ferocious williwaws that inevitably funnel down the ravines that form most anchorages.  

All of the landscape in Southern Chile, the mountains, islands, canals (some more than 1000 feet deep), fjords, everything, was formed during the last ice age which peaked some 10,000 years ago. Fjords, glaciers and icebergs met us every few miles as we entered the southern canals, the high peaks of the snow-covered Andes ever serving as a backdrop. Cascades, often a dozen side-by-side, formed intricate patterns as they drop 2000 feet into the canals below. Iceberg Fjord still spews icebergs as we discovered when we approached this ancient glacier actively calving as a result of the continuous warming process our planet experiences. Our freezer quickly filled with "10,000 year old" ice to be put to good use in future happy hours. Too tricky for travel at night, we were usually solidly tied to trees on shore by dusk, about nine p.m., in a cove selected earlier in the day. At five a.m. we were again underway with part of the crew back in bed once the boat was under way.

At the entrance to the Straits of Magellan, we dropped off one of my books in Spanish to the lighthouse keepers and then turned West to virtually fly down Magellan. Squall after squall kept us busy either adding or taking sail. After a windy night tied as usual to shore we were presently surprised at dawn to find all the surrounding hills lightly dusted with snow. We picked our way through many canals to Beagle Channel, past the fabulous Garibaldi Glacier and on to Puerto Williams, Chile, the worlds southernmost town and a reminder of towns in Alaska of yore... no paved streets, almost no cars, the only sidewalks wooden around a small shopping area.  

PUERTO WILLIAMS, MARCH 4, 1995

Our sailing orders for Cape Horn were precise. All landfalls were off-limits except for five coves, only one within 20 miles of the Cape. We sailed at noon with 70 miles to go. When night set in at 2000, we were 20 miles from Cape Horn. At midnight, 10 miles. The wind began to build as squalls passed through. First 35, then 45, an hour later a sustained 60, with gusts of 70 knots. We were three miles from our cove, which in turn was 7 miles from the Cape. The night totally black. The wind driven rain horizontal stinging pellets. Ever increasing seas slammed the hull, washed the decks, then filled the cockpit. Sails reefed, engine running full out, we closed to within 2 miles of the cove. I plotted GPS fixes every five minutes. At times we'd make 100 feet in 15 minutes, sometimes less. Hours passed. The GPS went blank and for 90 critical minutes produced no fixes. Meanwhile, the engine stopped 3 times. In the lurching cabin, hours passed as we searched for the problem, a small crack in a fuel hose. Diesel covered the cabin floor which made it hazardous to stand. We prayed for dawn as New Chance tacked between ill-defined hard to see Deceit and Herschel Islands. The radar produced ill defined images.

Dawn brought hope. We inched closer to land, in search of a lee which would allow us to make headway. Waves of black clouds zoomed overhead, each with more pinging rain and the same screaming wind. Four hours passed. The crew fatigued, the Cape but six miles to windward. We tacked South, around the outside of Is. Deceit. Monster waves forced us to turn North. Twenty minutes later, with better light, I decided to give it a new try. Waves anew engulfed New Chance. We held course, but made no progress as each wave attempted to swallow us. There was no way to proceed without endangering all. With regret, I ordered the boat about and back to Puerto Williams. We flew under bare sticks as the mast hugged the leeward seas. Waves washed over the boat every few seconds. At last, forty miles North of the Cape, wind and seas eased and by the time we reached Beagle Channel we motored for lack of wind.

USHUAIA, ARGENTINA, MARCH 13, 1995

Our crew caught their flight back to the USA via Buenos Aires and our new crew, Paquito, arrived from Puerto Rico. Ushuaia, across Beagle Channel is a full blown city compared to Pto. Williams. We re provisioned and headed North and home. Off Tierra del Fuego, a two day, 65 knot gale punished the now tested New Chance. On her own, rudder lashed, under minimum sail, the crew safely in their bunks, she once again proved she's a tough cookie. At Commodoro Rivadavia, a city in the heart of the Argentinean region of Patagonia, known for its sheep and oil production, we repaired sails and checked rigging then headed North past the whale sanctuary of Peninsula Valdez where two baby Killer whales followed us for miles, perhaps thinking we were mom.

BUENOS AIRES, APRIL 10, 1995

Rough seas followed New Chance until Buenos Aires. The tides off the coast of Patagonia run 18 to 20 feet, which coupled to a daily 180 degree wind shift, produce uncomfortable eight foot square seas. At Mar de Plata, a gracious trendy beach resort a-la Miami Beach, we attended to the husbandry chores such as laundry, re provisioning, repairs and crew change. Rio de la Plata is a muddy, broad, temperamental piece of water which separates Uruguay and Argentina. After a two day stop at Colonia, an enchanting early colonial town, we found an anchorage near downtown Buenos Aires. Once ashore, and joined by my wife Lirio who had flown in from Puerto Rico, we discovered a city with a lot of Paris, Madrid, New York and London, a real charmer.

MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY, MAY 9, 1995

A two day sail to Montevideo took us over the Graf Spee, scuttled early in the War on Hitler's orders. It's but one of more than one hundred wrecks that litter the Rio de la Plata estuary all aimed at keeping the navigator alert. Isla de Lobos, off Punta del Este, Uruguay, is a protected home to 83,000 sea lions and zero humans. The stench would make a San Juan garbage collector cry. Whenever we approached within 100 feet, the juveniles (lighter color) and females (smaller) jumped into the ocean and swam towards New Chance, mistaking us for a fishing boat and a possible easy meal. The large black-furred bulls remained ashore snarling, heads raised in defiance. No sea lion approached closer than 50 feet, a possible genetic imprint from the days when human predators abounded.

1fter a short fuel stop in Angra dos Reis (the Anchorage of the Kings) which consists of Maine type coastline, many dozen islands, and pleasant sailing, we headed north when, a little after dusk, we heard loud music ashore. My younger crew suggested, and I agreed right off, that we stop and check out the happenings. Soon after we dropped the anchor a passing motor boat took us into shore and to the annual Gipoia Island Church party during which they thank their patron saint for the years' bounty. The Brazilians, mostly fishermen, took us right in and held us hostage until wee hours, just in time to continue the journey to Rio de Janeiro, where we arrived off Copacabana beach at noon.

BARBADOS, JUNE 22, 1995

After two days in Rio and with Reiner again as crew off we headed for home. A broken stay and an infected leg (a fly joined the crew 30 miles offshore and bit the crew producing a sore even the skipper couldn't handle) forced us into Salvador, famous for the song Bahia. We were off again two days later, to fly up the coast with a solid wind from the southeast, that is, until we hit the doldrums. Then we came to a full stop. When the starter failed, we soon lost battery power and refrigeration. The wind died and monsoon rains followed. While we filled all of our water containers, the incessant rain pounded our frazzled nerves for five days. Our four times daily short wave contacts with home became history, though we could hear their worried calls. The Coast Guard had been alerted. On the 10th day the wind returned and with it we began to move again and charge batteries with the wind generator. At six a.m. the following morning we met a container ship who had been alerted by the CG to keep an eye out for us. 90 minutes later my wife and family could once again relax.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO, JULY 1, 1995

Words can scarcely describe the 13,774 nautical miles logged by New Chance as she sailed from the tropics to the Arctic. Air & sea water temperatures ranged from 88F to 38F. One day in Magellan we experienced snow, hail, bright sunshine, then rain. The barometer swung from a high of 1026 to a low of 983 milibars and we never figured out which provided better sailing. We got whacked by gales with both high and low barometers. Our voyage began at noon, July 27th, 1994. At noon, July 1, 1995, New Chance once again passed under the parapets of El Morro de San Juan.

 

I've been asked often upon returning "Where is New Chance sailing next?" and I reply, to keep with tradition of centuries, that "This is her last voyage." I can't understand why no one believes me. In reality, I plan to circumnavigate Puerto Rico in early 1996, cruise the Virgin Islands during the summer, escape to Venezuela during the 1996 hurricane season, and once the embargo lifts, fulfill my teenage dream to circumnavigate Cuba. After that, who knows. With a sailboat that knows no borders, we can sail anywhere... except up the Wabash.

Bill Butler, EE51