HEAVEN AND HELL OFF PATAGONIA 1994, Chile

HEAVEN AND HELL OFF PATAGONIA

            Puerto Williams fell rapidly astern as New Chance raced down Beagle Channel on this 15th day of March 1995, its bow aimed at Cabo San Diego, Tierra del Fuego’s easternmost cape. With 7222 nautical miles logged since sailing out of our homeport of San Juan on July 26, 1994, in another few hours we would turn the corner and head for home. As a brisk westerly blew us down 55 degrees south, the western sky darkened earlier than usual.

                    From now on, this trip was but a delivery. The challenges and adventures were now behind us. We had done it all. Out of San Juan, we had proceeded thru the Panama Canal, down the western coast of South America, through a thousand miles of spectacular fiords and glaciers of southern Chile, raced down the Straights of Magellan and on to an unsuccessful shot at rounding Cape Horn in a full gale.

          Night caught New Chance with about 20 miles to go to Cabo San Diego and a steady 25 knot winds out of the west. With furling on all three sails, we constantly reduced area to keep stress on the rigging way over on the safe side as I am wont to do. The further away from home, the larger the safety factor. At 8000 miles, we couldn’t be further from San Juan. I’d kept a small bay ahead in the back of my mind as a possible overnight anchorage in case things got bad and we had light. That was now out as it would entail too much risk what with the good breeze blowing plus absolute darkness. At ten p.m. we rounded the Cape, left the Isla de los Estados to starboard, tightened up our much reduced sail plan, and headed north.

          When the rays of the new day illuminated our surroundings I am sure all three of us wondered, ‘What in the hell are we doing out here?’ Low fast moving clouds scudded past us headed east. Eight-foot seas washed the boat from stem to stern. Land was nowhere in sight. New Chance, a North American 40, drove through the dark blue sea, right at home, loving it. The crew just hung on.

          “Oh, my God”, I uttered out loud. There to the east, low in the sky were the symbols of trouble I’d heard and read a lot about and feared most. Almost stationary cigar shaped dark clouds, imbedded within the approaching weather indicated that a ‘pampero’, the famous winds of the Argentine pampas, was upon us. Within an hour winds increased to 35 knots. We took in main, got rid of the headsail, and further reefed the staysail. The Fleming self steering gear did one hell of job recovering from each 10 foot breaking wave but was powerless when it came to preventing us from falling off to leeward. My hopes of hugging the coastline, with its calmer seas, were a goner.           

Three days of hell followed without respite. Seas built to more than 25 feet. Every fourth wave broke as we approached to send spray flying high over us. The boat and crew were soaked, inside and out. The temperature hovered at about 50F. Paquito, Chuck and I each stood our 2 hour watch dreaming the entire time of the warm bunk we couldn’t hop into soon enough.  

          One wave, which had to be more than 30 feet, broke on top of New Chance. A ton of water fell upon the mainsail. The added strain ripped the luff vertically. The jagged sail jammed the mast furling gear as the wind continued to destroy it further. Much too rough and wild for the crew to risk a trip to the bow, we let it beat itself to pieces.

           The pampero lasted 3 days. By the time the skies cleared, boat and crew were totally whipped, destroyed. We couldn’t get enough sunshine. We again dined on deck and slept in a bunk without the elevator action. Once night arrived the Milky Way, directly overhead, shone brightly with its billions of stars. Right in the middle of this mass of stars stood the Southern Cross. Acrux, Mimosa and Gacrux, the three brightest stars of this southern constellation stood out sharply against its brilliant background. Holy cow! I got it. We have been to Hell and now this is Heaven.

          The portrayers of Hell got it all wrong. It’s not that fiery place filled with little red guys with pitchforks. Hell is where we spent these last three days. Constant, unrelentless cold, never-stop icy showers, scary impenetrable darkness, hour after hour, without a second of respite, until we were forced to kneel under the burden, humble ourselves to this powerful force, and pray heavenly for deliverance. That certainly had to be Hell. And we had just escaped its grip.

          We sailed on as close as we’ll ever get to heaven. Scholars and artists have strived to depict Heaven to help us mortals better understand the concept. But we found true Heaven. It was there, right before our eyes. Bright, clear, a shining aura embracing us from overhead. We have been delivered and will live to see another day.

 

 ©  WILLIAM A. BUTLER, 2004