Cascades, often a dozen side-by-side, formed intricate patterns across rocky pinnacles as they dropped a thousand feet into the canals below. Far to the west, the snow covered Andes provided an awesome backdrop to our cruise south towards Cape Horn. We had traveled from San Juan, Puerto Rico, through the Panama Canal, down the arid coastline of Peru and 500 miles of Chile to reach the fabulous fiords of southern Chile. New Chance, my North American 40, had left Puerto Montt fully provisioned and with its #1 Cape Horn bound crew aboard: Chuck Adams, Neill Martin and son Jim Butler, all in the prime of life, strong outdoorsmen and experienced small boat seamen.


We have always referred to Neill as the “White Hunter” for his underwater spear fishing abilities. In the Caribbean, I’ve seen him drop down 10 feet and shoot a two pound yellow tail that zipped by at a distance of 15 feet. Ten miles south of Puerto Montt, we put him to the test when we ventured upon a school of jacks feeding at the surface. Out came his 5-pound tackle and his favorite lure. On his third cast he hooked a feisty two pounder. Within the hour we had four more aboard, enough for lunch. Engine cranked up, we continued on our way out into the long swells of the Pacific Ocean then across the infamous Golfo de Penas. Lucky for us, it was one of its better days, as the tales of the wild Pacific Ocean breakers produced when it rolls into the confines of this large gulf are epic. Golfo de Penas in English means ‘Gulf of Lament”. By evening we were safely inside the Chilean fiord system.


Where to spend the night remained my principal concern once early afternoon approached. The many tales written by experienced seamen who had anchored only to find themselves high and dry the next morning brought on my worry. On this first night, February 25, 1995, we picked up a huge buoy owned, I presumed, by the Chilean Navy. Knowing we were super safe for the night in addition to the skips heavy duty beef stew, the skip and crew remained knocked out until dawn, which at our latitude came at about 5 a.m. From then on, with last light at about 9 p.m., we had an anchorage for the night picked out well before five in the afternoon. We’d motor into the selected bay to a depth of 30 feet, which in most cases brought us within feet of shore. The forty-pound Danforth inevitably set into a thick bed of kelp. The Hunter would hop into the dinghy, row to shore with two heavy lines then climb into the virgin woods to locate two trees that the skipper considered suitable and secure one line to each. We never failed to awaken at the same spot.


An early anchorage on February 24 allowed each of us a chance to do our thing on shore. Here’s what Chuck noted in the log:

Jimmy gets 4 dungenous crabs

Hunter catches zero

Chuck does underwear laundry

Skip collects phony petrified wood


To each his own. Large mussels lined all the rocks wherever we traveled but we had been told in Valparaiso by the authorities that they had had a ‘red tide’ recently and that the mussels had been poisoned. Jimmy gathered up a bucketful. They sure looked great to me. I chided the crew into trying one. I’d boil some for a half hour and I needed a volunteer to try just one. We’d wait and if nothing happened in an hour we’d eat a few more. I cajoled the three unmercifully. I insisted that I’d try one but shouldn’t since I was the only one who knew the way home. Though our mouths watered, we never ate one mussel. A month later we met the crew of a boat in Puerto Williams who’d eaten 30 bucketfuls of mussels and were fine. The ‘red-tide story’ was but a fairy tale. I rode the crew for days.


Number one on our agenda as we traveled south was a visit to an active glacier. Neill and I studied our Atlas of Chilean nautical charts in search of a glacier close to the main canal. Most of the glaciers were near 30 miles inland which meant a 60 mile round trip. With hundreds of miles between fueling stops and super fluky winds, each and every gallon had to be burned wisely, or my motley crew would have to row. After much study, we picked Seno Iceberg as the one to visit as its glacier was about 10 miles from its mouth. With full sails and a brisk breeze, we sailed up the narrow channel... until a 50 knot williwaw swept down the cliff, caught Jimmy at the helm by surprise, overpowered New Chance, pushing the top of the mast to within feet of the surface. Lesson one in Williwaw 101... expect the unexpected.


Seno Iceberg spewed bergy bits by the dozens. This ancient glacier still rumbles down from an Andean peak to actively calve as a result of the continuous warming process our planet experiences. I edged New Chance deep into the blue ice field and ordered the crew to hang over the side to pluck the bluest of the chinks. The freezer quickly filled with extra dense "10,000 year old" ice to be put into good use during future happy hours.

With the canals unmarked and too tricky for travel at night, we tried to be solidly secured to trees on shore before dusk, about nine p.m., in a cove selected earlier in the day by the ‘where to spend the night committee’. At five a.m. we were again underway with part of the crew back in their bunks once the boat was safely under way. Dodging berg bits, some twice as large as New Chance was the helms top priority, unless the sun was right for a photo-op. In that case we’d plunge the bow deep into a crevice and get the crew to smile for the camera.

The selected anchorage on March first was Puerto Señoret off Canal Wide at 50º 11’S and 74º 48.5 W. As we entered at almost low tide, son Jim called out, “Hey Dad, watch that reef on the right when we leave tomorrow’. A typical cove for this part of the world, it narrowed the deeper we entered and ended against a steep vee of a cliff through which wind gusts funneled during the night. Slowly we edged our way up against the shoreline, dropped the hook and tied the usual two lines to shore. While the crew enjoyed happy hour, the skip/cook went to work at putting together the where-with-all to stuff the three ever-starving husky mates.

Lines to shore were retrieved and the anchor freed from its bed of kelp by five a.m., the new day about as bright as it would get. While the crew stowed lines, I headed the bow out into the main canal. Jim called back from the bow, ‘Hey dad, keep an eye on those rocks at the entrance.’ With an ‘OK’ I went back to studying a chart on my lap to plot our next move. I breathed in the ever more invigorating cool morning, that is until Jim screamed, ‘Dad, the rocks!’

I stood up. There they were, 20 feet ahead, awash. I pulled the helm to starboard and threw the engine into full reverse. The ice was in the cooler but we were on the rocks.

© William A. Butler