Punta Arenas

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Thu 12 May 2016 00:58
53:09.8S 70:54.3W

Just up the (metaphorical) road from Puerto Williams, on the mainland and the shores of the Magellan Strait, lies Punta Arenas, the next Chilean town. One hundred and eighty miles away in a straight line over Tierra del Fuego, it takes a day and a half by ferry or one and a half hours by Twin Otter plane to get there.

The landscape around Punta Arenas is completely different to Isla Navarino; low rolling hills, locally covered in dense scrub, as far as the eye can see and probably all the way to the Rio Negro in Argentina, the official start to Patagonia. The slopes down to the Strait of Magellan are mostly devoid of trees and the soil is dry. As often happens in places where land is flat and cheap, the city sprawls over a vast area, making it feel much larger than a conurbation of 120,000 inhabitants.

Inline images 10

The town was founded in 1848. The original settlement was situated 60km further south, established five years earlier by Captain John Williams (the 'Williams' of Puerto Williams), originally from Bristol but in the service of Chile. His aim was to claim the land before any other nation did. The story goes that the French arrived just a few days later but were convinced to accept the Chilean claim and colonised Tahiti instead. (A good move, if you ask me!)

Inline images 6
Punta Arenas city centre with the Strait of Magellan behind

We checked into Samarce House, a B&B on Avenida España recommended by our friends Caroline and Marc of yacht 'Jonathan'. Samuel welcomed us in as if he had been expecting us. With his wife Marcela and their three daughters, they run a cosy B&B and make sure everyone feels welcome. Nearby, we noticed the British Institute, the British School and the Anglican Church, suggesting we were staying in the former British quarter. I was keen to find Charles Milward's House. 'Charley' was Bruce Chatwin's great-uncle, British Consul from 1910-15 and a merchant navy captain who later wrote up some of his sea faring tales. He is also famous for contributing to the excavation of a Mylodon listai (prehistoric ground sloth which roamed Patagonia 10,000 years ago) and sending his finds to the British Museum in London. As we searched for the house, we realised we had been staring at it all along, the turreted building opposite our bedroom window. Charles Milward died in 1928.

Inline images 1
Milward's house. Shackleton stayed here in 1916 while planning the rescue operation of his men stranded on Elephant Island.

One of Milward's stories affected me deeply. It demonstrates perfectly my SHAS theory - 'Shit Happens At Sea'.

'Still only a boy, on a journey near Cape Horn, Milward took his turn at the wheel. The ship's carpenter was walking along the deck. The boat lurched to port and the carpenter stepped on the slack staysail sheet (the rope that controls the front sail). The sheet came tight, caught the man between the legs and propelled him overboard.

Young Charley threw him a life buoy and turned the ship into the wind (which stops the boat). The crew made ready for the rescue. The carpenter was swimming strongly. A rowing dinghy was launched. An hour later, it returned, the crew had had a tough row against the wind. At this point the sailors on the ship couldn't see whether the man had been rescued.

As the dinghy was close to coming along side, the second mate, in charge of the dinghy, stood up and waved. Unfortunately, it caused the dinghy to broach and capsize. All hands were now in the water. The crew rushed to prepare the second dinghy but it was not easily accessible. As they brought it up upon deck, a large wave hit the boat, two men slipped and the dinghy fell and was stove in.

A few of the sailors in the water managed to scramble onto the overturned boat, two others tried to swim to the ship but it was drifting too fast.

The ship's crew extracted the third dinghy but had trouble launching it. Meanwhile the ship was drifting fast to leeward and they lost sight of the men in the water. They could tell where they were as increasing numbers of albatrosses were circling overhead.

Once afloat, the dinghy crew had a long way to row to attempt a rescue. Two and half hours later, it returned, unsuccessful. The wind had strengthened and the waves had built. Two of the men were bleeding from head wounds.

They had reached the first dinghy but there were no survivors. Albatrosses had attacked the swimmers, pecking their eyes out and, defenceless, the men had chosen to remove their lifejackets and sink, to get away from the torture. The life buoy had been recovered.

Five men had died that day, as a result of accidentally stepping on a line ...'

A terrible tail indeed. I do have a few doubts, however, as to its veracity. The water in these latitudes is very cold and research in the Falklands has shown death by hyperthermia after eleven minutes immersion in the summer. Milward claims the men were still alive after an hour in the water. The other dubious point is the predation of live men by albatrosses. On the internet I have found only one other reference to a similar incident, the sinking of a German warship during the First World War when sailors in the water were attacked by birds. In South Georgia, Franco and I witnessed Southern petrels (a large bird related to the albatross) scavenging on dead seals, as vultures would elsewhere. Given the chance they also take penguin chicks ... but live men?

Inline images 5
Fossilised milodon poo

Suffering from acute 'tree shortage syndrome', we took a taxi to the Magellanic Nature Reserve, seven kilometres out of town. We followed the well marked pathway through pleasant woodland. The walk was supposed to end at a view point way above the city, but our path suddenly disappeared, on a spur, in the middle of a clump of trees 'dripping' with lichen. We were completely lost. We hunted around, looking for the route, until we found a large pile of red-tipped stakes! Somebody had gone home early! Using a poor quality aerial photo, we worked out where we needed to head. It turned out we had missed a completely obvious turning across a bridge and continued along what will eventually become an alternative route. When something appears too obvious, we cease paying attention.

Inline images 3
Nothofagus with lichen

Inline images 7
Southern beach in Reserva Magellanica

Back in town, people had gathered in the square to protest on behalf of the traditional fishermen in Chiloe Island, hundreds of miles up the coast. A red tide has killed everything this year. We wondered whether the large scale salmon farming may have something to do with it.

The local catch seems to be mostly centolla (king crab) and since the season is open, we sampled warm centolla and cheese pasties at the municipal indoor market. They were delicious. From the market we could see the Strait but try as we might, there seemed no way of getting to the beach. The whole length of the extensive shoreline is occupied by dock buildings, derelict piers, military land, etc.

We slowly worked through our shopping list; mostly items for Caramor, though Franco got a haircut and I bought a couple of good books and some Chilean folk music. The tedium of shopping was relieved by frequent stops at cafés on the way. Franco concluded, reassured, that good coffee is available in Chile after all.

Franco's cough worsened, so we spent a morning at the clinic. I always find hospitals, post offices and government buildings great places to gain insight into a society. The good news was that the pneumonia had cleared up but Franco still had acute bronchitis, as did 95% of the other patients waiting in 'Casualty'.

Eventually we worked out how to get to the sea. The beach was fairly dirty but some effort has gone into making a pleasant walkway along the shore. Unfortunately the graffiti 'artists' have done their best to make the area look derelict.

Inline images 9
The Ancud, John Williams' ship

Looking out across the water towards Tierra del Fuego today, it is difficult to imagine the importance this stretch of water once had.

Ferdinand Magellan and his men were the first Europeans to pass through in 1520. They found the experience so terrifying that they preferred to return to Europe by going all the way round the world rather than turn back through the passage. They predicted that no one would ever attempt it again. They couldn't have been more wrong!

It wasn't long before the Strait of Magellan became one of the most important waterways in the world. Up until the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, the Strait was the only way between the Atlantic and the Pacific other than round Cape Horn where the wind is 'squeezed' between the South American continent and the Antarctic Peninsula causing violent storms and huge seas. Terrifying today (most of the charter yachts based in Williams failed to cross Drake's Passage in February this year (when we were in South Georgia!) because conditions were too horrendous) but often lethal for the ships of olden days.

The Strait is no doddle either. For centuries the captains of sailing ships dreaded it as much as they depended on it and many lost their craft, particularly at the eastern approaches. The labyrinth between the thousands of islands all the way to the Pacific required excellent navigation skills and the strong winds usually funnelling down the channels caused many engineless ships, to run aground and flounder.

Shipping increased from the 19th century, bringing a steady flow of immigrants from Chiloe, Switzerland, Spain, England, France, Croatia and other countries, to settle in Punta Arenas. The population grew from 150 inhabitants in 1853 to 7,000 forty-five years later. Together they developed a thriving cosmopolitan port and all types of exchange, business and trade.

In 1914, the opening of the Panama Canal clearly took business away from the Strait of Magellan yet it still remains an important ocean route with close to 1,500 ships per year passing through and about fifty tourist cruise ships stopping each summer in Punta Arenas.

The following morning Franco set off for the airport. He was heading for Jersey for his mother's 80th birthday party. It would be the first time in 28 years that all five brothers would be together.
I set off for a walk in glorious sunshine and called into a museum that had a display about the Yaghan Indians. As I returned to Samarce House that evening I was looking forward to a coughing-free night. The whole family met me on the threshold, "Franco is back! Aren't you happy?" they asked expectantly. I groaned. They were delighted: "Franco told us you wouldn't be amused". The airport had been in deep fog all that day and all flights had been cancelled. "We never get fog in Punta Arenas" said Samuel. Usually it blows a gale but for the whole time we were in Punta, there wasn't a breath of air.


Inline images 8
Punta Arenas from the view point at Reserva Magellanica