Puerto Williams: A Winter's Sojourn near Cape Horn
by Mark Roye, Pacific Northwest Station Photos by Nancy Krill
As cruisers, we are too often compelled to hasten along our way, racing seasonal weather systems, seeking annual trade-wind shifts, or, in some cases, returning home for business or family gatherings. It’s all too easy to forget that the journey may in fact be more elemental than the destination.
NANCY AND I INITIALLY INTENDED TO TAKE VERY LITTLE time to round the tip of South America on our return from cruising the Labrador Sea region. But while anchored in Brazil, we were asked by a French cruiser, “What’s ze rush?” We reconsidered. What was ze rush? So we slowed down, found secure havens for Tamara, our 44-foot Swedish steel ketch, and traveled very extensively inland, crisscrossing southern South America several times by bus and plane, spending time deliberately trying to experience the region and understand the people and their culture as well as we could.
In the course of these excursions, we came to meet and befriend people from all walks of life. Among them were the head of the Argentine national police; a woman who, as a university professor, was one of the leading DNA specialists in South America; a retired electrical engineer in Chile who had experienced both Marxist and military regimes, and who as a result kept his savings beneath his mattress; ship captains; a mining engineer; a noted geologist; an equally noted marine biologist and head of an institute in Brazil who asked that I address a large crowd about fisheries management practices in Alaska; and a television executive who insisted on an interview. Tradesmen, merchants, riggers, welders, and sail makers figured in as well, as Tamara, like all cruising boats, required maintenance along the way.
These encounters served not only to enhance our understanding of the region, its economy, politics, customs, and culture, but of course its languages as well. Such intercourse could never have happened had it been confined to our own native English. One particular episode elicits a smile from me still, as I recall the almost comical threeway discourse between me, in my then very rudimentary Spanish, a Brazilian naval official, and a Dutchman who understood no romance languages and spoke English only poorly. Pressed into service by the Portuguese-speaking naval official to serve as translator, I was somehow able to use my poor Spanish with him, then relay inquiries and instructions back and forth to the Dutchman. We all came away satisfied, and feeling that we’d somehow gained from the experience.
But—more on this later—we reached the high point of this cross-cultural experience when we were asked to spend an entire austral winter in Puerto Williams, Chile, teaching English to the captain of the port’s staff and the two teenage sons of the commander of this small, picturesque, and very isolated naval garrison.
The process of clearing into Chile at Puerto Williams was without doubt the most streamlined and pleasant such experience anywhere we’d cruised, with perhaps the exception of Canada. Formalities begin here with a required radio call about an hour before arrival to alert officials. Taking turns daily, one of the four officials involved in this bureaucratic necessity then picks up the other three in a small SUV or pickup. Together they make their way to the 1925 steamship Micalvi that has been deliberately sunk to form a facility for visiting small boats. On the Micalvi’s ancient decks, the officials greet the new arrivals, assist in making fast the yacht, then expeditiously and efficiently stamp passports, review zarpe permits, and process all questions of customs, immigration, naval, and agricultural requirements. No need to wander about trying to find each office, puzzling as to what the process requires. Instead, they all collaborate and render the potentially unpleasant obligation a cultural experience. Welcome to extreme southern Chile!
As noted above, our initial arrival at the Micalvi had one additional element beyond the usual procedure. Having been alerted by one of the commercial charter operators that we might be suitable candidates, we were greeted on our arrival by the ranking petty officer of the Capitania del Puerto’s staff and asked if we would agree to teach English! After formalities were concluded and we were officially offered the position by the captain himself, we were welcomed to the village like honored guests. This would make our lengthy sojourn in this small village, just miles from Cape Horn, a uniquely memorable part of our entire cruising experience. Career advancement in the Armada de Chile requires a certain English proficiency, and our students were to prove to be not only highly motivated, but very gracious to us as well. We quickly became part of the armada family.
Puerto Williams is located on Isla Navarino, facing the Beagle Channel, with spectacular peaks just behind, and Argentina across the channel. It is the southernmost incorporated town in the world, and is the administrative center for Chile’s Antarctic Province, Cape Horn, and much of Chilean Patagonia. As such, it serves as a port of entry and a hub for considerable scientific activity linked to Antarctica and the protected Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego region. Visiting yachts, cruise ships, and extensive commercial shipping transiting these waters must deal in some way with armada officials in Puerto Williams. Incidentally, pursuant to the SOLAS treaty, most of this interaction is conducted in English, further motivating our hosts.
Puerto Williams’s population, at the time of our stay, was about 2,700. Locally they liked to say that there were 2,500 armada personnel in the village, but in the reckoning of the armada, all dependents are considered navy. Indeed, even the lowest rated enlisted man, if married, enjoyed a modest but very comfortable small cottage or duplex housing unit, and officers were housed in very well-appointed apartment units. Many of the civilian residents of the village had also once been armada personnel, and had chosen to remain in the picturesque community.
Other than the armada and its direct support, the primary industry is a local fishery for a large crab species, lithodes santolla, or centolla, as it is called in Chile, Argentina, and Peru. Also known as southern king crab, the species enjoys high market value, permitting product to be economically transported from the remote location. In addition to his other duties, the captain of the port’s responsibilities include handling the port's own version of what we’d call “float plans” for this fleet, as well as twicedaily radio communications intended to promote safe fishing operations. The armada is also charged with patrolling Chile’s Exclusive Economic Zone and enforcing fishing regulations.
Puerto Williams, at 54˚ 56' south, has a climate very similar to that of Sitka or Cordova, Alaska, or the coasts of Norway and Scotland, referred to as a sub-polar oceanic climate. Rain and snow are common, but the temperature is generally moderate due to the proximity of the ocean. In the winter, this means that substantial snowfall is often followed by warming temperatures or rain, at times resulting in very slippery, hard-packed snow and ice cover on roads and walkways. One of our fondest memories of winter here was watching armada personnel walking to work early in the morning, wearing only one of the naval-issued slip-on spiked-rubber crampons on one foot, then a few hours later seeing wives on their way to the store wearing the other of the pair on the opposite foot. As generous as the armada seems to be, evidently the issue of this essential piece of equipment is made only to actual personnel, and necessity has driven this creative solution. The peculiar gait that results seems not to bother either member of the family, and everyone makes out well enough with what they’ve got.
The 850-ton, 181-foot Micalvi is certainly the most unique yacht facility that we’ve encountered, and that includes time we’ve spent in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Alaska. Built in Germany in 1925 and powered by a 380-horsepower tripleexpansion steam engine, she was sold to Chile in 1928 and steamed from Europe loaded with ammunition for the Chilean battleship Almirante Latorre. On arrival in Chile, she was refitted as a supply vessel for the Puntas Arenas region, as well as for colonists in the extreme southern regions of Tortel and Navarino islands. In 1961, the ship was decommissioned and anchored in Puerto Williams as a museum. Eventually, with a wonderfully practical sense of re-purposing, she was deliberately sunk in a very protected caleta (Spanish for “sheltered cove”) and converted to a clubhouse and facility for yachts. Electrical outlets, toilets, and showers were added, and a bar built into her superstructure. She is used, of course, by visiting yachts, as well as by armada officers as an officers’ club.
In addition to availing ourselves of the pleasures of the bar on the Micalvi, alongside which Tamara lay for several months, we found many other activities to occupy ourselves during our time in the village.
Excellent hiking opportunities are afforded on the island, including a popular five-day backpacking circuit around the jagged pinnacles south of the town. Called locally the Dientes (teeth) de Navarino, the peaks were always spectacularly visible from Tamara’s berth.
The armada sponsors numerous activities to engage and entertain the entire community. This includes flea market sales in the gym, celebrations of various national holidays complete with military bands, sailing regattas in which yachts crewed by personnel from both the Chilean and Argentine navies as well as private competitors vie for important recognition, and religious ceremonies like annual blessings of the fleet in this officially Catholic country. Naval officers often hosted celebrations and receptions, both at the Micalvi and in facilities ashore.
The entire community participates in most of these events, but adds to the opportunities as well. The library and local entrepreneurs offer good internet access and video rentals, while a few small restaurants and bars afford occasional evenings off the boat. But one of our favorites, as well as that of the villagers, was the middle school’s production of a very popular Chilean folk dance known as the handkerchief dance. Similar to many folk dances familiar to us North Americans, this dance involves the use of a handkerchief, not only as a fan, but also to unite the couple while limiting their distance apart as both partners grasp a corner of the handkerchief.
While the armada maintains its own small supermarket, it no longer is open to non-navy shoppers. This is in part due to requests by local merchants that they not be forced to compete with the military. Though our position with the navy would likely have allowed us access to their store, we found it rewarding to do our shopping at the small, privately run markets. This introduced us to more members of the community, but also afforded other opportunities. One of the smaller stores not only stocked all that we ever needed, but a former naval rating operated an excellent bakery in conjunction with the market. Every day at 11 a.m., fresh bread, and that most emblematic of Chilean delicacies, the empanada, were almost ceremoniously carried to waiting shelves to be immediately thrust into paper bags by eagerly anticipating customers. Within an hour, the shelves were bare.
The same phenomenon would occur at the fresh produce bins just after the arrival of the once-weekly ferry from Punta Arenas. But more durable produce like potatoes, onions, cabbages, carrots, chili peppers, frozen meat, fish, and certain vegetables, as well as red wine and beer, were always in plentiful supply, and frequent trips to the store helped us maintain a close connection with the small community.
As the only norte americanos semi-permanently resident in the village, we were easily identifiable by naval and civilian residents alike, and we were always greeted most graciously.
Our time at Puerto Williams held, for me, an even greater appeal. I hold in the highest regard the accomplishments of mariners who came before us. They not only imbued us with a penchant for adventure and exploration, but with the skills they passed down over the generations that make possible our own efforts today. We call it seamanship, but it’s much more than just the tradecraft required to safely navigate far beyond our familiar horizons. It’s elemental, part of what enables us to share an ethic that not only utilizes that tradecraft to achieve our objective, but to do so as part of an aesthetic that nearly rises to an art.
Puerto Williams holds an important place in this ethic. It is not simply situated in a location that figured large in the age of exploration and saw such iconic vessels as the Beagle sail close in to its shores, but it is the gateway port for Antarctic voyages today. That spirit persists still. This is perhaps best exemplified by a simple memorial just outside the navy store in the village.
Following the destruction of Endurance by the ice of the Weddell Sea, now just over a hundred years ago, Shackleton’s crew finally made landfall on tiny Elephant Island. They were nearly at the limits of all human endurance, but the very name of their ship and Shackleton’s superb leadership combined to grant them super-human fortitude. The epic small-boat voyage in the tiny James Caird, so ably sailed by Endurance captain Frank Worsley, and the ensuing crossing of the mountains of South Georgia to summon help, are now of course the stuff of legend.
Less well remembered, however, was the eventual rescue of the crew left behind on Elephant Island. Skilled whalers and others failed to penetrate the ice imprisoning them, but the rescue was eventually accomplished by a modest steam tug commanded by a little-known Chilean mariner. Shackleton himself paid homage to this effort:
“Finally, it was the Chilian [his spelling] Government that was directly responsible for the rescue of my comrades. This southern Republic was unwearied in its efforts to make a successful rescue, and the gratitude of our whole party is due to them. I especially mention the sympathetic attitude of Admiral Muñoz Hurtado, head of the Chilian Navy, and Captain Luis Pardo, who commanded the Yelcho on our last and successful venture.”
— Sir Ernest Shackleton, Preface to South
Today the efforts of piloto Luis Pardo, as he is called in Chile, and the Yelcho, are honored by a simple monument. The bow of the Yelcho, ensconced on a base of concrete, accompanied by a bronze plaque, serves to remind us not only of this spirit of human endeavor, but of the skill and consummate seamanship of all of those involved.
It is this heritage of Puerto Williams, the graciousness of its citizens, and its role in both the past and present that made it, for us, a most rewarding sojourn during our voyaging. We were able to both spend an extended time here as residents, as well as to embark on our own Antarctic voyage and to return to this welcoming port as mariners, playing our own small part in its enduring heritage.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Mark Roye and Nancy Krill make their home in Port Townsend, Washington. Their 44-foot Swedish steel ketch Tamara has safely carried them more than 60,000 miles, mostly in high latitudes, both north and south. After a voyage that took them from the Arctic to the Antarctic, then to Alaska, they continue their search for adventure in the vastness of the north, regardless of the season. They were awarded the Charles H. Vilas Prize in 2011 and the Royal Cruising Club Trophy in 2012. Their adventures are chronicled at krillroye.com, krillroye.blogspot.com, and in numerous sailing publications. Their slide presentation has been widely acclaimed.