In the wake of Darwin's Beagle
Sailing with Serendipia
Attractively rugged. That’s what you could call the waters of the Beagle Channel. Marco Barneveld and Frits Meyst went sailing on the Serendipia from Puerto Williams. “Dolphins were diving and tumbling around us in the golden morning light as we set course for Glacier Pia, our icy goal.”
I wake up to Mauro turning on the Taylors’ gas stove. My berth in the bow of the Serendipia is warm and cozy. Somehow, I always sleep deeper than deep aboard sailing ships. It will be the rocking of the boat that evokes memories of a safe womb. Or something like that. I don’t know. I dive out of my warm bed straight into my pre-heated clothes. Taking your clothes under the covers is always a good idea in icy regions. I step onto the deck with a hot, steaming cup of coffee. Caletta Morning, the bay in one of the arms of the Beagle Channel where we anchor, is already full of life. The waterfall gurgles merrily; two condors sit in their permanent spot high on the rocks, white from years of condor droppings. I searched the bay for the lone dolphin that came to greet us yesterday and kept us company until we went under the wool. I no longer see him. Then next to the boat, underwater, I see a bluish shadow skimming past the keel. And another. And another. Our friendly dolphin has made it to his buddies. They dive and tumble around us, guiding us in the golden morning light as we set course for Glacier Pia, our icy goal today.
A few days ago in Puerto Williams, we embarked on the Serendipia, Mauro Carrizo’s steel sailing vessel. Mauro is Argentinian by birth but found his niche when he was allowed to sail with the ship’s previous owner as a sailor. He now owns the 38-footer and organizes sailing trips with it from Puerto Williams. “This ship came up for sale at exactly the right time,” Mauro laughs. “Hence I christened it Serendipia. Life provides at the right time.” Mauro sails around Cape Horn, the Beagle Channel waters with fantastic wildlife, and sails to glacial estuaries. All in consultation with his guests but based on weather forecasts.
“Coming here is no problem at all, but getting out of here that’s an art”
Free sea souls
The small town of Puerto Williams can proudly call itself the southernmost town in the world. On the other side of the Beagle Channel in Argentina, Ushuaia may claim that title, but nothing could be further from the truth. At the marina, it is a motley crew of international sailors who sometimes spend months here waiting for the wind and prospects to be suitable to complete their voyage. “Coming here is no problem at all,” says Australian retired professional sailor Tony Mowbray. “When you sail around the world, the most common winds naturally blow you towards Puerto Williams. But getting out of here that’s an art.” He should know. Among other things, Tony solo-sailed non-stop around the world.
Next to the old salty dog in the marina of Puerto Williams lies the SV Sweet Ruca, owned by Americans Curtis Jazwiecki and his girlfriend Kate. “We sold everything, bought this pretty little boat, and now make money as influencers with all the content we create while sailing. Because, well, you have to make money occasionally.” That’s true for most free sea souls here in the harbor at the end of the world, except for the Luxembourg ex-banker, moored next to Serendipia with his Red Lion. He made his fortune, and chose freedom at 50.
Cordillera Darwin ice field covers an area greater than 2,300 square kilometres. By comparison, that is about the size of the Paris and London combined
The colossal The ice field of the Pia glacier towers above us. Bright blue glacier tongues stand out sharply against the mountain slopes’ dark rocks and deep green vegetation. Occasional loud thuds reverberate as chunks of ice break off the glaciers. The Pia Glacier is part of the Cordillera Darwin ice field, which covers an area greater than 2,300 square kilometres. By comparison, that is about the size of the Paris and London combined, and then some. The ice field forms the largest area of land ice on the southernmost tip of the American continent.
The force of nature is palpable here on the deep fjords. Fall winds lash the water of the Beagle Channel, whipping it until small water tornadoes dance on the channel. Occasionally we see a whale’s tail sticking out above the waves. The place is crawling with whales. Cautiously, we turn into a bay. Mauro carefully maneuvers between ice floes and rocks to enter the bay of Glacier Pia. The sun casts its skittish rays on the ice and makes the surface glisten as if studded with millions of diamonds; with a thunderous roar, a massive chunk of ice breaks off and sends a rolling wave towards the Serendipia—a breathtaking beauty, but with a certain fragility in this landscape. Glaciers are melting rapidly due to global warming. Some as much as two meters a year.
But we still get to experience this. And that should be celebrated. We sail around the bay with the dinghy when the tidal wave of breaking ice has calmed down. “Look for chunks of ice that have no air bubbles in them,” says Mauro, as I use fishing gloves to fish chunks of ice out of the briny water. “That ice is more than ten thousand years old,” Mauro knows when I find a perfectly transparent specimen. Ten-thousand-year-old ice. Perfect for whisky. The primal ice crackles with pleasure as we pour the liquid over it. Just a drink to the eye-watering beauty around us and with a drop extra for Watauineiwa, the sea god who could flip your canoe when angry.
Watauineiwa is an important sea god in the mythology of the Yagan, an indigenous people living in southern Chile. They may know. The Yagans traditionally traveled around in kayaks and lived off the sea in the fjords and canals of Patagonia.
“Watauineiwa is as a giant god with a long beard who lives at the bottom of the sea. He decides whether the sea is calm or wild, and provides the Ayayema with fish and marine mammals to live on”
Y”In their animistic beliefs, Watauineiwa is seen as the mighty deity who rules the sea,” says Mauro. “He is represented as a giant man with a long beard who lives at the bottom of the sea. Watauineiwa decides whether the sea is calm or wild. He provides the Yagans with fish and marine mammals to live on. But he can also cause storms and high waves when he is angry. The yagans make Watauineiwa offerings to appease him for safe travel and fishing. Our drop of whisky is sure to cheer him up.”
And Watauineiwa is apparently pleased with the trickle of whisky. We almost bump into a local fishing boat when we leave the bay. The friendly fishermen are blessed with an abundant catch of snow crabs, which they are happy to share with us. Thanks, Watauineiwa!
The force of nature is palpable. Fall winds lash the water of the Beagle Channel, until small water tornadoes dance on the channel
Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia had many more indigenous tribes. But here, too, settlers from the Old World were murderous. The original inhabitants were almost completely exterminated. What remains are rolling hills in the landscape that remind us of the Indian tribes that ate shells generation after generation and threw their waste on the ground until the trash became the slopes in the landscape.
Mauro casts the anchor of the Serendipia off Kanasaka Island. Claudio Martinez Gil greets us affably. Claudio is a man of few words. Then again, you don’t need words when you live alone on a three-thousand-hectare ranch with two hundred cows and twenty sheep. The wooden log cabin Claudio lives in was built by his grandfather in 1929. “It’s nice and quiet here,” says Claudio. Occasionally he slaughters a cow or a sheep and takes it to Puerto Williams when he needs money. It is bloody hot in his house. The stove is glowing. Through the window, you can see Ushuaia on the Argentine side of the Beagle Channel. 5 kilometers as the crow flies. Claudio has never been there, even though his aunt lives there. “What should I do there?” growls Claudio. In front of him lies ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka. Claudio reads it for the second time.
Darwin, Magellan, Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire
On this trip, we sailed in the wake of several explorers. What are the connections between Darwin, Magellan, Schouten, Le Maire, and the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, and Cape Horn?
The stories of European explorers Magellan, Schouten, Le Maire, and Darwin are intertwined through their pioneering sea voyages around this treacherous tip of South America. Ferdinand Magellan first discovered and charted the narrow Strait of Magellan in 1520, finding a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific.
A century later, Dutch sailors Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire were the first to round stormy Cape Horn, proving one could circumvent the entirety of South America to reach the Pacific.
Charles Darwin later followed in the wakes of these explorers, sailing through the Strait of Magellan in the 1830s aboard the HMS Beagle and rounding Cape Horn to reach the Pacific. This voyage provided vital evidence for Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution.
Magellan opened up the Strait, Schouten and Le Maire conquered Cape Horn, and Darwin voyaged through both to gather insights into the origin of life on Earth. The accounts and maps these courageous explorers left behind helped open trade routes between Europe, the Americas, and Asia around the treacherous but vital sea passages past South America’s southernmost point.
Little has changed about the landscape since Darwin, whose ship the Beagle gave the name to these waters in the extreme south, passed through here on his voyage of discovery. Few people live in the monotonous emptiness of this rather unforgiving natural landscape. The fall winds are commonplace, the currents strong, and the cold in winter barren. Cape Horn, just a bit further, was the death of many vessels, including its crew. Some even say it was haunted. But oh well, what the heck. Sailing in southern Patagonia is a powerful hug with Mother Earth, where she still rules alone, where puny humans are guests. A place that puts everything in perspective.
Little has changed about the landscape since Darwin, whose ship the Beagle passed through here on his voyage of discovery
And while Mauro is in the cabin magically conjuring the most insane delicacies from the galley, I am at the helm. Puerto Williams is still several kilometers away. The glint on the heads of the swell gives way to the shadowy silhouettes of dozens of dolphins. Are they the same ones we saw in Caletta Morning Bay earlier this week? They shoot left and right past the Serendipia, occasionally diving above water for a moment, then shooting under the ship. The divine divers keep playing with our boat for at least half an hour. Apparently, they like the Serendipia as much as I do.