By the time we headed west up the Beagle Channel a few days after I arrived, there was a watch schedule in place that would regiment our lives for the next month. Every few days, we were assigned a team “mother-watch”—responsible for cleaning and getting three square meals on the table and keeping teacups and coffee mugs full. Once we were doing offshore passages, this offered a welcome reprieve from the standard watches of 6 hours on/6 hours off/4 hours on/4 hours off/ 4 hours on/ 4 hours off that became our daily routine. The watches weren’t difficult, but adjusting to the odd sleeping schedule took a while.
In the beginning, though, as we cruised the Beagle Channel, we anchored each evening, and after running double bow and stern lines ashore (because big winds could come up so unexpectedly) we enjoyed a delicious dinner, a great assortment of Argentinian and Chilean wines, and a full night’s sleep. We motored much of the way up the channel because of the light and unpredictable winds caused by towering mountains on either side, but oh—what a view!
I had just finished reading the excellent book Evolution’s Captain by Peter Nichols, which focuses on the relationship between Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the HMS Beagle, and Charles Darwin. So, my head was racing with images of Patagonia as it must have looked to them then. But I really hadn’t expected to see a region that seemed virtually unchanged since that time. This is surely one of the few parts of the world where nature still appears to have the upper hand over man.
We cruised past snowy Ushuaia, a frontier town (that has expanded rapidly in the last 20 years thanks to Antarctica tourism) spread at the base of the mountains, to Caletta Olla. Past Ventisqueros Francia, Italia, Romanche—a veritable United Nations of stunning blue glaciers that flowed down to the channel. In East Seno Pia, we hauled a large chunk of glacial ice onto the stern and hacked it into thousand-year-old diamonds of coldness as a treat in our cocktails that evening. The next day, we veered off course, crisscrossing the channel to watch an ancient food chain ritual as majestic Orcas feasted on unfortunate fur seals. One morning, we refilled our water tanks from a glacial waterfall before pulling up anchor, then retraced our route from the night before, circling in the basin at the base of Ventisquero Guilcher. Guilcher was perhaps the most majestic of all the glaciers, with a huge blue shelf of ice and mounds of wind and water scoured stone. When we had approached Guilcher the day before, catabatic winds had roared down the mountain and into the basin, churning the ice-filled water. Now the winds were light and we spent a few hours just circling at the base of Guilcher, mouths ajar...I gave the Pentax K-7 a punishing work out that morning!
We ended our Beagle Channel cruise with a trip to Bahia Yendegaia and Estancia Ferrari. We arrived in the dark, but on deck the next morning, the sky was the color of an old bruise. The hills were dusted in snow, the mountains behind them vanishing into ghostly flurries. The tide was out and sea birds strutted the wet strand, crying mournfully. A handful of small shacks dotted the beach at the foot of all this: Estancia Ferrari. Ashore, we mounted horses and followed José, a true gaucho, and his big pack of dogs, through a scene of almost unimaginable beauty. Fat, wet flakes cascaded down as we trotted through fields and fjorded tidal streams, mountains to either side, sea behind us, the only sounds the sucking of the horses hooves in mud, an occasional equine snort, or a human gasp of appreciation.