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Cape Horn Bound: Dispatches from Southern Latitudes

Welcome to the end of the world.

May 21, 2010
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Wednesday, May 19, 2010
54°56.1S 67°37.1W

It will be hard for you, dear reader, to imagine the joy I feel sending you this update. Part of that is because, yes, I am in a stupendously beautiful part of the world that few people get to visit, and aboard a boat—which always makes me happy. But to be honest, much of it is because I have struggled to set up my Iridium 9555 data connection for the last five days. It’s been a comedy of errors and a reminder that working all the kinks out well in advance is a good idea, otherwise you may wind up in a remote Chilean town staring at a flickering, circa 1987 computer monitor that’s the size of a washing machine with an internet connection that informs you your download will take 3 hours and twenty minutes…which is bad news made worse when you learn the store is closing for a 3 and a half hour siesta in 20 minutes. If only there hadn’t been all that pesky work to do before I left! But all’s well that ends well. We push off the dock from Puerto Williams, Chile, at the crack of dawn tomorrow. And I am all set up, finally. Yippeeee!

To catch you up on the last few days, Friday’s overnight flight from New York to Buenos Aires was fine and on Sunday I continued on to Ushuaia. I arrived just before the airport closed (for siesta) and was met by Roxanna Diaz, who does logistics for visiting yachts. Ushuaia’s architecture is the kind of charming mash up that occurs in frontier towns that attract ex-pats with wanderlust and where there’s been explosive growth in tourism (mostly cruise ships visiting Antarctica): the housing styles range from Alpine to ice shack. Snow capped mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop and Roxanne suggested we drive a few miles up for a closer look at the glacier that looms above this town of 60,000. Afterwards, we decided to get a little lunch while we waited for the airport to reopen. The Ramos Generales store has been turned into the local museum as well as a bar, restaurant, and store. Legs of jamon hang from the ceiling, the glass-topped dining tables double as display boxes for all kinds of nautical memorabilia, and a long wooden counter that probably once separated the shopkeepers and their wares from customers now serves a similar function, keeping the thirsty from the rows of liquor and wine bottles lining the walls. The end of the counter also displayed loaves of bread, pastries, and a tray of meringues decorated to look like fat, yummy little penguins.

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| |The Ushuaia Yacht Club, as seen from the Aero Club|

I was the only traveler at the airport when my teenage pilot (who looked like his voice might have cracked just last week) and I took off for Puerto Williams in a Piper Cherokee. It’s the tiniest plane I’ve ever been aboard and I’ve done a lot of flying in small planes. It’s ideal for the area, Silvio explained, because it’s simple to fly and has very short wings that do well in windy conditions and sudden down drafts. Reassuring.

Our 25-mile flight down the Beagle Channel, at an altitude of 500 feet, was staggeringly beautiful. Dramatically craggy mountains covered in snow towered on either side in a gloomy dusk-like light, and as we approached the tiny town of Puerto Williams in Chile, a mere twenty minutes later, the outline of the little airstrip suddenly lit up in festive, Christmas-y green and red lights that seemed to be saying “Bienvenido!”

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| |From the plane window, between Ushuaia and Puerto Williams.|

I waited about 20 minutes for someone to show up for me, but after I saw Pelagic Australis’s mast passing up a small channel and back down again, I assumed the crew was busy. And just as I decided I’d better get myself to the boat, but was wondering how I’d do that with so much to carry, a man leaving the airport cast a glance at me and my massive sea bag and two other, smaller duffels and asked if I needed a ride. Once I was settled in the cab, Hector came around the front of his battered truck and tied my door shut from the outside—in New York I would have assumed I was about to be abducted but I was pretty sure Hector was trying to prevent me from bouncing out onto the mud-covered roads. Minutes later, he left me at the top of the Puerto Williams Yacht Club dock. About a dozen smaller sailboats were rafted together and I sighted Pelagic Australis at the end of the dock, behind a hulking steel ship called Micalvi and a wooden sailboat named Victory, whose decks I crossed to reach Pelagic Australis. I had arrived at the end of the world.

For a gallery of images from Mary South’s trip around Cape Horn click here.

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