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Sailing in Chile: Part 4 - Laguna San Rafael

by Karina McQueen & Gary Peacock 17 Apr 16:51 UTC
dramatic sky © Karina McQueen & Gary Peacock

Our modest goal for the 2019 cruising season was to make it down to the glacier at Laguna San Rafael, roughly 450 nm south of Valdivia.

Laguna San Rafael boasts the furthest glacier found north in the southern hemisphere at 46o 38'S. We'd been told that lots of tourists do the trip, but don't be fooled - this area is REMOTE. You can get there by small tourist's boats (at least 14 hours return from Chacabulco), small cruise ship, or by airplane. All of those methods of transport are reasonably straight forward.

Travelling there in a sailboat is another matter and requires a bit of planning and a lot of guess work. The reason for this is the glacier is located at the bottom of a very long, narrow strait, that is accessed by travelling through two narrows where the current runs fierce, and then down a fast-moving river. The currents can run up to 6 knots and so for a sailboat, this requires careful timing of the passes and river to ensure you are travelling WITH the current (ie, on the flood). This sounds simple, but as it turns out, this is where the guess work comes in.

We have two guidebooks for Cruising in Chile: the "Italian Guide" and the "Royal Cruising Club" of England Guide. Both are very good and cover the vast majority of anchorages on the more well-travelled routes in the Patagonian canals. Both books contain a section on Laguna San Rafael. One informs the reader that slack water (which, in my understanding of the term, means that the current is not flooding or ebbing, but has stopped moving - always the best time to cross a narrows) occurs 2 hours behind the tide times listed for the tidal station at Bahia Orange (plus 1 hour for Daylight Savings). Having not come across Bahia Orange before, we did some research and realized it is the tidal station located at Cape Horn, 700 nm to the south! OK. We find the tide charts for Bahia Orange. Great. We check our chart plotter, which conveniently has tides for Paso Quesahuen, the first narrows we have to pass through, and decide that the numbers match. Yippee. We then read the second guide book, which helpfully tells us that high water (do they mean slack?) is 45 minutes AFTER the times listed for the tidal station at Bahia Orange. Um, what? Is anyone else confused? Because we certainly were.

Our first hurdle was getting through the first narrows at Paso Quesahuen. Since the guidebooks gave contradictory information, we chose the time that matched our chart plotter, as this seemed most reasonable. Unfortunately we learned the hard way, that this timing was just plain wrong! We went through the narrows at supposed 'slack' with a 3 knot current with us and 25 knots of wind at our back. The extra "push" from the winds and current made for a very 'exciting' trip across the eddy line and into the calm waters of the anchorage just inside the narrows. Gary got to practice some navigation skills left over from his river kayaking days... Luckily the weather turned poor and so we had a few days to lick our wounds and to re-think our strategy for attacking narrows #2 and the river.

Being a scientist, I'm always frustrated by incorrect or confusing information. It annoys me, especially when it creeps into my sailing life. So, I spent one afternoon with a pair of binoculars, clock and a notebook and watched the current and tide in the pass just outside our anchorage. According to one guidebook (and our chart plotter), high tide and supposedly slack tide were supposed to happen at 1401h. I started taking written observations at 1340h.

Here is a sampling of my recordings:

  • 1340h - current still flooding strongly; pass looks really choppy and nasty
  • 1350h - current still flooding strongly; oops - pass looks really choppy and nasty, but it might actually be dolphins leaping out of the water. Need to look closer.
  • 1401h - current still flooding strongly. Yup, definitely dolphins leaping. Cool.
  • 1430h - tide still rising, current still flooding
  • 1500h - tide still rising, current maybe slowing down?
  • 1515h - tide at max, current seems to have switched?

And so on. As near as I could tell, high tide (and slack, which seemed to correspond) happened an hour AFTER the tide indicated by Bahia Orange (without adjusting for Daylight Savings).

After waiting out bad weather for five days, the sun shone brightly and it was time to make our run for the Laguna. Our friends on Rum Doxy went up the mast to look at the water outside the anchorage to assess when the current would switch in our favour. We waited. And waited. Then we all got impatient and decided to go and see what happened. Based on my previous observations, I felt that the next pass would probably turn either at 1230h or 1330h (still wasn't 100% sure). We aimed to get there at 1230h, but then ended up sailing instead of motoring down Bahia Elefantes and arrived at 1330h, just as the current was turning. Perfect timing (or good planning... or guessing). We rode the flood through the next bay and finally into the river. And here we met our next challenge: bergy bits. These mini-icebergs (in addition to some full-fledged iceberg daddies) get pushed out of the Laguna on the ebb tide/current and flow up into the river and the bay immediately north. While they are pretty easy to dodge, it was a surreal experience.

The whole trip from the narrows to the mouth of the Laguna took about two hours. The tidal currents were fierce and confused where the river emptied into the Laguna, and at first the path through the wall of ice before us seemed unclear. Luckily, a path emerged as we got closer, and then, voila! We were there. And it was spectacular.

The glacier is located at the far side of the bay, which is 8-10 nm wide. We came out of the river into a fairly open area (ie, ice free) and were able to get our bearings. The crews of Rum Doxy and Sea Rover II were the only beings for miles around. After drifting slowly with just a single reefed main, Gary got impatient for speed and put out half the Genoa. Next thing I knew, we were cruising through the lagoon at 4 knots (too fast to truly enjoy the quiet beauty of the location in my opinion, but Gary was happy). Despite our initial thought that there was "ice everywhere", on closer inspection it turned out there was an area full of ice, pushed by the wind, and there was a reasonably open area with a few bergs here and there. This is where we sailed. It was magical!

We made it about half way across the bay, but had to turn around as the day was getting long and the tide/current in the river was due to switch (or so we hoped).

After a quick stop to put the dinghy in the water to get a closer look at a couple of the icebergs, we reluctantly turned around and headed back to the mouth of the river. We arrived before the switch from a flood to an ebb and fought our way up the river for a half hour, before the current changed in our favour and swept us (literally) back out and through the pass. The river landscape was completely different on the way out as there wasn't a bergy bit to be seen - they'd all returned to the river on the previous flood.

After a long day, we put the hook down just as the sun was setting. A glorious day. We celebrated our accomplishment by having drinks with glacier ice plucked out of the ocean in the lagoon. Marvelous!

This article has been provided by the courtesy of the Bluewater Cruising Association.

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