06. Low Tide Town

When you enter a new world and your skills are about to be tested, you may experience mixed feelings of fear and hope. Will I make it? Will I end up with nothing after pushing the limits of my abilities?

I was busy with final preparations in the northernmost city of the Patagonian Archipelago.

-- This is a real story. --
puerto mont

What an unusual port!

The concrete quay towers over the water as high as the wall of a three-story building. It is a cliff for small sailboats, making it impossible for me to get ashore.

Aomi and I have arrived in Puerto Montt, the northernmost city in the Patagonian Archipelago. The sea level there rises and falls seven meters with the tides.

The harbor is lined with wooden sailing boats carrying potatoes, sheep, and other goods from the neighboring islands. They enter the bay at high tide, and eventually rise up on the shoals as the tide goes out.

Then, horse-drawn carriages appear from the shore and begin to unload their cargo. The boats are about 10 meters long, have no engine, and still sail with cotton sails, oars, and currents.

While I have trouble getting ashore, someone from a Chilean navy ship moored at the quay tells me that I can lay Aomi next to the navy ship and go ashore through the ship's deck. A ramp is placed between the ship and the quay.

I am allowed to cross the 44-meter-long warship "Lautaro" as an alternative to a pier and enter the city of Puerto Montt, which has more than 100,000 inhabitants.

port of Puertomontt

I take my passport and documents out of my backpack, stop at the marine police station, and complete the entry procedures in Spanish, which I am not used to. I also need to stock up on food for the long journey across the archipelago that will take several months.

I look around the city's Mercado (market), which sells red potatoes, a local specialty, and even green onions with long stems. It takes me almost two days to buy the food and load it onto Aomi. I was told beforehand that it was difficult to get supplies up to Punta Arenas. The city is about a thousand kilometers to the south, and the islands along the way are mostly uninhabited.

With a dictionary in hand, I wander around the city, sometimes arguing in Spanish with shopkeepers, to buy thick wool hats, thick socks, and gloves, all local specialties. Since Puerto Montt is at 43 degrees south latitude and I am heading for Cape Horn, a dozen degrees further south, it is essential to prepare for the cold.

I also need enough anchoring material, as after leaving Puerto Montt, I'll be sailing between islands by day and resting in uninhabited bays at night. Aomi is already equipped with three types of anchors and 300 meters of anchor ropes, among other necessities. This is plenty for a small sailboat measuring 7.5 meters in length.

However, worries about the wind coming down from the Andes and the Williwaw storms, which are said to sweep away rocks, prompt me to buy additional ropes and shackles at the hardware store.

I also have to work on several sails that are damaged on the long voyage from Japan. I mend the frayed threads, spread out the stretched cloth in the cramped cabin, re-cut, and sew with my favorite sail palm (a large leather thimble for the palm).

From here to Cape Horn, the Patagonian Archipelago stretches almost 1800 km, with countless islands dotting the vast fjord-like area. There are few towns along the way. Beyond charts and sailing directions, local information is always essential for safe navigation. I visit a navy ship near Aomi with dozens of charts in my arms and meet an officer in a black uniform with gold buttons.

He gives me detailed advice about dangerous rocks, shoals, and currents along the way; he even invites me to lunch and opens a bottle of wine with a Navy label. Navigating the island waters safely on a sailboat requires knowledge, skills, and preparation different from the open sea voyages I have already experienced.

On the day I finally finish my busy preparations and receive permission from the marine police to leave, a young man with a colorful backpack speaks to me loudly from the quay. He is an American traveler who missed the ferry, which only runs a few times a month. He asks me to take him to Punta Arenas because he is in a hurry.

What on earth could he be thinking? How determined is he to hitchhike on a sailboat? It will take more than two months to reach Punta Arenas. Where on the tiny Aomi can we load enough food and water for one more person? He seems to think it will take only a few days to reach Punta Arenas, just like a passenger ship.

Does he know how hard and slow it is to travel in a sailboat? It's very different from traveling in a car or on a safe ferry. I wonder if he has any idea of the difficulties and risks of navigating the Patagonian Archipelago in a small sailboat. Aomi is only 7.5 meters long and has just a 3.5 horsepower engine.

I take the helm and set sail into the sea, a wilderness where the urban logic of city dwellers loses its meaning. The waters of the Patagonian Archipelago are like a primitive world where you can feel the Earth's immense power and its breathtakingly long history.

Patagonian map

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