09. Lost in Reef

Sometimes, you realize you've made a big mistake that puts you in the worst situation. You feel completely hopeless, thinking that survival is impossible and everything is over. But you might still try to find a way out of the crisis.

This was what happened to me when I crossed the Golfo de Penas.

-- This is a real story. --

1・Reef's Gateway 2・Rain Blindfold 3・No Alternative!

1・Reef's Gateway

nort of Gluf of Penas

The Gulf of Penas is indeed a notorious place.

"Golfo de Penas, muy peligroso." ("Gulf of Penas, very dangerous" in Spanish).

The people I had met in the Chilean ports said so, moving their palms up and down to indicate huge waves. Dangerous rocks and shoals also dotted the area around the southern side of the gulf. They told me that "penas" in Spanish means pain.

Eight weeks after entering the Sea of Islands, Aomi encountered the Gulf of Penas, a huge gap in the Patagonian archipelago. Here, the long chain of islands and fjords along the west coast of South America is interrupted. After sailing 80 km south across the gulf, you see the islands begin again.


At four in the morning, I open my eyes in my cabin bed. Gusts of wind blow across the Barroso Inlet on the north side of the Gulf of Penas, howling in the darkness. Heavy raindrops occasionally hit the deck. I open the hatch and look up at the black sky. Through a hole in the clouds, I see a single star shining.

What should I do? If visibility is poor due to rain, Aomi may hit a rock when reaching the southern side of the Gulf of Penas. Visibility needs to be at least 20 kilometers ahead. Then, by taking bearings from nearby islands, I can determine Aomi's current position to maintain a safe course.

I finish breakfast, step out on the deck, and find the rain has stopped. It is a bright, overcast morning. The wind howls with varying intensity as if trying to frighten me. But it is a northerly wind, favorable for sailing south across the bay. Under the cool, clear sky after the rain, the Andes look like a cutting from a navy blue plate between the gray sky and sea, sandwiched above and below.

I know I have to go. The Gulf of Penas is known for its bad weather; no matter how many weeks I wait, the weather will never clear. Today might still be a good day.

I immediately pull on a 110-meter rope to raise anchors, grab the helm, and sail out of the bay. Soon, Aomi catches a strong following wind and rushes into the Gulf of Penas. But violent waves toss her again and again. I must reach the southern side of the bay before nightfall. A summer day here, at 46 degrees south latitude, begins at dawn around 6:00 a.m. Chilean time and lasts until after 10:00 p.m.

Gulf of Penas map

Before long, the bay's northern shore becomes a distant sight, and suddenly, the crisp, dark blue mountains that lined the back of the shore fade and blend into the cloudy background. The area turns completely gray, with only a murky sky and sea.

Four hours after departure, as the center of the bay approaches, the waves suddenly rise higher. The crest of a sharp, triangular wave crashes unexpectedly into Aomi's stern, breaking upwards, with chunks of water cascading over my head. The hull rocks violently up and down, from side to side, making it difficult to maintain the course. It is like riding a wild horse. I hold on to the lifeline and almost fall off.

Still, Aomi plows through the gray sea, her sails nearly torn by the strong following wind. The sky is dark, but my heart is clear. If I keep going at this speed, I will reach the southern side of the gulf by nightfall. Crossing the notorious Gulf of Penas is much easier than I imagined, seemingly without problems.

My only worry is Aomi's current position. Eight hours have passed since departure, and still, nothing is on the horizon. Strange. It is already time for the islands on the southern side of the gulf to appear. As heavy rain begins to fall, I stare forward. But all I see is a gloomy gray sky and countless wave crests rising one after another.

2・ Rain Blindfold

south side of Gulf of Penas

The rain begins to stop. At the same time, the visibility improves, and, as if by magic, a large pyramid-shaped island appears to my left. It must be Ayautau Island, which rises 227 meters high on the south side of the gulf. Ahead of me, in the clear air after the rain, I can also see the distinct shape of the islands, like dark blue cut-outs on the horizon.

"I have finally crossed the Gulf of Penas, notorious for its bad weather. Everything is going according to plan."

As I think this, the sound of the rain intensifies. Ayautau Island and the clear blue islands so close before me and so recently visible, now disappear as if they were an illusion. Once again, it is a gray world of cloudy sky and sea. The rain is so heavy that even the tops of the waves 100 meters away are invisible.

When will the rain stop? The rain is so intense that I feel the pressure on my head as if having the full force of a bathroom shower turned to its maximum. There are countless islands and dangerous rocks in front of me, but I can't see them because of the rain. I don't even know where I am. If I keep going at this speed, it would not be surprising if Aomi crashed into rocks at any moment.

I lower the sails and try to stop Aomi. In the strong wind, however, this is an entirely useless action. Even with all the sails down, the wind pressure on the mast alone is enough to push the hull forward.

There is nothing more I can do; no way to stop or turn back to windward. No matter what I do, there is no hope of resisting the absolute power of the wind. Aomi can only be swept toward the dangerous rocks. It is like being carried by a conveyor belt moving in one direction, or rather, being carried by fate and time that cannot be stopped or reversed.

Leaving the helm to the handmade wind vane—a wind-powered automatic steering device—I go down from the deck to the cabin and think, standing before the charts.

Even if Aomi's current position is unknown, with luck, she will drift to the destination, Penguin Island. But if the course is off to the left due to poor visibility in the rain, she would pass the left side of the island without knowing it. On the other hand, if the course is off to the right, she could end up in the reef zone just before the island. It is a dangerous game I cannot get out of.

Before I know it, the rain has stopped, and I have a clear view ahead. Next to Aomi is a small island. This distinctive crescent shape must be San Pedro Island, 10 kilometers from Penguin Island. I can even see every single tree through my binoculars. I quickly aim my compass and sextant at the island, measure the azimuth and elevation angles to determine Aomi's current position, and draw a course line to Penguin Island on the chart.

A few minutes later, the rain starts to fall again, immediately obscuring the clear view. Penguin Island is now only eight kilometers away. Standing on the deck and taking the helm, I sail through the gray world of roaring winds as if blown away, pushed only by the wind against the bare mast.

The outline of Penguin Island, Aomi's destination, appears faintly in the sky ahead. Compared to the course line I had drawn on the chart, it appeared five degrees to the right. "Strange," I wonder, but without considering its meaning, I take the helm and adjust the course five degrees to the right.

Knowing that a slight deviation to the right would take Aomi into the reef zone, I steered directly toward the outline of Penguin Island. The gray silhouette, slightly darker than the sky, suddenly turns black-green, and I notice whitecaps breaking on the island's shore.

"Whitecaps, breaking waves?"

Compared to the size of the waves, it looks more like a giant rock than an island. Something is different. Something is wrong. The depth gauge drops from 40 meters to less than fifteen.

"Watch out!"

3・No Alternative!

No photo here—surviving was all I could do.

Suddenly, the rain seems to ease, and the outline of a large mountain appears beyond the island I aim for.

"That is it. That's the real Penguin Island."

Due to the poor visibility caused by the rain, I have misjudged all the distances and sizes, leading me towards the rocks in the reef area.

Aomi is undoubtedly in the reef zone, which is green on the charts. Next to the hull, high waves are breaking on the rocks just above the water, creating a furious plume. It is so powerful that it shakes my whole body. I have never felt the power and majesty of the sea so deeply in my heart as I do now. I once thought that even if Aomi ran aground and broke up, I could at least save my own life. But running aground here means that the huge waves will lift the hull and throw it violently against the rocks with me on board. Aomi will be destroyed and sunk in an instant.

Even so, turning back is now, no doubt, impossible. There is no way to resist the absolute power of these strong winds and high waves; no matter how hard I try, I cannot turn back to windward.

Since I can't go back, since I can't turn around, I have no choice but to cut through the reef zone. Even if the rocks are densely lined, leaving no room to get through, there is no alternative!

Once I make up my mind, I focus all my attention on the sea's surface. All around Aomi, high white waves are breaking violently. However, there is a subtle difference between wind-driven waves and those breaking on rocks just below the surface, and I can somehow make out the presence of the rocks. No, I must know the exact location of the rocks to save Aomi and myself.

Every time the waves lift the hull, I look carefully ahead to check for danger and steer Aomi in a meandering course, avoiding the rocks one by one. When the depth gauge reads shallower, I quickly turn the bow sideways to avoid the rocks lurking just below the surface, with cold sweat running down my back. Aomi, being hit by the shockingly breaking waves one after another, runs over the white foaming reef zone as if blown away by the gale-force wind.

Then, before I realize it, the depth gauge shows over 40 meters again, and I reach the quiet water, without swells or waves, specific to the lee side of the shoal.


Approaching Penguin Island, smoky from the wind and rain, Aomi enters the shade of the island and drops the anchors.

"That was too close! What a relief."

The vivid images of the white foaming shallows and the black rocks sending up clouds of spray next to Aomi are burned into my mind and never go away.

I am shivering with fear and the cold of the rain.

Patagonian map

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